Anne Nguyen’s Autarcie (…): Battles in Isolation
French choreographer and breakdance world champion Anne Nguyen‘s Autarcie (…), presented by the Crossing the Line Festival and Dancing in the Streets at Gibney Dance Center from September 29 to October 1, 2016, is rooted in hip-hop but aims to open a new space within it for dialogue and invention. Coming to the front of the stage, the four figures (Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, Magali Duclos, Linda Hayford, and Valentine Nagata-Ramos) are introduced to us one by one, each in her own square of light, like characters in a trailer for a spaghetti Western or video game avatars showing off their particular moves and powers as you scroll through them on the console before settling on one. And they do show off their moves, acquainting us with their individual dance vocabularies coming from their own hip-hop specialties of breakdance, popping, and waacking. We are inducted into the rhythms, contrasts, and breaks central to the form, and observe the powerful body illusions that can be produced by muscular isolation. We are being primed to watch these figures come together in battle.
During the ensuing 50 minutes, the work is at its most absorbing and dangerous when the conflict is between a dancer’s mind and her body. The night that I saw the show, Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim’s whip-quick hand and arm movements evoked more than one spontaneous burst of applause. The effort and skill it took to maintain her measured, powerful fluidity shone from Linda Hayford’s eyes, and when they caught yours, she was the only one who could break the gaze. But when the dancers turned their attention to one another, their power too often dissipated, their energy bleeding away into the effort of a faux-competitive smirk, performing a “let’s go” challenge rather than just going for it and letting their bodies do the talking.
Earlier this year, I experienced a similar deflation watching Dorrance Dance‘s otherwise mesmerizing ETM: Double Down at the Joyce Theater, when Michelle Dorrance and b-girl Ephrat Asherie faced off. Staged competition between dancers seems somehow bland when seen next to the reality of four bodies battling to keep up with their minds. Maybe this is an inherent difficulty in “isolating” hip-hop dance and translating it to the context of a small downtown dance space.
In pairs, trios, or as an entire group, the four are at their best when the manufactured competitive spirit is replaced by a jazz-like sense of responding to and riffing off of one another’s physical shapes, rhythms, and themes. Here, indeed, are instances of the dialogue and invention for which Nguyen is striving. But when the action shifts to playful battle, the performers too often overplay both playfulness and conflict. Ultimately, the moments where the dancers move in isolation are the moments in which Autarcie (…) truly shines.