A mountainside trailer park and six of its residents are the focus of Peeping Tom’s 32 rue Vandenbranden, a hilarious and then shattering piece of Belgian dance theatre in BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Conceived and directed by company founders Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier, Vandenbranden puts these residents in their trailers where the choreography is tight and confined, their bodies pressed against walls and windows. It then flings them into the expanse of the snow-strewn valley outside where the movements are freer and broader. It’s a give and take between the public and the private until the physicalities meld together and any boundaries are forsaken.
Vandenbranden finds humor in a series of outlandish – and unbelievable – acts of physical manipulation. The six person ensemble creates the effects of a gale force wind with only a sound effect and bodies that are trained to somehow show the result of such a meteorological phenomenon without the cause. The dancers tilt their bodies in gravity-defying shapes, obviously relying on an insane amount of muscle control and strength. The real miracle of what they do, though, is that this same idea is repeated many times, but it’s never exactly the same thing. The wind isn’t blowing the same way and sometimes they’re holding props or it’s also snowing and they calibrate their physical feats to include these various other factors. It’s one trick, but with myriad variations.
There’s a small amount of plot, though calling it that is really the wrong classification. The events that transpire are more like a mood board of archetypes pasted next to each other. In one trailer, a woman is pregnant and alone. Across the snow, there are two connected trailers. The one upstage contains a male-female couple who are fighting as soon as the show begins and the man is revealed to be, most likely, the father of the pregnant woman’s baby. In the third trailer downstage, an older woman and two younger men live in an arrangement that is not entirely clear, but she does breastfeed them, so she’s probably their mother. One of these men attempts to court the pregnant woman several times, but she is only interested in the baby’s actual father. In one of the most visually arresting sequences, this man stands outside the woman’s trailer and imagines their wedding day, and her curtained window transforms into a wedding veil before we’ve even realized what’s happening.
There’s a thread of stage magic that runs through Vandenbranden. People appear and dissapear through the sides of trailers. The older woman stands atop a trailer clutching a light post and wearing what appears to be some kind of stuffed creature. At another point, she suddenly appears with a gun and sings “Casta Diva.” Almost everyone slams their body against the trailers and some of them appear to fly back from the siding as if they’re attached to wires. Maybe they can actually fly, I have no idea. The magic renders this patch of trailers an anything-can-happen aura, which makes it scary, but mostly amusing. Whenever you think something bad is about to happen, it doesn’t, there’s a subversion of the inevitable that twists it into comedy.
Until it doesn’t. The play begins with a baby being buried in snow, a shocking act that is a bookend to the zany middle section. But the other bookend is just as shocking. A sacrifice is made, a body part is offered, and a character stays dead, even during the curtain call. They’ve distracted us with laughs and good-natured gasps of awe, but there’s something tragic lurking under it the whole time. It got me, I fell for it, and then I was destroyed when the revelation came that I’d been duped. It’s a great trick and it makes for some fantastic theatre.