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Determination and Grace

Think Sankai Juku on steroids, or a sort of fractured Sufism where spinning does rule, but in the über-darkness of night. Add to that mix the human version of inflatable, undulating air dancers—those tube-like creatures that bob and weave in front of Southern California car dealerships—and one might just be describing Nacera Belaza’s “L’Onde (The Wave).”

Performance

Nacera Belaza: “L’Onde (The Wave)”

Place

REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Los Angeles, CA, October 

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Nacera Belaza’s “L’Onde (The Wave).” Photograph by Angel Origgi

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Seen in its Los Angeles premiere over the weekend at REDCAT, the 50-minute work was nothing short of mind-bending, as the Paris-based, French-Algerian Belaza, and a trio of terpsichores from her Compagnie Nacera Belaza (founded in 1989), took trance dancing to new highs. Indeed, in an astonishing achievement of superhuman endurance, and with an uncanny control over their bodies, the performers mined the human capacity for transformation through their repeated movements.

That the piece, which premiered in 2021, was performed in a near-blackout atmosphere, and to a track in which the audience was warned contained, “loud sounds” (music and lighting also by the choreographer), rendered it even more powerful. As the New Yorker magazine so aptly put it, Belaza, in her 50s, “explores the boundaries between embodied presence and the ecstatic emptiness toward which dance, and movement, can lead us.” 

And lead us she did, although it took a few minutes for this reviewer, who realized that the lights would not get much brighter, nor would the soundtrack get anywhere near pianissimo, the latter save for several moments interspersed throughout the work, to settle in and not only enjoy the ride, but to be thoroughly captured by it, engulfed in the extended moment of utterly original choreography. 

As the figures—shamanic-like and garbed in what appeared to be somber sweats—were rooted to the floor, their torsos moving and arms flailing, but with obvious purpose, went through their paces, one could understand Belaza’s program note that she, “draws a path between shadow and light, seeking to glimpse the infinite.” 

Nacera Belaza’s “L’Onde (The Wave).” Photograph by Angel Origgi

Part of the infinite in this case, was the stage, each dancer—Paulin Banc, Mohammed Ech Charquaouy, Océane Valence and Belaza - in his or her own pool of ultra-dim light, and, in a David Parsons’ “Caught” type of illumination, saw them relocate to other areas of the Marley. Whether in solos, or in twos, threes and fours, the movers offered near-sacrosanct interpretations of Algerian ritualistic dances as if in a fantasy.

And so, the taped accompaniment, which at first, celebrated the keenings of unknown singers that gradually throbbed in crescendo mode, served up steady, albeit, hypnotic, beats, wherein the performers were barely visible, their swaying, skyward-pointing arms never flagging, their indefatigable commitment to the work profound. This was, to paraphrase author Joan Didion’s iconic essay collection, their own particular, “Slouching Towards the Infinite.”

 But the work’s title, “The Wave,” is more than appropriate, as surges of tightly controlled moves nevertheless seemed to wash over the dancers, their stances—occasional angled knees, a bending at the waist that suggested reeds bowing in a marshland during a windstorm—were both majestic and unimposing simultaneously. 

Not for nothing has Belaza been awarded the 2008 Syndicat de la Critique Prize for her, “Le Cri,” and the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques Choreographic Prize in 2017, as well as having been appointed Chevalier de L’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2015. Her choreographic mettle was boosted by the bravery and dedication of the performers in this dreamscape that could have been induced by a heavy dose of psilocybin mushrooms.

Nacera Belaza’s “L’Onde (The Wave).” Photograph by Angel Origgi

In addition, Belaza’s deft use of lighting—or lack thereof—harkened back to the early days of cinema and the work of Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers. Combined with the constantly moving bodies, the notion of sensory—and sensual—satisfaction ruled. And, in keeping with the filmic aspect of the work, this viewer was reminded of the penultimate line uttered by Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond in, “Sunset Boulevard: “[It’s] just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.”

Yes! There was a camaraderie sitting in the darkness of the theater, watching, inhaling, as it were, the breadth and depth of these talented humans as they gave us every inch of their beings, their gifts and Belaza’s unmitigated vision—while remaining—if one could actually see their faces—dispassionate as they carried on twirling, whirling, and moving from seemingly dim spotlights to even dimmer ones.

The performance actually felt like some sort of baptism, not by fire, but again, by unseen specters, as it challenged both our visual and auditory senses, with the sounds becoming more frenetic as the blackness became more pronounced. Was this some kind of hyperbaric chamber, a Michael Jackson-esque Propofol reverie, or were these dancers the physicalized rendering of a Rorschach test, blurry ink blots tapping into our psyches?

With their feet ever-planted on terra firma, the movers nevertheless managed to execute deep back bends, confounding our idea of reality. Yes, we marvel at a ballerina’s fouettés, her six o’clock extensions and sky-high jetés, but this—this—was something completely different. To the sounds of a chugging train (or not,) the movers carried on, those intermittent flashes of illumination giving them the air of, well, fireflies, or was it a cadre of performers exhibiting signs of OCD?

Nacera Belaza’s “L’Onde (The Wave).” Photograph by Angel Origgi

Whatever it was, their fugues of fits and starts against the backdrop of a recurring ebony-ish milieu accelerated as the soundtrack featured a noise reminiscent of a sneaker thwacking around a dryer, the sound growing louder, the performers whipping their heads spasmodically, as if possessed, yet in total control. (As an aside, this writer couldn’t help but wonder how much their chiropractic and acupuncture bills are, but such a mundane thought disappeared as quickly as it arrived, just like those sneakers’ thwacking mantras.)

And while it seemed that the DNA of the theater was changed during those soul-heightening 50 minutes, those in the audience who let themselves be taken on this vertiginous journey, including this writer, who, fortunately was not in need of Dramamine, were forever transformed. In other words, Belaza succeeded in working her truth, her art, her inspiration, and, in the process, opened up new portals of imagination, determination and, yes, grace. 

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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