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Paul Ben-Itzak
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Theatre de la Ville - les Abbesses
Paris, OT (France)

We have nothing to fear but fear itself - Wayn Traub's "Maria-Magdalena"

by Paul Ben-Itzak
May 9, 2009
Theatre de la Ville - les Abbesses
31 rue des Abbesses
Paris, OT (France) 75018
01 42 74 22 77
Navigating the cave of the heart with Wayn Traub

Paul Ben-Itzak is the publisher of Dance Insider.
PARIS — Like many a social dancer and concert dance watcher, I got into dance in large part because I thought it could elevate and illuminate my life, and that by writing about it looking for this connection I could help it do the same for others. In the past 15 years, reviewing dance in New York, San Francisco, Antwerp, Montpellier and Paris from all over the world, I have frequently been disappointed. Choreographers, particularly in modern dance, often seem more consumed with their own petit concerns — be they psychological or conceptual — than the common weal. I certainly was not expecting Wayn Traub, who conceived, directed, co-designed, costumed, shot, choreographed — perhaps he was the first gaffer too — and stars in the film and theater piece "Maria-Magdalena" (it's even sub-titled 'Wayn Wash III') to be the antidote to this solipsistic circus, and voila moi who was pleasantly surprised May 8 at the Theatre de la Ville's Theatre les Abbesses in Montmartre.

I was certainly not prepared to be humbled by a personage who made his first appearance in grandiose silhouette, outlining a form that included, yes, Wolverine-style nails. Add to the ensemble ultra-red hair and over-sized opaque sunglasses, plus a speaking voice miked like, well, G-d, and I prepared myself for 90 minutes of narcissism. But Traub's singing resemblance to Jim Morrison and an overall fabulousness that recalled Freddy Mercury should have provided a hint: His story, over-wrought and over the top as it was, would strike chords in all of us concerned in the counsel: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Traub's tapestry was so rich — in its images as well as its narrative — that it's hard to digest and regurgitate all in one fell swoop. (As myriad spectacle, it recalls "Squonk," another multi-media cabaret of the psyche, that took New York by storm at P.S. 122 a decade or so ago.) But certain themes emerge.

The biggest thread weaving the various tales together is fear.

The stage set-up has the live Traub on a half-circle platform with a running track that regularly turns him, so that he gives the impression of traversing space even when he's staying in one place. Sometimes he indulges in socio-critical monologues, sometimes he effaces himself before the screen behind him which rolls images most of the evening, many of them shot in Hong Kong, largely in the girly milieu; sometimes he holds conversations with characters on the screen, as in a segment where Gabriel Rios, as a sort of Hollywood producer, video-phones him from pool-side perhaps somewhere in California to talk about a script Traub has submitted. What begins as a monologue from a typically sallow Hollywood producer type — complete with goatee — suddenly veers into an impassioned reflection on the two sides of the brain. Rios even steps away from the video-cam for a moment before returning with… the two split sides of a mock brain. One, he explains (I'm reducing), is the now, the present; the other the calculator. (Editor's note: Click here and then click on the brain in the upper right corner to find an interactive 3-D brain.)

In a way, this is what is at play in the dynamic between Traub and his audience. For all his vivacity, he's prepared a — meticulously — calculated spectacle, which he hopes will provoke a visceral reaction from his audience. To provoke this, he tries a number of mostly related essays in the vignettes, all in the film:

** What starts as a humdrum realty agent's tour of a manor perhaps somewhere in Belgium (the sexy realtor speaks Flemish) takes a darkly romantic turn when the tranquil setting is suddenly pierced by cries. The agent (Lotte Verbeeck) explains to her unseen visitor that back in olden times, when the manor was a monastery, one eccentric monk made a sculpture of Mary Magdalene. (Finding the spot where the sculpture may have been, she even mounts it, pretending to be the statue.) It was so beautiful that the monk fell in love with it — a love he tried to consummate. This horrified the other monks, who burned the statue. One foot is said to have resisted the fire; it has never been found. The cries which haunt the manor to this day are said to be those of the sculpture.

**A young Asian soldier wakes to find himself in a terrain vague, with no one but the dead as company; he wonders if he himself is one of them. Suddenly his walkie-talkie cackles and his commander asks him where he is. As he describes the terrain, the commander appears to recognize it — "is there a tree there?," "is there a house like such and such there?" — and directs him to enter a house and, once inside, lift a stone under which lies a black book. Then he directs the soldier to read the poem within; finally the man stops, recognizing the name of the author as… his. (All this is shot with the soldier's face close up and the landscape rolling by artificially in the background.) Later, a sort of flashback shows a young boy in soldier's fatigues in a dated home movie seen hiding a black book under a stone.

** In a sort of online confessional booth, a young Mexican or Spanish boy agonizes to a priest about how a girl is driving him crazy. The priest is non-plussed until the boy reveals he's bought a knife to kill her.

** A scientist (Simonne Moesen), warns that once one lets the smallest fear in, the world is finished, before explaining how she decided to explore in person a pre-historic sorcerer's cave in southwest France, discovered in 1972 and where several excavators have ventured, never to be seen again. We then follow her to the cave, traversed by an underground creek; she descends by about 400 meters. Later we learn that she was found after several days in a semi-conscious state with a pre-historic knife in her hand; she has no idea how it got there. And now she's even more desperately frightened.

Dance comes into play in an opening sequence of the film, similar to those that sometimes open the James Bond flicks, with semi-animated woman twirling and undulating, going in and out of arabesque, dressed in flowing nun's garb, moving against a semi-psychodelic, animated background; in an extended solo sequence toward the finish with the undulating Zhibo Zhao, apparently clad in nothing but body paint, and who is credited as co-choreographer with Traub and Aki Saito; and in the live Traub himself, following certain words with extenuations of his arms and hands and in a generally constricted — dare I say crippled — carriage.

But to get back to those sorcerers. In fact, for a moment I thought Moesen was talking about the cave of the sorcerer near where I live in southwest France, but that one's more famous for a cave painting of a sorcerer with a particularly large member than for swallowing explorers. But I also look out and up on many caves carved into the limestone mountains across the river from me. At first I assumed this is where the cro-mag man actually lived, but in fact, these are the caves at which he and his prayed…to the sorcerer in those times of darkness and extreme cold.

At the end of "Maria-Magdalene," Traub says, "Well, that's my story. You can believe it or you can tell yourself, that's just Wayn Traub in make-up." Jean-Marc Adolphe's program notes describe Traub as an alchemist, and he's that, but he's also a sorcerer, depicting the darkness to deliver us from it.
Wayn Traub's 'Maria Magdalena'

Wayn Traub's "Maria Magdalena"

Photo © & courtesy of Koen Broos

Wayn Traub's 'Maria Magdalena'

Wayn Traub's "Maria Magdalena"

Photo © & courtesy of Koen Broos

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