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David Roussève Review

David Roussève’s Saudade

Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 12:27am

Saudade differs from nostalgia in that whereas nostalgia involves a mixed happy and sad feeling for the lost memories, saudade involves the hope that what is being longed for might return. Saudade has been described as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,… a turning towards the past or towards the future”. A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing. (

Roussève presented his new evening length work Saudade at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this weekend. His Saudade is a powerful chronicling of the sorrow and joy inherent in life. In keeping with one of the meanings of Saudade, Roussève’s performance has just enough hope interwoven into it that you are able to bear the intensity of the evening. He narrates episodes from the lives of former African American slaves, the horrors of rape, physical abuse, and the terror of being powerless in the face of so much hate. He also tells of the dignity and pride that comes from a sibling’s love and sacrifice, and the dignity of learning how to read and write while being a slave–and the price one has to pay for this knowledge. And the power of being able to tell one’s own survival story regardless of what life may have thrown your way.

Roussève also recounts the horrors that emerged in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in between the episodes dealing with slavery. He tells of a mother having to let go of her husband so she can save her children in the flood waters, of having to think which child she might have to let go of, so that the ones with the stronger chance of survival make it. And he tells of the mother soiling herself because she is afraid her child might die alone if she leaves to use the restroom with the long lines in front of it. Roussève deftly intermingles the stories of the former slaves, with the survivors of hurricane Katrina, along with some personal reflections on his own life in ways that ask us to pause and consider what has changed really? And in what disguises racism continues to masquerade in our lives today? The punch line is of course that the split-personality characteristic of life allows you to experience joy and sorrow at the same time—perhaps making life bearable. And perhaps, in keeping with the evening’s moniker, Roussève has hope for the future still?

Powerful images come to life through the evening: As Roussève completes narrating an episode, a buoy like cylinder marks the place he was on stage and slowly a diagonal forms taking him back to the place from which he started. Anjali Tata-Hudson’s hands create a wisp of movement even when her wrists and ankles are bound and her face is covered in a gallows-like bag. A short film shows Sri Susilowati’s love for hot chilies turn horribly wrong as she continues eating them long after it has become torture and her eyes tear up and her face distorts with the pain of eating chilies.

Roussève takes what is essentially a solo theater performance and tries really hard to make it a group, dance-theater, multi-media, let’s-also-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink-while-we-are-at-it event. There are sections of Indonesian dance for Susilowati and Tata-Hudson does a version resembling something like Bharata Natyam. Olivier Tarpaga does versions of African dance to round out the hodge-podge affair. And one musn’t forget that the evening cannot be complete without lots of post-modern twitching, screaming, meaningless undulations, and what can only be described as bad attempts of theatrical bits which mostly become embarrassing, self-indulgent diatribes. Despite a long program note on Fado music by the choreographer, the dancers never seem to pause and really hear the music or respond to its rich layers. (See my note bewailing the opposite—Mark Morris’ strict adherence to music at the Kennedy Center performance last week). Finally, it still astonishes me that dancers with no training in theater have no qualms about diving into spoken text and bad acting on stage while making a complete ass of themselves in the process. And no, that doesn’t seem to be the point.

Yet despite all the distractions, I was moved by Roussève’s attempt. I only wish he hadn’t mucked up his work so much. It was a powerful piece of work and would have been stunning without all the distractions that ultimately end up being gimmicky. It seems almost as if he was out to prove the multi-racial mix of his company, instead of focusing on the power of the stories he was narrating. Thankfully Roussève is a stunning performer and his presence makes the evening worthwhile. The stories are captivating, stark and powerful—the movement and theatrics, mostly forgettable.

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