MiniVideo: The Nouveau Baroque

Minivideos are a way to share my music through channels that are designed exclusively for video–like Youtube and Facebook–without creating the kind of work-intensive full video that I’ve made for Dada Dance, A City Is A Sound, and Theme From Another Place.

I’ve just posted a minivideo for track 9 from the album Out of Place, “The Nouveau Baroque.” Every track on that album (except one) comes with a piece of short fiction–here’s the video, and below it is the story that goes with it.

The Nouveau Baroque

Ren’s plane touches down at Schiphol airport, and he immediately feels more at home than he did in his own house. Here, for a little while, he can be completely himself. Like in Paris last year, or in Sendai the year before that. Or any of two dozen other places he’s visited on business over the last twenty years.

Patty thinks he screws around when he travels, having affairs or hiring prostitutes, and Amsterdam would be the place for it. If she knew his real secret, she’d laugh. He looks out the window at the overcast sky as the jet taxis toward the terminal. On the tarmac outside he can see workers moving around, and a little tug truck pulling a train of dollies filled with luggage is on its way toward the terminal.

The truth is, he purposely lets Patty to go on thinking that he’s spending time with hookers. It’s humiliating, but at least it means that his real love is safe from her scorn, from the scathing way she’d describe it to their friends. “I’m just teasing,” she’d say. And maybe it’d be true, maybe she wouldn’t mean any harm, but, intentionally or not, she’d be attacking something he loves passionately, even if he doesn’t entirely understand why he feels the way he does.

Ren’s a freelance troubleshooter for franchise operations. Sometimes the owner of a local franchise will hire him, or sometimes the franchisor will do it, but either way, when a fast food restaurant is in trouble, or a discount shoe outlet that should be thriving is floundering instead, he’s dispatched to Oakland, or Vancouver, or London to review the operation and, if possible, get things in shape. And he’s an engaging public speaker, too, which makes him popular at conferences, corporate retreats, and other industry shindigs, and these take him even farther afield than the individual stores do: Russia, Japan, Germany, Brazil, South Africa.

Early in his career he’d been doing a presentation at a conference in Toronto, and the company sponsoring the event had dragged a few of the speakers, including him, to a show by the White Oaks Dance Company. It was supposed to be a perk, but Ren would have preferred cash, or maybe a room upgrade.  Still, he wasn’t about to piss off a client, so he’d acted like he was thrilled that he would get a chance to see the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov perform in person.

He’d braced himself, expecting that he’d have to fight to stay awake, but when the lights had gone down and the dancers had first appeared, he’d suddenly felt as if he were alone in the dark with them—as if he and they were engaged in something direct and intimate, the rest of the audience forgotten. Hell, he’d damn near forgotten about himself. Instead of watching, he seemed to somehow exist inside the dancers, the whole troupe of them, as they moved and leapt and contorted, and the music moved across his skin in a way that was palpable. Patty thought he was having sex? This was far more powerful than sex. It was otherworldly. Unforgettable. Transformative.

When the show had ended, he’d had to work hard to keep up his usual facade of cheerful, shallow good humor—every business exec’s cheerful buddy—while inside he seemed to shake with the energy of what he’d just been through. The moment he’d reached the sanctuary of his hotel room, he’d arranged to stay an extra night in the city. The next evening he’d gone back down to the theater and bought a ticket from a scalper so he could go through the whole experience again. Alone this time, without having to worry about keeping up appearances, he’d surrendered to the feeling absolutely.

And so his “affair” had begun. Before any business trip, he’d research his destination ahead of time, looking for local dance companies, or for touring shows that would be in town at the same time he was. And it turned out that it wasn’t just arty, modern dance that gave him this transcendent feeling. Ballet was great. Flamenco was fantastic. Ballroom dancing got him just as high as the jitterbug. Krumping and breaking filled him with ecstasy. So did samba and meringue and tango.

He had a secret stash of videos, but unlike what Patty might suspect, they weren’t porn. They included recordings of his favorite ballets, as well as every kind of dance movie imaginable, from classics like West Side Story and Shall We Dance, to popular hits like Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, Step Up, and Fame, to obscure treasures he had to seek out and track down, like Guy Madden’s Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary, and Dudley Murphy’s classic, Danse Macabre. Initially he’d kept a hidden cache of DVDs, and even a few VHS tapes, but these days he kept everything in a cloud account. It was harder for prying eyes to find and easier for him to access, at any moment, anywhere.

But even the best recording paled next to a live performance, and tonight he would add one to his collection that he’d wanted to see for a long time. Nancy Duvalle’s troupe, Springen, would be performing a show called Nouveau Baroque. Yet again, Ren checks the receipt in his breast pocket for the single ticket he’s ordered online. Apparently the seating nearest the stage is in dinner theater style: small tables, each with several chairs. It’d be more comfortable in the tiered seating further back, where plush ranks of seats rise up in rows, like at the movies, but he wants to be right up front. If he’d been allowed to, he’d have bought out a whole table in order to have the space all to himself, but the limit is one ticket per person. Compelling strangers to sit together—rather than allowing a group of friends to sit all in a row, or a single fanatic to isolate himself at a table—is part of the Springen aesthetic.

He deplanes hurriedly, catches a train downtown, and checks in at the Mövenpick Hotel, which he picked at random when he booked his ticket, then abandons his bags and heads out. He’s too impatient to stay inside, but the show isn’t for another two hours, so he takes a taxi to the theater, which sits in the east part of the city, not far from the better-known Oostblok. He wanders across the street to a comfortable cafe and settles in with a beer. He takes out his phone and a pair of earbuds and watches Die Klage der Kaiserin, occasionally glancing across at the theater.

The video ends, and he looks up, and this time there’s activity on the other side of the street. Ushers, dressed as eighteenth century footmen, are standing outside the plain wooden doors of the theater, which have been propped open. He puts away his phone, stuffs the earbuds into his pocket, downs the last gulp of his beer, and signals the waitress that he wants to settle up what he owes.

In the lobby of the theater, he presents his ticket to one of the footmen. Now that he’s closer, he can see that their costumes are a mish mash of period detail, modern touches, and random flourishes. The person leading him into the hall is dressed in something like a standard livery—deep blue jacket and pants, with bright brass buttons, a blindingly white shirt, and an embroidered gold waistcoat. But her face has been made up in the style of a harlequin, and her shoes, while allowing her to move naturally, have nonetheless been designed to look like the hooves of a deer. On top of her head is a tall, elaborate, powdered wig.

She leads him through the dark, hushed space of the interior to a table directly in front of the low stage, where she bows low, stepping back with one foot and indicating his seat with an extended hand, after which she glides silently away. Around him, other patrons are being shown to their places by staff in similarly outlandish costumes. The one element they all have in common is the presence of a powdered wig, although the styles of the hairpieces vary widely. Some fit the head almost like a tight cap, with a pony tail protruding at the back, while others stack the hair high into the air in complex layers.

Another footman arrives and seats a young woman at his table. She pulls up a chair, deposits a giant handbag beside her on the floor, then extends her hand to Ren. He takes it.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Ren.”

She smiles.

“No English,” she pronounces carefully.

“No Dutch,” he says in return, and she bursts out laughing.

“Nein, nein. Ich spreche Deutsch. Et le français, aussi, si c’est mieux.”

Ren gets the general idea and laughs with her, shaking his head. French isn’t going to be any better than German for him.

One of the footmen appears on the stage while a few stragglers are still being seated, and goes through an elaborate comic pantomime reminding the audience members to turn off their cell phones. He concludes with a throat-cutting gesture, showing he means business, and the lights dim.

For a moment it’s very dark, but then the stage lights rise slightly, and Ren can see that a group of dancers have taken the stage. Music begins, and the lights come up further, and the dancers—who, it turns out, are the footmen—begin to move. The dance is something baroque, roughly matching the period of their costumes. He thinks it might be a minuet, but his formal knowledge about dance is pretty spotty. Watching people dance is a religious experience for him, but studying dance from a book doesn’t give him the same thrill.

The lights are quite high now, reflecting off the brass and silver elements in the costumes, and refracting through the crystals in two large chandeliers that have been lowered from the ceiling until they hang just above the dancers. The tempo of the music steps up a notch, and then another, and the dancers accelerate each time to match it. The dance now looks more like a lively gigue than a minuet. The spangled play of light becomes more and more pronounced, even intense, and Ren realizes that it can’t all be accounted for by the sparkling costumes and chandeliers. There must be something like a disco ball, or maybe two or three of them, hidden somewhere to the sides of the stage, maybe above it as well, that’s being used to create this new, very busy effect, with shafts and shards of light flying in all directions as the dance ups the pace one last time.

The music is changing, and it’s not just the tempo now. The traditional instruments that started things off—violin, harpsichord, and so on—are being joined by modern ones. A deep, insistent bass bounce joins the melody, and so does a complicated synthesizer arpeggio, and long, echoing notes from an electric guitar. Ren can feel his heart beating faster as the music becomes more urgent, his biology entrained to it. And then, all at once, he’s transported to that other world, the one he first discovered so long ago in Toronto.

This is the real world, as far as he’s concerned. What good is a successful business if all you buy with it is a ludicrous house filled with gaudy crap? Patty’s happy with that stuff, but it means nothing to him—it’s just the stage dressing for those dreary, interludes of fictional existence that he has to live through between moments of genuine, heart-stopping beauty. What the hell is the point of eating and sleeping and reproducing if it’s just so you can eat and sleep and reproduce some more? A monkey can do that. What makes us human is using all of that as a platform to do something more, something original. For some people that’s music, or painting, or film, or even sport—anything that’s the best it can be, the most fully realized, the most elegantly executed. For him it’s dance—the beat, the melody, the movement. The pulse and the exertion and the exhilaration.

And it’s as he’s thinking this, that an entirely new world opens to him. What he had taken for a revelation, the ecstasy of watching dance, was only a stopping off point on the way to this moment.

The German woman reaches into her giant handbag and pulls out a powdered wig. She stands and, in one efficient movement, grabs the shoulder of her shirt and tears away her clothes. Only now does he see that her shirt and her pants and the belt she’s wearing are all part of a single jumpsuit, held closed with velcro.

Underneath, she’s dressed as a baroque footman, just like the ones on the stage. She plunks the powdered wig on her head and pulls an elastic strap under her chin to keep it on. Ren looks left and right and sees that there’s a person at almost every table who’s actually a dancer posing as a member of the audience, all of them suddenly revealing the costumes they’d kept hidden, invading the space where the audience sits, expecting to just watch. Further away, he sees that more dancers are appearing amidst the tiered seats behind him—seemingly ordinary people who suddenly leap up, rip off their clothes, and turn into fantasy creatures, to the surprise of those seated around them. He looks back at the woman at his table, who is fishing around in her bag again.

Her hand comes out with another powdered wig. Before he realizes what she’s doing, she grasps him by his hand and, smiling, pulls him to his feet. He realizes that he’s smiling, too. She’s dancing now, a simple kind of rocking, bouncing motion that compliments the more elaborate motions that the dancers on stage are going through, and he realizes that all the newly appeared dancers are doing the same simple dance. She offers him the wig. He takes hold of it, looks at it for a moment, then puts it on. For a brief moment he hesitates, then begins to rock and to bounce, imitating what she’s doing. He turns around, facing back into the audience, like she’s doing. Some spectators have refused the wigs, but others have accepted them, and they’re doing the same thing he is—uncertainly, but enthusiastically, imitating their dance partners. And then, without any apparent prompting, other spectators stand up. Wigless and uninvited, they start dancing anyway. No one has given them permission, and they haven’t asked. Someone cheers.

There’s no dividing line, now, between the stage and the audience, between the dancers and the spectators, between the show and the world. Ren is dancing without having to think about it anymore. He’s got the rhythm and the movements down, and he can relax into the dance and let it take him over. The music’s very loud now, but his mind is quiet. He isn’t thinking, just doing. He isn’t watching, just dancing.

And smiling.

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