REQUIEM POUR UNE AME SEULE
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 17, 2007
Isabelle Barbat is undoubtedly not an American dancer. She eschews the rigorous acrobatics and coldly repetitive formulations dominating the American modern dance idiom. She reaches her audience with slow, graceful extrapolations of the emoting human form, allowing her performance to be accessible and impressive not only to dance aficionados. If we know ourselves then we will surely understand her interpretations of grief and confusion, anger and love, resolution and peace. Barbat is an empathic performer—acutely aware of her audience. One moment during the piece when her head drops to her knees and is cradled by her hands (ghostly in their sinewy beauty and length) she seems to be asking not so much for understanding, but rather begging us to release ourselves, to allow her to take in the enormity of emotions that drive our own personal epics.
And this hypnotic solo performance does have an epic quality—surprising considering its 45-minute length. Yet not so surprising considering that Barbat demonstrates all the tools needed to evoke birth, conflict, illness, and the ashes we become. Most importantly she has the weight of age to bring authenticity to her superior lithe technique. When her chiseled frame formed tableaux and her Picassoesque eyes gazed into ours I was held breathless. She proves that stillness is the most beautiful element of dance.
While watching Barbat I found myself at times unaware of the music she interprets (Arvo Pärt and Gustav Mahler, among others). This is not necessarily a bad thing. Music in modern dance many times will distract the audience, such as when (in the guise of deconstruction) it is used to contradict the meaning of the choreography. Barbat is ambiguous at times, but not to intimate meaninglessness in the world; rather she wants to validate personal meaning, or just plain faith. She uses the music to represent the movement of time: when she allows the music to overwhelm her presence we feel we are moving through the past, and when she wants the present to be conjured she brings herself to the forefront and the music slips into our subconsciousness.
But in death and in peace, the boundary between past and present is often blurred. Barbat interprets these moments using her impressive vocals to become a symbiosis of foreground and background. She sings two arias during her performance. The first is from Ravel's "Deux mélodies hébraïques." The lyrics are from the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Singing it with her back turned to us she fills the space with a powerful, luminous voice. And it is all the more striking to see her solemnity expressed by her pale back shuttering and expanding with each breath she takes while her shoulders seem heavy with grief. She ends the show singing the old-time spiritual "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child." Sarah Vaughn sang this with urgency and angst. Barbat sings it with a calm resolve as the lights fade and we are left with her soul echoing in ours.