There is no wondering what Marie Chouinard thinks of the two creative works that inspired the two dance pieces of her program Saturday night at Alverno’s Pitman Theatre. Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies: simple, ambiguous, perhaps a little over-familiar. Henri Michaux’s Mouvements: revolutionary, profound, iconic. In either case, Chouinard’s take on the material is wholly committed and brilliantly executed.
Erik Satie’s three Gymnopédies are as mysterious as they were when they were composed in 1888. And Chouinard’s very theatrical dance setting–sometimes touching, sometimes gleefully irreverent–asks to consider all the possibilities. The stage seems part of a Christo project–everything (including the dancers and the piano) is wrapped in grayish fabric. One of the dancers, after doing a few comic stretching exercises, makes her way to the piano and plays. And slowly, the other dancers emerge from barnacle like fabric pods and make their way–naked–offstage through a flap in the backstage canvas. It’s ceremonial, erotic and gorgeous. But it doesn’t take long for the tone of the dance to shift gears. The pianist hits a cluster of wrong notes, another dancer appears to help her out and take over, and the rest of the dance seems governed by a roulette wheel of different tones and emotions. Early on, a spectacular pas de deux featured the long limbs of Valeria Galluccio extending and twisting in long arcs that seemed beyond the possibilities of human joints. There is gleeful, giggling erotic coupling throughout (some of it spilling into the audience and onto the laps of spectators), but also scenes of touching romantic melancholy, a partner abandoned in the midst of a champagne picnic.
And perhaps taking her cue from the music, which is without climax or denouement, there are fake endings and beginnings. The curtain drops midway through, the audience applauds. It raises again for what seems like a curtain call, but no—the dance goes on. A quartet in clown noses appears, performing a bit of schtick that hints, “What are we doing here?” A somber icon of a dancer takes her place on the piano, overseeing the increasingly chaotic world with a placid expression. Dancers perform a bit then step forward, eyes begging for applause. But it keeps going until finally, quietly, the lights blink out.
In contrast to the dreamlike Gymnopédies, Henri Michaux: Mouvements is defiantly single-minded. The Belgian poet was known as a surrealist of sorts, but his idiosyncratic ideas defy any label or school. Mouvements is a 64-page collection of ink figures (from six to 12 per page) that are like something between inkblots, doodles and schematic human gestures. In the middle is a long poem that includes lines such as:
electrified larva soul coming to bite the surface
soul of beatings and gnashing of teeth
overhanging soul always straightened again
(translated by Howard Scott)
We’re in the realm of the high-modern avant-garde here, when artists believed aesthetic ideas and abstractions that challenged perceptions could change the world. And Chouinard honors Michaux’s ideas in all their supercharged solemnity. To pounding, industrial rock music by Louis Dufort, dancers “enact” each one of Michaux’s hieroglyphs as it appears projected on a screen behind them. There is no ceremony or lyricism in the flow of movement. Instead, dancers frenetically rush into position and strike their pose, and then move on to the next one. Whether it achieves the transcendence that Michaux was striving for in his art, that’s for individuals to decide. But there is no doubt that it’s brutal, exhausting and uncompromising.