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Carolina Performing Arts has presented the bold, often astonishing, Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard's company twice before, but on the 16th, Compagnie Marie Chouinard performed Gymnopédies (2013), a work that CPA had co-commissioned along with two European presenters.
The dance is performed to, and is inseparable from, Erik Satie's music of the same title, which was composed, in three parts, in the late 1880s and 1890s. This plangent, often dolorous, music for piano, with its clear colors and haunting spaces, has often reminded me of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's mesmerizing portraits at the height of the Pre-Raphaelite movement a generation earlier. Those painters, reacting to what they saw as the bloodless quality of pretty much all painting from Raphael onward, reached back to the imagined purity they thought they found in ancient times in order make their new art. It is not clear that Satie was reaching back to the Greeks for his modernism – in choosing his title he may have been influenced by contemporaries. But it does seem clear that Marie Chouinard has mined the Greek reference for some of her actions and images.
In ancient Sparta, the Gymnopaedia was a ritual dance performed by naked young men to display their martial and athletic skills. Satie's Gymnopédies seem a way to explore musically the combat, if you will, between fluidity and éclat, and between sound and silence. But they are composed in the most seductive of tempi – three quarter time – so the battle never seems war-like. Chouinard has fully converted the contests into sexual ones (her dancers are of both sexes) in her Gymnopédies, which brings this work into direct comparison with her version of The Rite of Spring (performed at CPA during the unforgettable 100th-year celebration of Stravinsky's music).
The musical sources being very different, the two dances naturally have different emotional qualities. But they both give the sense that we are being taken bodily through the music to a passionate world that feeds it. Chouinard likes to break the fourth wall, sending her dancers into the audience, but that in no way lessens the feeling of being teletransported to a world from which we are always actually separate, a world revealed by the permeable wall of music, that in turn reveals us to ourselves like a mirror. It was quite dizzying.
Chouinard is an imagist as much as a kineticist, and her Gymnopédies opens with pale shapes on the black stage, one of which is a wrapped piano, and a long dark wire slicing upward from it to the upstage lighting grid. A dancer in black crosses the stage to bend and hug the piano. From the group of roughly formed pale cone shapes, fingers emerge. Soon the dancers have wriggled out of their chrysalises, which puddle to the floor like sheets from a bed. Unrobed, if not quite naked (there is only one brief sequence of full nudity), they begin a series of duets, stylized sexual pursuit and conquest, while two of their comrades in turn square off with the piano, their relative lack of expertise highlighting the music's odd uncertainties.
The dance's second half takes an unexpected twist into absurdity, complete with red Rudolph noses for all. It felt strange to be laughing at a Marie Chouinard concert, but soon the mix of eroticism, absurdity, surrealistic imagery and playful satire was too much, and guffaws broke out around the room – confused laughter, but still laughter. Confusion was a small price to pay for being truly surprised – out-thought and truly surprised – by a choreographer who has such exquisite command of all her artistic elements: kinetic, visual, spatial, aural and intellectual.
Surprises continued after intermission, when the troupe performed Henri Michaux: Mouvements, from 2011. Chouinard based this dance on the Belgian writer's 1951 book, which included 64 ink drawings (sort of calligraphic Rorschach blots) as well as a long poem. Each ink drawing is projected hugely on a "page" on the back wall; a black clad dancer looks at it and then emulates it. The mark then takes its place on a smaller page beside the central one, and a new dancer and a new mark "write" in the center, the increasing tempo of the sequences seemingly driven by a sound like an old lead-type newspaper press printing at speed.
Chouinard is a choreographer who chooses her dancers to achieve a certain look, rather than working with a diversity of body types. Chouinard dancers tend to be long-limbed and slim-built, making them ideal for calligraphic expression. Just when all the calligraphy was getting a bit tiresome, it's completed – the press stopped…and one dancer slipped under the white Marley with a microphone. You could see her face, but it was impossible not to think of Le Petit Prince, and the elephant inside the snake. Up until this point, one might have been making mental comparisons with other choreographies concerning the relation between writing and dancing (e.g. those by Lin Hwai-Min or Shen Wei), but that dancer under the Marley derailed all comparisons.
Still panting from the dancing, she recited the poem (in French, but CPA provided an English translation in the program), which is wild and strange, full of verbs and boiling with activity. And in a circle of light, unclothed dancers echoed the poem's wild language using all 64 characters in an increasingly frenetic dance, the pitch of emotion taken to a nearly unbearable level by the simultaneous use of fast-strobing lights. It was another mind-searing performance by Compagnie Marie Chouinard.