Review: “To the Ones I Love” at BAM

Photo by Marie-Francoise Plissart

Going into Thierry Smits’/Compagnie Thor‘s To the Ones I Love (at BAM, through Oct. 1), I have to admit that I was least interested to see whether the piece would veer into the dangerously racially insensitive territory I feared it might. Here, for instance, is the company’s own description (keep in mind they’re based in Belgium, English not necessarily being the first language of the translator):

In To the Ones I Love, Thierry Smits puts nine dancers of African descent on the stage.  More precisely, for this choice is a vital one, he uses nine dancers whose complexions hark back to Africa.

Thierry Smits’s message is not political, however.  It deliberately sets out to be aesthetic and refuses all concessions to exoticism.  The principle is to set bodies used to “Western” choreographic techniques but nevertheless shaped by other traditions and dances in motion.  They dance in a white decor and are literally transported by Johan Sebastian Bach’s music, by its overflowing generosity and immense virtuosity.  The challenge is obviously to manage the unexpected outcomes of the meeting of different cultural references.

Mind you, I didn’t read this till it came time to preview the show, and reading it, I was left dubious. To say the least, using people for their “complexion” is risky territory, because of course it objectifies racial characteristics. Which the To the Ones I Love does, in fact, do. In the first full company sequence following the solo-based opening, we’re given the company of nine (mostly black, with a few lighter-complexioned artists mixed in) male dancers, shirtless, seated on rectagular blocks with their backs to the audience. For several minutes, we’re granted a pornographic look at the dancers’ (muscular, ever-so-slightly gleaming with a sheen of sweat) bodies as the company cycles through a series of fluid, abstract, mainly upper-body movements.

And I don’t use “pornographic” lightly, though it risks over-stating it a bit: think mainstream, Playboy (or –girl, in this case) porn, rather than the freaky online stuff. The images are only putatively erotic, due to the actual exposure of flesh; in practice, though, they’re flat, objectifying, but so blatant in drawing the gaze and so lacking in charged content that they can’t be called “erotic” anymore than a table or chair can be said to be “erotic.”

It’s treating a person like a thing.

So yes, there was a moment where I was waiting to see where this would go, because within the context of the piece, the choreographer, Thierry Smits, has in fact chosen to showcase black flesh in a purely aesthetic fashion. We won’t even have a misguided attempt at multiculturalism in this piece. Rather, it’s the “African” (scarequotes due to the fact that these artists are not, apparently, actually African, but rather of “African descent”) as object, to provide a (literal) visual contrast against the whiteness of the space. But then it went…well, nowhere.

To the Ones I Love is a great example of what–for lack of a better term, I guess–I like to call “dance-y dance.” Not just explicitly technique-based work, even work that slips into the solely academic-technique category, but rather work which has little or no interest in anything beyond itself. It’s dancing for the sake of giving you something pretty and exceptional to look at. And general insensitivity aside, I honestly can’t make more of Smits’ racial choices than he wants me to because it’s such a skin-deep piece (pun intended). It takes nearly 15 minutes before any of the performers have any meaningful physical contact with one another, and once they do, the human touch is rendered completely desexualized and desensualized. The nine very fit, adult, and it need be said, highly accomplished, male dancers interact with one another as innocently as children at play. Description quoted above aside, I saw no hint that Smits was interested in these dancers’ ethnic backgrounds at all, aside from a vague desire to see them incorporated into the visual schema. Which, furthermore, by the second or third switch between primary color-themed t-shirts (blue, yellow, red, green), was about as deep and engaging as a United Colors of Benneton ad from the Nineties.

In other words, it is in fact a completely abstract movement work. Which is not exactly my cup of tea, leaving me a bit uncomfortable with the negative feelings I have towards it. Maybe it’s just taste, right? But even so, I also like pretty and/or sexy people (of either gender) doing pretty things because people like to see pretty things. I like fun. But I found the work boring. Once–just one time in a slightly over hour-long piece–I saw the members of the company drop posture for a short phrase (very near the end) in a way that really stepped outside what I take to be a very obvious comfort zone, opening a whole world of possibilities. Otherwise, I really felt that To the Ones I Love was an uninspired and very shallow piece of dance.

Really, it was only during the solos that I had any sort of thrill in the piece. One or two of the dancers had a real evocative capacity, and it was in those moments that I most sensed the joy in movement that Smits stated was his purpose. But otherwise I was left generally bored. Perhaps it’s a bias on my part, but I tend to be more attracted to choreography that treats human beings like human beings, rather than manipulable stage objects, to be moved hither and thither in vaguely interesting formations. Which, again, is not to deny the accomplishment of the dancers, most of whom were very talented. Nor is it entirely to discount the idea that dance can’t just be something cool to look at. But this piece was too shallow and lacking in any sort of “wow” factor to get away with what it seemed to want to do.

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