New York

Maguy Marin, Babel Babel

Brooklyn Academy of Music

The conceptual underpinnings of Babel Babel, a 1982 dance-theater performance work staged by the French choreographer Maguy Marin, are stupefyingly banal: that humanity once existed in innocence, has been corrupted by civilization, and now must fight its way back to paradise. It’s hard to believe that this simplistic premise was put forth by a contemporary French artist (how were the layers of esthetic fog that smother so much French performance completely bypassed?) and even harder to understand that Marin made it so incredibly believable on stage. Her intuitive, faux naif theater may traffic in a flimsy philosophy, with gaping conceptual holes through which a logical truck could be driven, but it has also generated a work that inhabits its chosen conceit so perfectly and with such conviction that the performance compelled belief. Babel Babel’s sequence of simple but stunning scenes, performed by a superb ensemble of dancer-actors, added up to a visceral, thrilling allegory that touched essential emotional chords: civilization is indeed in trouble.

The opening scene presented a generic community of 12 completely nude men and women who emerged in crepuscular light onto a stage overlaid with grass; in this pastoral paradise, they performed simple, rhythmic movements in a processional line to the accompaniment of appropriately solemn music by Gustav Mahler. After more ritualistic gamboling in choreographed groupings, this nascent humanity began to discover the basics of civilization. They put on clothes, used tools, spoke in a mixture of languages, performed folkish dances, and erected tents for shelter. Then, in a stunning coup de theatre, there was a “flashforward” jump cut after a blackout—like the prehistoric bone in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey that turns into a spaceship—and the innocent mise-en-scène instantly mutated into the kind of squalid, lower-middle-class campground frequented by low-budget French summer vacationers. This twist was quickly followed by an even bigger shocker: the eruption of an all-out rock band done up in ’50s-style black and pink, which careened through some of the cheesier rock classics (“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” “Tequila,” etc.), with vocals belted out by Marin herself as a rock chanteuse with a massive beehive hairdo. This section culminated in a torchy version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World,” which she sang from the audience, while the once-harmonious community onstage progressed from male-female squabbling to actual physical assault: loutish men in jockstraps and shorts battled with harridanlike women in hair curlers who wore strings of doll babies around their waists. Suddenly, the tumult stopped and the scene changed again, to one of exhausted human wreckage amid cultural debris. Slowly, painfully, the performers worked their way out of their clothes and struggled to recover their formerly peaceful sense of Edenic community. To the strains of excerpts from Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” one of the women performed a skipping, spinning dance that seemed to revive the others. Re-forming their original processional line, the group filed off in a fading light.

What made Babel Babel so compelling, despite its simplistic definition of modern civilization as a sociopathic experience, was its relentless, amazing physicality. The work’s considerable nudity, its pervasive rhythmic sounds (from guttural breathing and thumping steps to orchestrated laughter), the wallop of the highly amplified rock band, and the basic movement (from wavelike group motions to madcap roughhousing) all made Babel Babel a viscerally persuasive allegory. Although it was not without its occasional glaring flaws—such as the tendency for motifs to go on too long, as in the dance-theater works of Pina Bausch, with whose style she has a general affinity—Marin’s vision made its woozy philosophic subtext felt in an almost primordial way. Like real visionary babble, without seeming to say very much Babel Babel conveyed its large message: stop making “sense.”

John Howell