writers on dancing


Cool Craft

Compagnie Marie Chouinard
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
October 22, 2005

By Rita Felciano
copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano

This past weekend, presented by San Francisco Performances, Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard made its much delayed Bay Area debut. While admiration for the ten fabulously trained and incredibly committed dancers never waned, the choreography, dazzling as it was, never managed to elicit more than cool respect.

The program consisted of “24 Preludes by Chopin” (1999) and “Le cri du monde” (2000)

Chouinard knows what she is doing. A skillful and experienced dance maker, she clearly translates her vision onto the stage. She creates a universe completely her own and fills it with creatures who inhabit it consistently and fully. Her dances have the crystalline edge of diamonds, they also could cut through glass. The work is unmistakably hers. That should be enough. Yet I found myself stunned by the quality of the dancing while my interest in the choreography never rose above dutiful acceptance. By the end of the evening that had descended into a “so what?” question.

There is something obsessive in Chouinard’s analytical approach to the human body. She has dissected it to the point where it has become an intricate machine—the infamous body as a dancing machine?—in which every part, every connection is made visible. But isn’t this what dance is supposed to do? Yes, but, the human being is more than just a body in action.

Most remarkable is the way Chouinard’s dancers can use the torso, no longer treated as an unit but divided into distinct parts. A movement can travel up a leg through the torso, rib by rib, and shoot out through an arm into the finger tips. It’s a wonder that the sections don’t light up as the current shoots through them. Yet what Chouinard does with that knowledge seems considerably less interesting than the vocabulary she has created for herself. Some of it may look influenced by street moves but Chouinard could never be a break dancer. This is dance which is easily understood, but difficult to love.

If the mock Mohawks clamped to the dancers’ heads and the black tape highlighting as much as covering genitalia in “Preludes” suggest punk, the choreography more often recalls pecking roosters or stalking ostriches. “Preludes” was the more likable of the two works, maybe in part because she had a good collaborator.

Chouinard took Chopin’s luscious romanticism and pointed to what these piano pieces also have, bones as solid as rocks. They make much out of little, not unlike the choreographer who here likes to restrict her vocabulary, moving it around, bringing it back, showing variations of it. Angled wrists, trembling fingers, rolling torsos, swayed backs figure prominently. So are repeated references to the friezes Nijinsky pioneered in which legs go one direction, the rest of the body in another. At one point a man stands in beam of light while a woman weaves and softly kicks her legs to the music. He is stationary, his arms hang stiffly in front of him, the sharply angled wrists point into the wings.

Some of the “Preludes” are quite short and built—like the music—on one well-defined idea. A man reigns in a woman who tries to escape. A dancer gets passed down a line-up like a bouncing ball. Another kicks and flails, oblivious to the soccer game—not really a game, just an action--around him. And yet another’s head is yanked to and fro by his pigtails. A trio of swinging arms looks like a set of rotating propellers. Except for one these encounters are quite neutral. Every time a woman, tries to address the audience, she gets sucked into a passing crowd. Finally one dancer comes in and puts an arm around her while another does the same to her shadow upstage. This simple gesture has enormous resonance in a piece in which stoicism rules. The beginning—in silence—is gorgeous. The ensemble, hands to chest, just stands, slightly leaning forward. And then a hand starts to tremble and they are off.

“Le Cri du Monde” leaves Chopin’s brilliant pianisms behind in favor of a raucous, synthesized score by Louis Dufort. It often sounded as if  stamped out to the movements’ requirements. “Cri” looks like something of a ritual by a churning mass of inchoate matter, maybe geological, maybe animal, maybe human. The piece tries to enact coming to terms with whatever these creatures are saddled with. Yet the work doesn’t invite empathy; it felt curiously distanced

Spasmodic and limping gestures suggest disease. Ravenous mouths and feeding actions evoke a frenzy of needs—sexual and other. Shouts and screams at first are silent but become vocal as they enter the screaming score. Three duets show variously flailing women dragged across the floor by their male partners. Hands reach, their closed fingers making the barest of contacts. Did that touch comment on Michelangelo’s and his sense of the divine spark being passed to humans, here absent?

Sometimes, whoever they are, the dancers move like  robots, other times their fierceness threatens to shred them into particulate matter. Nijinsky’s fauns resemble shoved steel plates. Or they giggle like school girls before stretching themselves into swayback trajectories.

These creatures communicate elementally, by touch. Two women snuggle up to each other, finding maybe comfort, maybe just breath, chest to chest. In one corner, another massages a man’s neck, and yet a third repeatedly comes to the rescue of a male dancer stuck in perpetual motion. Yet these gestures are almost swallowed by the cacophony of the remaining choreography.

“Cri” was fiercely danced, particular one long female solo towards the end, but ultimately the concept which gave rise to this extraordinary articulation of movement did not sustain enough interest for a second viewing. 

Volume 3, No. 39
October 24, 2005
copyright ©2005 Rita Felciano



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last updated on October 24, 2005