New York

Daniel Larrieu and Astrakan, Waterproof

The LeRoy Neiman Gallery, Columbia University

Waterproof is a dance-theater performance that resembles an abstract water ballet — a denatured entertainment—with a strong conceptual bent. Originally staged in Paris in 1985, the work is performed in a swimming pool by eight swimmer-dancers in black tank suits and identical goggles. Its 12 sections are organized around movement and/or perceptual conceits that generally carry an explicitly opaque metaphorical charge: “The Walk—traversing the aquatic space like a compact rain of autumn; solitude” reads a typical program note. The actual movement consists of a sort of floating/pedaling by raincoat-garbed swimmers, demonstrating the free gravity of water-walking and the flattened perspective afforded by the pool’s surface. The intense, serious tone of the performance, the extreme physical skills required of its cast, the use of flamboyant musical accompaniment (from keening Arabic rock to percussive electronic sounds), and the work’s section-by-section structure combine to give the piece a strong kinship with dance-theater works by Japanese butoh groups. Yet Waterproof’s agenda was more diffuse, more local than universal, so that its initially promising punch was quickly dissipated.

Like many performances made up of discrete parts, Waterproof suffered from a stuttering, start-and-stop dramatic arc; as the piece unfolded, the novelty factor gradually faded, making each section seem progressively less potent. After the striking “The Walk” (section 2), for example, “The Splashes” (section 8) appeared to be simply unison aerobic aquatics, as the performers repeatedly leaned upward and splashed in unison.

The video and film sections that punctuated the live section, however, were fascinating throughout. With their distortions of perspective, skewed points of view, multilayered images, and reverse- and slow-motion movement, the footage created a cinematic dreamworld of unhinged gravity, of a near-magical motion capability. On screen, Waterproof’s airless images effortlessly conjured up a primordial world of playful submarine fantasy.

John Howell