Monday, September 18, 2006

Armchair travels

Two ways to experience non-American culture this weekend: The culturally correct one…and the other one.

On Saturday, I trekked to the Japan Society to see Yubiwa Hotel's Candies: Girlish Hardcore. It's hard to define—a bit of performance, a bit of dance, a bit of theater—but it also didn't really add up to the sum of its parts. Considering that the Japanese have pushed the boundaries of both hardcore (in its sexual, visual and musical expressions) and girlishness (through kawaii imagery and its constant evolution, for instance), the show, created and directed by Shirotama Hitsujiya, was oddly flaccid. I don't mind a lack of narrative backbone at all, but you have to compensate with arresting visuals. A couple of them did rise to the top: A crouching, naked woman, her back to the audience, excretes batter onto a hot plate; it cooks into a pancake, which is messily eaten by two other women. And in the finale, the five performers slowly stripped to their underwear while smoking and executing a line dance; the scene was made slightly spooky by the repetitiveness of the movements.

Sunday evening was a completely different experience with stand-up comedian Gad Elmaleh making his NYC debut at the Beacon Theater. Elmaleh, who was born in Morocco, is hugely popular in France, and the Beacon was packed to the rafters with a red-hot crowd on the verge of hysteria. The show went on for almost two and a half hours and Elmaleh was feted like a rock star, complete with requests for skits, people shouting out lines the way some sing along at rock shows, and cries of "You're the man of my life!" The highlights for me were his take on French R&B singing and French musical theater, but really you can never go wrong with physical comedy (Elmaleh is incredibly agile) and Twingo jokes. Bummed he didn't do the ski skit but fortunately Youtube has it, along with Elmaleh and Jamel Debbouze's fab parody of raï superstars Faudel and Chem Mami.

Much of the non-English-speaking art we see in NYC comes to us through semi-official channels—the French Alliance, say, or Scandinavia House or the Goethe Institute or the Japan Society. Or we get our high-brow offerings from BAM or Lincoln Center, whose producers scout international festivals around the world. All good stuff, sure, and the audiences usually bring together Americans and citizens of whatever country is represented; everybody is on their best behavior—Americans because they don't want to look culturally xenophobic, and "the others" because they feel the piece they're watching somehow turns into an ambassador of their home culture.

But there's something to be said for being at a show with your peeps (as you can tell from the success of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour), especially when you live abroad and a mainstream star from back home is visiting. To start with, the crowd coheres in a completely different manner. This happened when I went to see Hong Kong Repertory Theatre's Love in a Fallen City a few months ago. The play was really entertaining, but I can't possibly have enjoyed it as much as the Chinese audience—and that's okay, not everything has to please everybody. This kind of show also plays out as a benign version of homesickness-curing nationalism, the kind it's easy to get behind because nobody gets hurt. At the Beacon it was totally satisfying to laugh at a Twingo joke and not have to explain what a Twingo is, and I felt super-French in a way I hadn't experience since, I don't know, that weasel cover of the New York Post.

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