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Dancing Sartre gets hairy.

By A.L. Adams
June 15, 2013
Culture, Dance, Featured, Visual Art

Last weekend at Performance Works Northwest, modern dance mover-and-shaker Danielle Ross, currently in residence at Studio 2, presented her work in progress with Taka Yamamoto, “Together We Fall,” pausing mid-dance for a spontaneous Q&A. Then she ceded the floor to a bizarre and indelible piece by visiting artists:

Christine Bonansea's dancers recreate the hellish love triangle from Sartre's "No Exit."

Christine Bonansea’s dancers recreate the hellish love triangle from Sartre’s
“No Exit.”

French choreographer Christine Bonansea begins her vision of Sartre’s “No Exit” with a giant curtain of wavy black hair, draped Rapunzel-like from the ceiling and dragging diagonally across the floor in a tangly clump. Sebastian Grubb begins to pull at the tangle, freeing a second dancer, Marina Fukushima, who emerges in red trousers and matching platform heels, preening her prosthetic tresses yet straining against them like a dog on a giant leash—or perhaps a cat. She pauses to strike unconvincing pinup poses, fake-smiling. Rosemary Hannon stumbles wildly onstage, her ethereal fragility contrasting her aggressive action as she barks what seem like epithets in what sounds like German. All are straining for attention as the jagged electronic soundscape builds, mimicking a chaotic downtown street scene. The red-heeled dancer soon disentangles herself from the hair, but then seems to struggle against the movement of her own feet as the raving woman swabs the floor with her hair.

The man attends each of the women in turn, in a tug-of-war that builds to a breaking point…whereupon all three exhaustedly crawl to the edges of a tranquil koi pond that has suddenly appeared as a projection on the floor. Seeming transfixed, they dip their hands and the pool begins to expand, swallowing the floor and then enveloping the wall as well, immersing the trio in a calming aquifer as the soundscape subsides into bubbles and their movements soften and swim together. For several phrases, the trio stands pressed against one another, draping their heads so close together that all the audience can see are flowing waves of Hannon’s hair obscuring all three faces. Like the heads of kelp that appear in the deepening water imagery, they slowly sway in invisible waves. But gradually, they surface from their deep respite as brighter surface waters and jellyfish flow around them. Their moves sharpen and become mechanical, the room is bathed in red light, and the music becomes louder and more insistent again. We are reminded that any lull of comfort is only temporary (how very Sartre).

This bizarre show had plenty of sensory splendor, and it could be left at that. However, for the sake of art and Sartre, why not attempt some decoding?

Cross-checking the text

In the original text of “No Exit,” three people who’ve passed into the afterlife are forced to share a sitting room as a form of hell. (In fact, it’s where we get, “Hell is other people.”) In an unconventional love triangle, one of the women, Inez, loves the other woman, Estelle, and Estelle loves the man, Garzin—but Garzin loves no one. In Christine Bonansea’s version, the echoes of the classic are somewhat faint; there’s definitely a love triangle and a power struggle between the three, but it’s very loosely defined. The shouted insults aren’t part of the script, except as mentioned by Inez, who attempts to shame Garzin by describing a crowd that might “mumble and mutter ‘Coward! Coward! Coward!’” at him if they learned that he was a war deserter. There’s also precious little mention of hair in the original, though Estelle does muse, “I’m not such a fright as all that. Everyone says I have lovely hair.”

Hair’s breadth

Wynde Dyer's "Horsehair Dress," on view at First Friday, seems a worthy aside in this discussion.

Wynde Dyer’s “Horsehair Dress,” on view at First Friday, seems a worthy aside in this discussion.

Let’s comb, for a moment, the dramatic significance of hair. Before “long, beautiful hair” was a hallmark of free expression in “Hair” the musical, it was Sampson’s strength. It was Mary Magdalene’s supplication to Christ, and Rapunzel’s cry for rescue. Hair can also be a curtain of mystery, obscuring the full identity of such intriguing characters as Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Slash and Addams Family’s Cousin It— or it can serve as a status symbol, in the falls and weaves sported by Hollywood stars or the curly white wigs still worn by British judges. The guy sitting next to me at this show was quick to observe that a vagina is hairy, and the dance seemed to pantomime a birth. And as long as we’re probing the subconscious, according to an online dream dictionary, the way you dream about your hair mirrors your life experiences. Tangles are confusion. Loss is, well, loss.

Even as your own hair is tied to your pride, someone else’s can be a mantle of shame. The indignity of a toupee. The self-recrimination of the hair shirt. (Incidentally, in my visit to last week’s Open Galleries, artist Wynde Dyer was showing a hair shirt, a shaggy halter top handwoven from horse tails. Not only did she surprisingly report it comfortable, she claimed ignorance of the hair shirt’s poetic ramifications.) Also, others’ detached hair can often seem particularly disgusting, as explored at length in an episode of Seinfeld and bemoaned by sink-cleaners everywhere.

Water’s depth

Revelation scholars read water as “the people.” Some associate it with the womb, or with purification either physical or spiritual. The dream dictionary suggests drowning in ones emotions or even one’s tears (as Lewis Carrol also depicts when Alice cries an ocean, and Arthur Hamilton and Justin Timberlake successively echo in “Cry Me a River”).

So what are we to take from a stage swathed with hair and doused in water? The mere visual allure of the various waves? A plumber’s fever dream? Or—more appropriately to the Sartre source material, does it embody emotional entanglement?  In any case, this French modern “No Exit” remains locked in my mind.

A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury
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