Life Interrupted: Rachid Ouramdane Explores the Experience of Trauma

Photo by Erell Melsco√ęt.

Mid-way through Ordinary Witnesses, there’s a long section during which one of the dancers simply spins. Arms cast out in the same direction, she twirls herself around as fast as she can while slowly snaking about circle at center stage. The other four dancers surround her on the periphery of the stage, while a soundscape of roaring guitar hum rumbles through the space. It’s a very simple sort of choice, but that just goes to show the simplicity often makes for compelling art. Because the moment was riveting: visceral, intense, pushing the boundaries of the body (isn’t she dizzy? why doesn’t she fall down?), it builds itself up slowly until it’s overwhelming. At the climax, Andy, who was sitting next to me, tapped my knee and hissed, “That’s amazing!” with a look of pleasant astonishment on his face.

Ordinary Witnesses is part one of a twofer of French choreographer Rachid Ouramdane‘s work that’s going down at New York Live Arts, presented as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival. Ordinary Witnesses plays again tonight, then Friday and Saturday they present World Fair (tickets $24).

Nearly 90 minutes long, Ordinary Witnesses has a slightly misleading title: Although the piece is about the experience of trauma (genocide, war, torture), it’s more about the victims of the experience than the witnesses to it. The work is bookended with long audio recordings of interviews with survivors–an African refugee from genocidal war, an Argentine torture survivor. The opening segment occurs in near blackout save for the supertitles translating from French (I assume there was no projection at all in the original, which would have heightened the effect; even a supertitle projector does a lot to illuminate a theater). For ten minutes or more, the audience is left to ponder these descriptions of experiencing trauma, but there’s a very interesting component to the narratives: they’re very consciously told from the perspective of the speakers’ present, with the trauma in the past. These are not so much witness-bearing accounts as they are descriptions of how violent trauma interrupted the lives of the speakers, and transformed their perspectives moving forward.

The choreography focuses on this sense of interruption, of intrusive events which transform the course of one’s life. The flow of the piece is set in sequences in which the five dancers simply walk–slowly, but purposefully–around the stage, only to break into some other sort of action, often alone, with the others continuing their courses. Rhythmically the piece rarely changes tempo, but the contrast between the flow of the walking and the expression of the trauma is jarring.

I also have to specifically call out the conceptual design of the piece, because it was actually quite remarkable. The lighting was exclusively generated by a large panel of stage lights–I think maybe ten rows of ten–upstage-right, aimed horizontally across the stage. Most of the performance is cast in low light, with the dancers moving through a dim, amber-hued space. But the lights would occasionally roar up to full wattage, essentially blinding the audience. And fascinatingly, the lights were incorporated into the soundscore by Jean-Baptiste Julien. Early on, an electric guitar is brought out onstage and laid in from of the lighting grid. As the lights rise and fall, and even cooler, as they illuminate in various patterns, the single-coil pick-ups project various hums and feedbacks. Essentially, the guitar is played by the lights, with I believe pre-recorded soundscapes and additional live additions also on electric guitar, played by (I assume) Julien himself, seated behind the audience.

There were some problems with the piece. As is often the case with abstract expressions of thematic content, the score unfolds as a series of variations on its central theme, and eventually they come to feel redundant and/or too blunt. The woman’s spinning solo was a powerful expression of the human response to trauma. A later sequence in which the dancers would take turns standing on their heads only to fall down (and then slowly exiting one by one until only one performer remained onstage) came off as too blunt, and less articulate, particularly because the graceful stage falls from the handstands looked too performative and were less affecting than something as physically intense as the spinning. But that’s a minor complaint, I guess. Overall, Ordinary Witnesses did a remarkable job of translating some of the worst that human experience has to offer into a powerful work of art, that speaks to essential human dignity and the capacity to keep going. Highly recommended.

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