Love Songs

David Rousseve/Reality

at the DePaul Merle Reskin Theater, September 18 and 19

By Justin Hayford

The current craze to create multimedia work usually results in ambitious jumblings of art forms onstage. That “anything goes” aesthetic used to be the bailiwick of performance art, but dance-theater is perhaps the most inclusive genre these days. It’s not uncommon to find video, sculpture, opera, storytelling, tableaux vivants, and plain old acted scenes tossed in with pure dance in unusual, often arresting combinations. In the hands of a genius like Pina Bausch, the “bastardization” of dance can bring about aesthetic revelations bordering on the sublime. With a lesser artist like Bill T. Jones, you get a lot of flash but not much substance.

Over the years New York director-choreographer David Rousseve has worked to include more and more diverse forms in his pieces. In his latest, Love Songs, he’s stretched himself to the limit, stitching together modern dance, chamber theater, puppetry, pageantry, an opera score, and a sweeping stage design. The grandeur is unmistakable, but it’s curiously counterproductive: at heart Love Songs is a tiny piece that suffers from multimedia embellishment. If Rousseve’s press release is to be believed, he aims to explore “the juxtaposition of unabashed romanticism and the harshness of everyday reality.” In short, he’s telling love stories. And if love stories are good, they don’t need much packaging.

A stunning five-minute duet near the end of the first act shows just how powerful Rousseve’s work can be when he forgoes embellishment and strips the work down to its physical essence. The duet begins as a woman (Julie Tolentino Wood) coos tenderly to her supine, immobile lover (Ilaan Egeland), asking for a cuddle, a kiss, a glance, anything. It seems that she’s asleep, so Wood tries to rouse her by offering a present–a red, fringed “dancing dress.” Egeland doesn’t so much as twitch, so Wood stuffs her into the dress. Still she lies inert, so Wood manipulates her mouth like a ventriloquist’s dummy, making her express her undying love. Growing more desperate, Wood leaps to her feet and begins tearing through a series of wild dances, which she insists are Egeland’s favorites. As she spins, leaps, and gyrates, she repeatedly invites Egeland to join her, but finally she has to haul her up off the floor herself. Wood tries to dance with her, but she’s as unwieldy as a sack of rocks. Quickly overwhelmed by fatigue and frustration, Wood allows Egeland’s body to slide down her own and land on the floor in a vulgar pile. It’s all she can do to drag Egeland offstage–and keep herself from bursting into sobs.

It’s an exhausting scene, both physically and emotionally. Rousseve has created an uncomfortably accurate metaphor for failed romance; who among us hasn’t dragged around a corpse of unrequited love, convinced that conniving and finesse will revive it? The image is all the more powerful because it’s so rooted in the physical: Wood is saddled with a real burden that she cannot manage. She doesn’t have to act–she merely has to experience, making the image powerfully true.

Unfortunately, as the simplest and most direct scene, it’s one of too few in Love Songs that have the ring of truth. For most of the show’s two and a half hours, Rousseve complicates and overdubs his stories to muddying effect, layering in operatic arias, a lecture-demonstration, and stylized crowd scenes, among other things. And more often than not the performers are condemned to pantomime the stories he narrates, mirroring his own none too subtle gestures. Falling into the trap of so much dance-theater, this piece is narrated and danced simultaneously in hyper-literal fashion, leaving an audience with little to do but follow along and nod obligingly.

Spelling everything out, Rousseve rarely gives his audience a chance to wonder, puzzle, or ponder. But then he’s not particularly interested in ambiguity. His aim is simpler: to tell tragicomic love stories in a grandly naive style. In truth, however, he tells only one complete story–that of slaves Sarah and John living under a brutal master who prohibits love among his chattel. The couple do their best to hide their affair, but the master discovers Sarah’s pregnancy, then rapes her and disfigures her face with a hunting knife. Sarah and John try to escape, ending up atop a high cliff as the master’s hounds–two enormous, grotesque puppets–bear down on them. And that’s just act one.

Scattered throughout this story are snippets of contemporary troubled romances–like the woman’s desperate dance with her beloved cadaver. In these scenes a few emblematic lines or gestures are meant to convey an entire relationship. The effect is akin to eavesdropping in a crowded public park; at times Rousseve even supplies the benches and street lamps.

Although the surreal intermingling of stories and eras in Love Songs is intriguing–it’s not unusual for a person in 19th-century costume to stroll through a contemporary scene–Rousseve’s terrific dancers are merely competent as actors. And the kind of acting they’re asked to do–creating rich histories out of a sentence or two–is deadly difficult. For the most part, the relationships seem forced and unconvincing, a common and serious problem when an audience is asked to get caught up in the throes of love. Unfortunately, the heart of this piece lies in these simple exchanges, in the tiny nuggets of truth that remain undeveloped in Rousseve’s overly inclusive theatrical world. It’s especially curious that his dancers, who’ve been together for years, seem nearly strangers even in their most intimate moments onstage.

Most problematic is the relationship between Sarah and John, since so much of the evening centers on them. Rousseve never allows them to emerge as full-fledged characters; they remain merely a collection of broad gestures. Part of the problem is the fact that different performers rotate in and out of these leading roles, a technique seemingly meant to universalize the relationship: sometimes the couple are both white, sometimes both men, and so on. But for the audience to invest in their story, some essence of the characters must remain no matter who’s playing the parts. And despite the performers’ sincere efforts, that essence never emerges.

Perhaps the characters never really materialize because they remain in the background, and Rousseve’s narration is foregrounded. Morphing through various narrators, he almost always puts himself in front of the action, playing all the parts, speaking all the lines. The actors are left to gesture in dumb show behind him, looking irrelevant even as they try to squeeze out real emotions. The overall effect is so alienating that the story all but disappears.

Conceivably this approach might have worked, but the story of Sarah and John would still be mired in stereotypes. The slaves are icons of valor and pity while the master is evil incarnate–it’s not enough that he rape and disfigure Sarah, he has to smile diabolically when he’s finished. Like most of the scenes in Love Songs, this one makes it obvious where our sympathies should lie. No matter how many aesthetic surprises Rousseve throws at us, he leaves our moral expectations largely unchallenged. If only love were so simple.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Peter Ross.