This Is Not A Metaphor For War

Croatia's Montazstroj crosses the border.

          A woman and a man, both wearing black pants and sturdy black boots, kiss. Another man approaches, separates them rudely and coerces the woman into a similar kiss. She resists, kicks, pushes him away, and escapes back into the arms of her lover. The couple resume kissing, but the situation repeats itself again and again, the cruel intensity increasing with each exchange. By the fifth or sixth attempt, the men are punching one another, the woman is pulled by the hair, bullied, thrown violently to the ground. She collapses in the arms of her predatory suitor like a rag doll, then falls hard to the ground. The brutality is unfeigned, the pursuit and escape relentless.

          "Abstract" is not an adjective of choice when describing the work of Montazstroj, Croatia's high-octane dance theater company. Then again, neither are words like "naturalistic" or "real." The "project," as they prefer calling themselves, is a bit of Pina Bausch's German tanztheater, a smidgen of MTV and pop culture, a strong dose of Biomechanics performance style, and a smattering of the high-powered athletic movement known reductively on this side of the Atlantic as "Euro-Crash." (Montazstroj's Slovenian neighbors, Betontanz, whose 1992 performance Every Word a Gold Coin's Worth had its dancers hurling themselves against a huge iron wall, probably deserve this title more than anyone.)

          "We choreograph from life," muses dramaturge Goran Sergej Pristas during a phone interview from Atlanta, where Montazstroj ("Montage Machine") has a four day engagement. "We'll take a kiss, for example, or another real-life situation, like touching. Through repetition, editing, superimposition of other elements, we end up with a motif."

          The members of Montazstroj -- three dancers, a choreographer/director, a composer, and a dramaturge all between the ages of 24 and 29, have given Europe a jolt with Re-Mix: Everybody Goes 2 Disco from Moscow 2 San Francisco, an hour-long spectacle now touring the U.S. Described by one Zagreb critic as "focusing cruelly and precisely [on] the physical and spiritual contamination of a dying planet," the work's amalgam of movement, sport, erotic relations, and "ultra-violence" is curious or shocking or both, depending on your sensibility. Some reviewers invoke Derrida, others Slavic folklore and "the frustrations of post-Communist reality"; a Norwegian preview even called it a ballet. But from Linz, Austria, to Bergen, Norway, this troupe has left no audience indifferent in the two years it has toured the old continent.

          The buzz, of course, is that Re-Mix is about the former Yugoslavia's civil war--art from the trenches. Pristas admits with a chuckle that the ensemble was founded on the day of Ceausescu's death ("just a coincidence, really"), but goes on to patiently chip away at the label he's encountered countless times: "Re-Mix is not a metaphor for the war. Obviously, the war made a mark on people, but Re-Mix doesn't portray or represent war. Its situations are inspired by the way people reacted to the war."

          And history is a powerful force. As Romania's dictatorship was collapsing, Yugoslavia too was exhaling its last breaths. By late 1991, two-thirds of Croatia would be under Serbian attack, with Zagreb, the republic's capital and Montazstroj's home base, a mere 25 miles from the frontlines. It doesn't take a war zone to have something to say, but being in the middle of one provides ample raw material. Any way you look at it, it is the stuff of Montazstroj's art.

          The stage, a barren landscape of urinals and a basketball hoop, seems tight, cramped. It is a world vaguely reminiscent of Sartre's No Exit, a world in which the viewer/voyeur is witness to various cruel games. In one section, the two male performers, Damir Klemenic and Srecko Borse, play a ludicrous round of nude basketball. For no apparent reason, the game deteriorates into a wrestling match within minutes. The sound of tight fists hitting vulnerable body parts echoes in the space. Just as abruptly, the combatants-turned-buddies erupt in laughter, one on top of the other. They exchange a few chummy pats and the tension dissipates into thin air. In the next scene, one of them will put a gun in the other's mouth; later, the woman, played by Bernarda Plesa, will shoot her former lover.

          In Re-Mix, reconciliation leads to murder, murder leads to erotic love; love and hate are interchanged at random. Violence and affection seem liquid, passing chaotically between the protagonists like an inscrutable virus. The body --naked, bruised, bathed in sweat and saliva, crashing loudly to the ground or groped erotically--is the irreducible constant. The corporeal replaces the human: as Pristas puts it, "the body is the last refuge."

          Reactions to Re-Mixin Atlanta are no different from reactions in Europe; as Pristas observes, "Some people hate this, others find it very moving." After their second Atlanta performance, Montazstroj are approached by a group of local African-American artists who say they relate to Re-Mix's depiction of "life in a high danger zone." Others were clearly offended by the violence. One audience member was so moved she left an anonymous poem in the lobby of the theater.

          In their literature, which reads almost like an ideological manifesto, Montazstroj mentions the influence of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's revolutionary montage principles and of Biomechanics, the post-Stanislavski acting approach founded by V.E. Meyerhold. In Biomechanics, movement and speech obey separate rhythms, creating a stylized, "grotesque" stage presence. The viewer, attempting to make sense of the abrupt cuts and shifts of action, is pulled through a maddening maze of emotions and questions. In the work of Montazstroj, the ride is terrifying. Watching a videotape of Re-Mix, I am astounded, disgusted, embarrassed, hurt, made to giggle at the sight of flapping genitalia, and shiver as a cold gun is inserted in a warm orifice. Will he really shoot him? Why doesn't she kick the bastard in the balls? Who are these people? As Pristas points out: "The show leaves no one cold." CP

          Re-Mix: Everybody Goes 2 Disco from Moscow 2 San Francisco will be performed October 2-4 at the Walker Art Center; 375-7622.

 
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