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Violent motion, detached reverence: Compagnie Heddy Maalem.

Forbidden Rites

By Lynn Hasselbarth

Compagnie Heddy Maalem

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., June 25

A new season has begun at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and with it a lineup of provocative and original modern-dance productions. The opening night of Compagnie Heddy Maalem proved to be nothing less than original and provocative. To Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the French-Algerian choreographer Maalem animated every inch of the body with movement that was dangerous and unsettling.

A soothing introduction featured the silhouettes of two dancers, sculpted frames that presided center stage. Set against a film screen showing rainstorms and swaying palm trees, the male figure hovered low to the ground, gradually expanding his limbs and elevating slowly and disjointedly. His transition to an upright stance was met by the outstretched hand of his female counterpart. The slow-motion intimacy between the couple was a necessary contrast to the angst and aggression that characterized much of the piece.

The full ensemble of 14 dancers emerged in a straight line across an amber lit stage. The first encounters between the dancers were full of curiosity and exploration. Bodies fell out of line, slinking forward as if testing the waters of the open space. The figures stared, poked, and brushed up against each other’s skin, a bustling community of social creatures.

The lights brightened to reveal a stunning group of toned, glistening bodies against the stark white walls of the stage. The previously anonymous dancers now began to represent something more complex, marked by race, history and struggle. With dancers from six African nations including Mali, Bénin, Sénégal and Nigeria, the piece blends traditional movement from across the African continent with original configurations.

The early movements of calm were altered abruptly by a more seething and intense exchange between the dancers. Arranged in male-female couples, each pair of bodies began to fidget rapidly, accelerating into convulsions of the torso and thrusting hips. This image of collective coitus was strangely asexual, a robotic, mechanical action. The dancers’ faces were emotionally unaffected by what seemed to be an exertion of centuries of pent-up energy.

Exchanges throughout the piece continued to represent sexual qualites, but were devoid of any sensuality or pleasure. This made the rare moments of intentional intimacy crucial to the balance of the piece.

One such excerpt was performed by the female dancers. One of the most fierce members, who moments before had been the focal point of physical lust, sat off to the side of the stage, dejected and alone. She shifted her body weight laboriously, unable to settle after the rush of adrenaline. Her movements called for compassion and a need for healing, as she reoriented herself to her body. She seemed to be recovering from trauma, as if having just given birth or defended herself against aggressors.

The response among the other dancers was deeply moving. The women gradually entered the space and proceeded to cup their own breasts lightly with each hand. The gesture was maternal, as the women seemed to honor their fallen sister as she exited the stage. In her place, the focus shifted to a more fragile female with delicate features. The women gathered around her, examining her body and absorbing the fragmented energy of this stunned isolated figure. The group did not invade her space, and instead projected a detached reverence.

The male members of the company responded with their own ritual, reminiscent of a hunting team. The violence of the pursuit was predictable and recognizable. This more obvious form of aggression seemed acceptable and a sign of achievement, with the viewers left to imagine the target or prize.

Combat continued with an exchange between the two genders, this time less comfortable and bordering on offensive. The image was potent—each male griping his assigned female’s torso, elevating her off the ground with her knees bent into her chest. Her pelvis faced outward and exposed as each man thrust his face into her womb—a sequence repeated over and over and over again.

The piece concluded with an impressive male solo that seemed to mirror the opening scene’s image of an evolving human species. The body thrashed about in a confined space, as if slowly gaining circulation, or conversely, suffocating and entering paralysis. The inability to distinguish between these opposing forces seemed to define the entire piece. One could not determine whether progress had been made, or destructive patterns reinforced.

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