Flesh and bones

Alain Buffard explores the vulnerability of the body in his striking Mauvais Genre

FLOOR SHOW Dancers perform Buffard’s haunting work.

FLOOR SHOW Dancers perform Buffard’s haunting work.

Alain Buffard, making his long-awaited New York debut at Danspace Project this week, is a French choreographer who considers himself to be “a pure product of American dance.” In 1978, he began studying with the American multimedia pioneer Alwin Nikolais at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France, before training with Viola Farber, the former Merce Cunningham dancer; his successful performing career included working with such choreographers as Rgine Chopinot and Philippe Decoufl. But it wasn’t enough.

“In the ’80s, there was a big boom for dance in France, with a lot of money from the government,” Buffard recalls in a phone interview, while on tour in San Francisco. “I was working with three or four companies at the same time—and it was dancey-dance. When the choreographer asked me to lift my arm or leg, I said, 'What for? Why? What’s the reason?’ There was usually no answer. I was fed up with that silence in front of me.”

Buffard quit dancing for five years, and when he eventually found his way back into the field, it was through a pair of influential American artists: Yvonne Rainer (he updated her Continuous Project—Altered Daily) and Anna Halprin, a pioneering figure in postmodern dance. For Buffard, who is HIV-positive, Halprin’s approach to dance as a spiritual art (she is a cancer survivor) ignited a creative spark. “Nothing is available in France about Anna, so I decided to meet her,” Buffard says. “I came to San Francisco for three months and worked with her in very special workshops. It was a real discovery that gave me a taste for a life again with dance.”

Buffard’s return to dance coincided, in 1998, with the creation of his legendary autobiographical solo, Good Boy; at Danspace Project, he presents Mauvais Genre (“Bad Type”), an expansion of that piece focusing on the fragility of the body and its ultimate survival. Following the final performance on Sunday 2, his film, “My Lunch with Anna,” constructed from five lunches featuring Halprin and him, will be screened.

“It is kind of a tribute to Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre,” Buffard explains. “It’s not an interview, it’s not a dance performance—it’s in the middle somewhere, and I think it shows how Anna is willing and alive and important. You see the tension, the release, the happiness; sometimes we battle. I think it tells a lot about her work.”

There are two versions of Mauvais Genre; in one, the audience mingles with the performers, who form an installation of bodies, lit by neon tubes. In the other staging, which Buffard has chosen for New York, the audience is seated as the dancers, surrounded by boxes of pharmaceutical drugs, complete their tasks, which include stripping, then taping their genitals and, later, using the same tape to affix boxes of pills to their feet, creating makeshift high-heels. Still, the piece, which starts out grim and clinical, takes an optimistic turn in the end. In the final section, Buffard stages his own version of a musical: Performers, wearing layers of white underwear in oddly alluring ways, perform classical movement to an instrumental version of “New York, New York.”

Much of the movement is formal and specific, which, for Buffard, is a good thing; he has only four days to teach the material to a large cast of New York--based dancers, such as Erin Cornell, DD Dorvillier, Trajal Harrell and Lucy Sexton. “The structure is quite simple,” he says. “The first time I started this work, I realized that nobody could do what I was doing. The question is not to make an imitation, but for the dancers to find, in a very strict frame, the right way for themselves.” But Buffard has also faced challenges that have nothing to do with performance skills.

“Without the help of the French consulate, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Dancers just dance for nothing, and it’s a real disaster. Until last week, we didn’t know if they would be paid, and I was wondering if I would even present the work.” In the end, they will be paid. “A little,” Buffard says, sighing. “In a few years, I think it will be exactly the same in France. Using 'New York, New York’ is my way of saying that New York was a mecca of dance in the ’80s, and it’s not hopeless. 'New York, New York’ is still alive.”

Alain Buffard is at Danspace Project Thursday 30 through Sunday 2.