La Otra Orilla, HomoBLABLAtus (a ridiculously long and incredibly detailed review)


Once again, as per normal I’m a little late on this one. Back in January I saw HomoBLABLAtus at La Cinquieme Salle of Place des Arts, the latest performance from La Otra Orilla. I initially thought of trying to do a video review, but then changed my mind. It still took a while to do.

La Otra Orilla, HomoBLABLAtus

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La Otra Orilla, d'HomoBLABLAtus. Photo Lydia Pawelak, courtesy La Otra Orilla
La Otra Orilla, d’HomoBLABLAtus. Photo Lydia Pawelak, courtesy La Otra Orilla

Then if you would like to read along to the review (I’ve been told I speak very quickly…) here is the script I used:

On January 17th, I was invited to see HomoBLABLAtus, a Nuevo Flamenco performance by La Otra Orilla otherwise known as Myriam Allard, the dancer, and Hedi Graja the singer at the Cinquieme Salle of Place des Arts.

It’s about a 75 minute performance without any intermission done in nine tableaus or sections, loosely linked together through the idea of conversation. Overall it was very nice. Although as with any performance there are parts that were better, and parts that weren’t better. In the program (and the press kit, and the website) HomoBLABLAtus is described in what can be called pseudo-jargon as some kind variation of the genus Homo that talks a lot. How that relates to flamenco (nuevo or otherwise) is never quite made clear, and in a sense is kind of irrelevant.

It’s worth repeating in case you don’t know, that when I go see any type of performance, I try to go in knowing as little as possible and with as few expectations as possible. I find that by having low expectations, they tend to get exceeded which is a much better thing than having high expectations and not having them attained. Then by deliberately avoiding any prior knowledge, I find it enables me to discover the piece on my own terms. If everything is explained in advance to me, in terms of not only what is going to happen, but how and why it is going to happen it becomes exceedingly difficult for me to have any sense of discovery, which I find exceedingly important in making a connection to any type of art. All of this to say in an extremely long-winded manner, that I did not consult either the program or press kit prior to the show.

At the beginning we’re faced with Ms. Allard lying on the floor with her legs perpendicular and supported on a rather large box that is the only scenery and prop of the entire show. There’s a kind of puppet theatre within the box where three masks make various patterns as Ms. Allard moves from what I would call some kind of gymnastics to a sort of dancing on the wall while lying on the ground. She gradually becomes more and more upright as Mr. Graja comes on stage, sings and then begins to manipulate her like a doll. Ms. Allard’s dancing struck me as being very angular, and quite close to tap dancing.

She initially starts off wearing matching shoes and gloves, but the gloves quickly get removed. I should also point out that her costume is pretty spectacular, specifically the gray striped pants that she wore were amazing – serious props need to go out to Susana Vera who is credited for the costumes. In passing I also noted the leather jacket she was wearing was also pretty sweet.

As a consequence of not consulting the program or the press kit, I did not know that this section or tableau was called “Pantin” and the music was a “Buleria.” Or for those of you who aren’t fluent in French and/or Spanish the section was entitled “Marionette” and the music was “a fast flamenco rhythm in 12 beats” according to wikipedia. And while I considered it all to be one extended tableau or section, it appears that Ms. Allard and Mr. Graja actually separate them out into two different sections or tableaus. The first one being the prologue, where Ms. Allard is on her back with the masks, and the Pantin, where Ms. Allard is up and dancing while being manipulated like a puppet. I tend to mark the separations between individual tableaus and sections as to when people come on or off stage. If the stage isn’t empty (even briefly) I kind of figure that there has not been any change.

I don’t know if it was due to the inherent nature of Flamenco dancing or something else, but while she was being manipulated like a puppet, I wrote in my notes that it looked like abuse, or bullying, or some type of pantomime assault. Yes, it was possible to understand the underlying intent was puppetry. But at the same time the intent seemed to be extremely aggressive. I’m just not familiar enough with my flamenco to be able to identify the root cause. Whatever it was, it was slightly jarring, and made me feel a touch uncomfortable given this day and age, when violence against women is no longer tolerated.

At this point we segue into a section/tableau that I would call number two and half, Basically a video with surtitles of one guy explaining the various facial movements and individual vocal sounds involved in saying “blah, blah” (or maybe a sentence ending in blah blah, my notes aren’t exactly crystal clear on this) with about another half a dozen videos of different mouths inset in the video. It didn’t work very well, if at all for me, and just ended up confusing me, and emphasizing the disjointedness of the performance. If you’re into phonology, then this section was right up your alley. But to be brutally honest I’m not entirely certain how many Flamenco loving phonologists there are in the world, let alone Montreal.

I found their use of the surtitles strange. Speaking in French, the words were translated into English. Yet when Mr. Graja was singing in Spanish earlier in the performance, there were no translations into either official language, and later in the performance when there was a whole spoken bit in English, nothing was translated into French. My guess is that while Otra Orilla is based in Quebec, that performing HomoBLABLAtus in this province is not a high priority for them. That, or the money ran out before everything got translated, but the show had to go on.

Since I am bilingual I was intrigued that the question of languages really didn’t occur to me until way after the performance, and that if you were to ask me which part was in which language, I would not be able to answer you with complete confidence. While I was watching and taking notes, I did not think to note the language. I just listened.

The next section/tableau was/is called Tanné de parler which translates into “fed-up with speaking.” Initially I thought it was the name of the blah-blah video part, but suddenly realized when I was going over what I had written that it didn’t make any sense as the section after it referenced limping and it wasn’t until two sections later in my notes where Ms. Allard daances in one shoe. So while it appears that both Otra Orilla and myself counted nine separate sections in HomoBLABLAtus, what those sections actually were are two completely different things. As I mentioned earlier, we have two very different methods of counting.

In the fed up with speaking tableau or section, Ms. Allard dances a duet with a video of Antonio Arrebola over a recording of (what I presume is) her sister, Genevieve Allard, and this guy Frederic Blanchette talking about not talking that kind of escalates into a full blown and very violent argument without either one of them saying all that much. The recording is made to sound like they are talking over the telephone and I was quite smitten with how they used one side of the box as a screen upon which to project Mr. Arrebola.

I’m certain that the intended idea was for each of them to dance one of the voices in the script. Most likely Mr. Arrebola for the guy and Ms. Allard for the girl. And while the dancing was pretty gosh darn impressive, each individual part was not as clear and separated as the voices. Initially my eye was drawn to the video and it kind of reminded me of Gene Kelly dancing with Tom the mouse during The Worry Song from Anchor’s Aweigh. Kind of a look at how we can use technology to make cool and slick stuff, but after awhile my eyes returned to Ms. Allard. The conversation itself got repeated although given everything that was happening I was unable to figure out if the dancing was similarly repeated – my best guess would be a qualified “yes” in that moves were repeated but not necessarily in the same exact order.

Then finally, she kicks off one shoe, which by their method of counting means we are in the fourth section/tableau called clopinclopant which translates into something about limping or hobbling depending on which website you reference. Ms. Allard’s dance becomes something that I wrote was a “kind of modern emotive dance.” Mr. Graja returns on stage left and is spotlighted quite dramatically from the side, so only half his body is lit and he casts a very dramatic shadow onto the side of the box. I couldn’t help but noting that as we were sitting way off on the side of the hall, it was quite serendipitous, but for anyone who was sitting on the right hand side of the hall could not see the shadow, and in certain seats wouldn’t have been able to see Mr. Graja at all.

In the program it is noted that this section is done in the style of Flamenco called Malagueña and Verdiale, although in this specific case wikipedia is not much of a help, especially since I have no copy of the song to reference. But in doing research for this review, I’m learning tons of stuff. I had always thought that Flamenco was kind of monolithic and one style in and of itself. Now I’m finding out that there are multiple styles all different. I guess at some point I’m going to have to go and see if I can’t understand what the differences between the various styles of Flamenco are. Kind of like the Automatistes versus Abstract Expressionism versus Hard Edged Abstraction and the Plasticiens in modern painting. Or Punk Rock versus New Wave versus Psychedelic versus Garage in popular music.

Then we get to another place where my notes and their notes diverge. Because I have them in a whole new tableau or section as a small but hardy marching band starts walking around making quite the racket. While not quite as imposing as the Marching 100 it sounded like they might have been as loud. But in looking at the program and the press kit it doesn’t seem that anybody else considered this to be a separate section.

Once another shoe is thrown out for Ms. Allard to put on, we all get back in synch. And everybody is in agreement that we’re in the “T’as rien d’autre a me dire” section or tableau which is another recording of (what I presume is) her sister, Genevieve Allard, and this guy Frederic Blanchette. This time spoken much less aggressively. It didn’t work as well for me especially since the video veered into what I would call “glitch territory” once they repeated the script for a fourth time with more vocal effects in some attempt to make it work in parallel with the video.

I can only imagine that they decided to entitle the next section “Le Divan” (The Couch) because Mr. Graja does his singing lying down, and my choice in seats comes back to bite me in the ass as there was something being projected on the other side of the box, but due to where I was sitting I have absolutely no clue what it was. I also only bring this up, because when we go to the Cinquieme Salle we were first given one set of tickets that were much more central and then told that there had been a mistake and given what became our seats, way off on the side. It’s noted that it’s done as a Liviana and a Seguiriya two stylistic variations of Flamenco that I wouldn’t be able to identify if they slapped me upside the face.

Somewhere around here, I noticed that Ms. Allard was dressed in what I would call reverse Gene Kelly. Mr. Kelly notoriously would always wear white socks, brown loafers and dark pants with cuffs, in order that the audience could better watch his fancy footwork. Ms. Allard’s outfit for this part/section/tableau (called Tournez manège, or in English rotating carousel) consisted of a spectacular white pant suit with matching white shoes and black stockings. Although as I thought the marching band was a section on its own, I failed to notice the change or segue between the sections. In fact Ms. Allard’s dancing was so riveting for this part/section/tableau that I completely missed when Mr. Graja left the stage! So much for me being able to pay close attention to everything happening on stage.

I am also completely confused by the references to Anastasia and Drizella Tremaine, Cinderella’s two step sisters in the Disney movies especially since my notes tell me that there was a drum solo happening at the same time. Although I think again, where I thought there was a break between acts/sections/tableaus, whatever as there was a bit where Ms. Allard and Aurelie Brunet come out on stage in the same dress. Not each of them wearing a dress that is the same, but inside the same dress. They dance in a manner that was vaguely reminiscent of the Pushmi-Pullyu in Dr. Dolittle (the first movie version with Rex Harrison as I have not seen the Eddy Murphy ones). The audio track is first unintelligible and then you gradually realize that they are reciting tongue twisters in English and French (no Spanish as far as I was able to make out) again without any surtitles.

Then everything kind of gets back in synch again, when Mr. Graja returns to the stage, and starts shilling for this book entitled “Let talk about small talk” where he enumerates three easy ways to have a conversation (be aware of the I to You ratio, Key Word Latching, and Conversational Themes) there was some seemingly static video projected on the box again, but because of the way it was twisted I was unable to see it. I also found it interesting that, in this case, Mr. Graja was speaking in English and again there were no translations or use of surtitles. While all of this was happening Ms. Allard danced in a kind of duet with Miguel Medina, who was banging on a wall of the box (and had been responsible for the previous drum solo) and Ms. Brunelle pranced around like a ring girl (the technical term for the young buxom women who dress up in next to nothing and walk around just before a new round in boxing and MMA while displaying a sign with the number of the round on it). The section is called “For only 39,99!” (I don’t know why they didn’t use a dollar sign) and apparently is a tango – although you could have fooled me. I always think of tangos as slinky, slow and seductive. Not piercing, pounding, and precise. Once again there were no surtitles.

Things then wind up with the epilogue, which to me was a long protracted video thing of some of the scripts projected on the floor and box, while Ms. Allard kind of swayed around. Similar to the credits in the Matrix films, back in 1999 those kind of video effects were pretty impressive and eye popping, almost a decade and a half later they are called Adobe After Effect Presets. Not quite as impressive. After a little bit the lights dimmed and after a very pregnant pause, the audience finally realized that the show was over and applauded.

Initially I thought I was going to be able to get this done in two days, HA! As it grew and time progressed, I figured it would be better to be thorough and as complete as possible instead of slap dash. Given their history with El12, I figure that HomoBLABLAtus is likely to have a long and fruitful run in variety of places and no matter how much my mom and friends think of what I do, I really don’t have any illusions about my influence. Which means I can do something other reviews can’t, incorporate them into mine.

First off, I’m downright impressed. As of now, they got six reviews, this one will make it an even seven. Frédérique Doyon wrote about 350 words in Le Devoir (probably the most influential publication as of now) and while she liked parts of it, “Clopin-Clopant” and “Tournez manege” specifically but complains that the conversation was repeated four times in “Tanne de parler.” Overall she writes that there was an excess of ideas and things (she specifically called it bloated) not quite up to snuff.

Something called bachtrack dot com published about 800 words by Nancy Berman where she gave it a less qualified positive review. Ms. Berman called it “Highly moving and deeply expressive,” and she also wrote that “Allard’s dancing is virtuosic and captivating.” (Do I see someone hoping to be quoted in future press kits?) but she too thinks there is a little too much, and this is where I had to laugh she singles out “Tournez manege” as being one of the excessive bits.

Laura Pinsonneault-Craig writes about 730 words on DF Dance a website supported by the Canada Council and running ads from Studio 303, Agora de la Danse and Danse Danse themselves, also plays up the positives in the show, going so far as to say that the things that weren’t working needed just a little bit more practice. Ms. Pinsonneault-Craig decides to single out all four conversations between Ms. Allard and Mr. Arrebola in “Tanne de parler” and “T’as rien d’autre a me dire?” as being particularly well done.

The online replacement for the late lamented Montreal Mirror, Cult Montreal gave Rachel Levine slightly more than 500 words to call La Otra Orilla a poster child for Montreal’s dance scene writing that they are “both innovative and exciting.” Nothing negative whatsoever. Unless of course you don’t like punks.

Cerys Wilson (who I know) writes 344 pretty positive words on the website the Rover. However she laments that she herself isn’t capable of writing anything worthy about the show.

Then finally la Presse published almost 550 words by Stéphanie Brody, where she waxes eloquent about how wonderful the show is. She drops some flamenco terminology and particularly adored the “Le Divan” section.

For what it is worth, this here review is up around 3,100 words and I haven’t even gotten to my conclusion yet. Here we are a month later I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about HomoBLABLAtus, what I have thunk about it hasn’t been as clear. Like Ms. Doyon and Ms. Berman I think there was too much structure imposed on it. Ms. Allard is a fabulous dancer, quite possibly the best flamenco nuevo dancer in town. Watching her dance is a pleasure. The other bits and pieces where she isn’t dancing aren’t quite as compelling. Yes, the technology has become cheap enough that just about anybody can make videos and incorporate them as backdrops or as integral parts of a performance. But just because you can does not necessarily mean you should. While I am fairly confident I could flamenco, I don’t think that there is anyone out there who would want to pay in order to watch me flamenco. That’s kind of how I feel about the non dance parts in HomoBLABLAtus.

Beyond that I don’t have much more. It’s not like there are any sweeping statements about the current state of humanity made during the show. Or that it causes a serious round of questioning things. It probably would be better served if some of the theoretical stuff was tossed (ie numbering the nine parts/sections/tableaus, whatever instead of giving them titles) and if they made up their mind whether to translate and project onto surtitles or not. Overall it was a fairly enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes despite the fact that it did not and was not capable of changing my life.