So much early modern dance focused on states of feeling that Maguy Marin's "Waterzooi" at first seems her typically whimsical homage to the origins of her art. Seen Wednesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the 80-minute work offers nothing less than a formal Descartean treatise on human emotion--one deliberately undercut by broad physical comedy and softened by an innovative use of toy musical instruments.
If the cowbell and kazoo seem an unlikely accompaniment for Descartes, "Waterzooi" is, after all, titled after a Belgian stew and Marin has long been the queen of incongruity. At the 1987 Los Angeles Festival, for instance, the French choreographer made dancers out of the terminally isolated and immobile characters in Samuel Beckett's plays ("May B") and also resituated Prokofiev's "Cinderella" ballet in an antique dollhouse.
In "Waterzooi" she and her companion Denis Mariotte (father of her 4-year-old daughter) define what it means to be human--and they place music-making at the top of the list. Even before her spoken text compares bird song to human singing, we see four company members solemnly play children's instruments and get into a nasty fight over tempo.
"Emotions are part of our everyday lives," a narrator explains and from this point, the text and stage action will describe and illustrate feelings and relationships: joy, sadness, anger, love, hate, disquiet and friendship. However, it is Mariotte's score that determines the pulse and coloration of the performance, and he also gives the work its greatest claim to originality.
Obviously, toy instruments are nothing new in the theater but "Waterzooi" requires the 13 splendid dancers of Compagnie Maguy Marin to accompany themselves--sometimes in group walk-around sequences with everyone playing harmonicas, elsewhere in more conventional passages that divide the ensemble into dancers and musicians.
Besides drums, cymbals, chimes, party noisemakers, tiny pianos and sound-boxes not easy to classify, "Waterzooi" uses lovers' whispers, existential rant and even the call-and-response of an interrogation as accompaniments for dancing, with the result always highly imaginative.
The choreography, alas, is not in the same league. Marin continues to be a brilliant stage director, dazzling in her manipulation of text, stage space, dancers-as-actors and audience expectations. Ask her to dramatize the difference between friends, pals and acquaintances, and she'll make you laugh with a sly, endearing mime-parable about a guy carrying a refrigerator on his back. Ask her to show you primal hate and she'll create a strip-search sequence deeply chilling in its methodical degradation and sudden outburst of brutality.
But putting steps together? Forget it. Even when the emotions and accompaniments are vivid, the passages that depend on choreography remain uninspired, prosaic, stale. Expressively generalized, stylistically generic. Something you might see in a student workshop somewhere.
So why is the audience cheering? Because the extraordinary theatrical and musical achievements of "Waterzooi" can't be destroyed by a few leaden solos and duets. Moreover, at the core of the work is a bittersweet lesson about accepting human imperfection, and it would be ridiculously ungrateful not to apply that lesson to Marin herself.
* Compagnie Maguy Marin performs "Waterzooi" tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Brentwood. Tickets: $9-$31.50. (310) 825-2101.