NEEDCOMPANY: At Play in Formlessness With Nothing to Cling To
“Morning Song,” which opens Wednesday for four performances in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, begins with several people sitting on stools chatting into microphones. This informal talk-show panel shifts into singing an intense rock song. A single woman dances to the bleating of an alarm clock. A tall man in a bear suit puts in an appearance, and an aromatic meal is cooked and consumed onstage in the course of the performance, which was created by Flemish theater director Jan Lauwers and his international ensemble Needcompany.

Out of these vaudevillean fragments (the director calls the piece a “burlesque”) emerges, almost by surprise, a concrete narrative: an idealistic freedom fighter named Harry (played by the charming Argentine actor Gonzalo Cunill) marries into the aristocratic Grandiflora family, and just as he’s about to join the revolution in Nicaragua in 1973, he dies of cancer at the age of 34 as a result of having eaten some radioactive snow as an eight-year-old boy in Prague. “The play takes place in heaven,” Mr. Lauwers explained in a telephone interview from Brussels, “and all of the characters are dead.” Death, it seems, is a cabaret, and the MC turns out to be flamboyant materfamilias Liliane Grandiflora (played by Viviane De Muynck, an esteemed Belgian stage actress of, say, Judi Dench’s caliber).

In most conventional theater, the audience can tell from the look of the set and the first minute of dialogue what universe the play exists in. Whether it’s kitchen-sink realism or absurdist farce or musical comedy, you can relax into knowing what you’re watching. In the kind of performance collage “Morning Song” exemplifies, the form is kept loose and shifting. Fragments of speech, dance, and music drift like smoke, billowing then evanescing. Without a recognizable form to cling to, the audience has two options. You can become anxious and irritated and decide there’s something wrong with the show. Or you can surrender preconceived notions of theater and simply experience what unfolds, which is the invitation that Needcompany extends.

Needcompany emerged in the mid-1980s as part of the same gigantic burst of Flemish performance energy that brought such choreographers as Anne Teresa de Keersmaker and Wim Vandekeybus to international attention. The Flemish scene has developed a core of highly skilled, multidisciplinary, multinational performers who migrate from company to company. Italian-born Carlotta Sagna, who performs in “Morning Song” and collaborated with Mr. Lauwers on the choreography, has danced with Ms. de Keersmaker’s company Rosas. The Spanish dancer Eduardo Torroja appeared in Mr. Vandekeybus’s first piece, “What the Body Does Not Remember,” and now works with Needcompany.

In addition, Needcompany members have spun off their own projects. Viviane DeMuynck, who has won acclaim in Belgium for her performance as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as well as classical roles, has staged Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which she performed twice last week at Performance Space 122 in New York. And Indonesian-born Grace Ellen Barkey, who has contributed choreography for several Needcompany productions (as well as raising two children with Mr. Lauwers), creates work under own name. Her latest piece, a hip-hop adaptation of Bela Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin,” plays the last of four performances at P.S. 122 tonight. (“Morning Song” and “The Miraculous Mandarin” are being presented in New York as part of the three-week citywide festival New Europe ‘99, which was designed to expose New York audiences to a new generation of European performing artists.)

It’s no accident that these artists came from Belgium, often called “the crossroads of Europe.” Their work reflects the dark, philosophical ferociousness of young people from an old industrial society struggling to create life among the ruins. As the map of Europe has been redrawn, obliterating some national distinctions and reinforcing others, the artists have been knocking down the borders between the disciplines of theater, dance, and music.

The rich, visually oriented postmodern dance-theater of Pina Bausch has been a major influence on this younger generation of European performance artists, but so have American avant-garde artists. Mr. Lauwers admits that he’s never quite gotten over seeing the Wooster Group’s “L.S.D. (Just the High Points),” which began with a panel of actors reading from Beat Generation texts, proceeded with a scrambled rendition of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” interspersed with reminiscences from Timothy Leary’s babysitter, and ended with a wacky Mexican hat dance. Needcompany’s first production, the 1987 “Need to Know” (which played at the Kitchen in New York the following year), was an almost slavish homage to the Wooster Group with its collage structure, giddy energy, and fragmented use of classic dramatic texts.

Much as he reveres the Wooster Group and its director Elizabeth LeCompte, Mr. Lauwers feels that his work is now very different from theirs. “It’s the difference between the United States and Europe,” he said. “Silence is very important in my work. i try to freeze time. I try to find the moment where time stops. I have the feeling that silence is dangerous in the United States. Certainly for New Yorkers.”

Another point of departure from the Wooster Group is his relationship to American pop culture. “I had a conversation once with Liz about the contradiction between the American culture that I like -- hiphop music and the films of John Cassevetes -- and the stuff that is imposed on us as Europeans, such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. She said, ‘I love McDonald’s! I love MTV! I hate your (expletive) Renaissance paintings!’”

Trained as a painter himself, Mr. Lauwers considers himself primarily a maker of images that carry the weight of narrative or meaning. He has approached storytelling slowly from a great distance. Since “Need to know,” he has applied his image-making skills both to adaptations of Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Macbeth”) as well as to original work, most notably “The Snakesong Trilogy.” The trilogy was created between 1994 and 1996, “when there were a lot of wars going on,” Mr. Lauwers said. “I could jump in my car and eight hours later be in a war zone.” It was, he said, “a very black piece. After that I wanted to make something to find humor again.”

Although he acknowledges that the text of “Morning Song” is quite bleak, the title and the burlesque tone of the piece are meant to suggest the courage and (to use a phrase from Milan Kundera) the “unbearable lightness” it takes to get up in the morning not knowing which day will be your last. (Mr. Lauwers indicated that someone close to him was recently diagnosed with cancer but declined to supply details.)

“Morning Song” is a companion piece to a production of Albert Camus’s “Caligula” which Mr. Lauwers presented in a museum lecture hall. “In Camus’s play, Caligula says, ‘People die and are unhappy,’ and one of his advisors replies, ‘This truth does not prevent people from enjoying a delicious meal,’” Mr. Lauwers said. “I took only that sentence and put it to use in ‘Morning Song.’ Whatever happens in the world, we enjoy a good meal.”

The way the actors in “Morning Song” directly address the audience -- a Needcompany signature -- is also a very European trademark, observes Mark Russell, artistic director of Performance Space 122, one that he connects with Flemish director Ivo von Hove’s recent staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at New York Theater Workshop. “Both Jan and Ivo address the contemporary world with classic texts, making them really fresh,” said Mr. Russell. “They don’t do it in that corny American way of setting ‘Julius Caesar’ in South America. They let the text become present. That’s the thing European theater makers took from dance and performance art. We feel those actors are in the same room with us, and they’re using these texts almost as if they’re rituals.”

The presence of the actors is extremely personal to Mr. Lauwers. When I first encountered him at an arts festival in Italy in 1987. I asked him why he called his troupe Needcompany, and he said, “Because I need company.” I reminded him of that conversation when we spoke recently and asked him if he still needed company. After a brief but thoughtful pause, he said, “Unfortunately, yes.”

New York Times, October 24, 1999

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