Review: Marie Chouinard - Double Bill - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 20 & 21 June 2016
Reviewed by Sarah Kent - Wednesday 22 June 2016

Marie Chouinard - 'HENRI MICHAUX MOVEMENTS - dancer Carol Prieur ©Marie Chouinard

Performance reviewed: 20 June

What a contrast! This double bill by Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard dramatically divides opinion. I hated the first piece but loved the second half, whereas my companions felt exactly the opposite. So outraged were they, in fact, that they left early – driven out by Louis Dufort’s pounding electronic soundtrack.

Soft virtuosity, still humid, on the edge opens with a dancer walking back and forth across the stage; her companion soon joins her. They could be from Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks except that this is not comedy. As they drag a foot, jerk a head and arm or limp, hop, twitch and gyrate back and forth, they appear to be parodying the spasmodic movements of people with cerebral palsy.

The more the dancers multiply, the more this dance macabre seems to have little purpose other than to entertain. And from here on in, the piece unfolds as a disjointed sequence of arresting ideas that have no foundation in genuine feeling and, without this anchor, float into the realm of specious visual spectacle.

Two women sit in a tight embrace on a revolving disc. As they slowly circle, a video camera captures every gesture and facial twitch; enlarged and repeated to infinity, the image ripples out to fill the back wall with a blue-tinged view of euphoria. If this glimpse of heaven served a purpose, it could be mesmerising; all it does, though, is turn the dancers into cyphers whose physical presence is subordinated to the production of impressive pictures.

Recently at The Place, Philippe Blanchard used video to explore the discrepancy between the tacky on-stage reality and the beauty of the on-screen image that it produced. It was a powerful reminder that it’s wise to question everything you see on screen. He also explored the drama of phoney emotions as captured on video and amplified by projection. This terrain was fruitfully mined in 2000 by American artist Bill Viola. Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) at London’s National Gallery, Viola produced Quintet of the Astonished, a video showing actors miming the emotions portrayed in the painting. Projected in slow motion, these silent expressions of dismay, shock, despair and horror form a moving (in both senses of the word) exploration of human feeling and its manifestations in posture, gesture and expression while at the same time questioning their veracity.

So when Chouinard’s dancers walk back and forth between cameras like a troupe of method actors extemporising distress, I am overwhelmed by a sense of deja vu, especially in the absence of any context that gives their perambulation any meaning beyond the visually arresting.

And when they form a tableau with the sole purpose of striking dramatic poses for the camera as they inch their snail-like way across the stage, I sink into a coma of boredom. The motto: if you borrow an idea, you should have good reason for doing so, or else find a way of developing and extending the idea. A ten year moratorium on the use of video in dance might be a good starting point.

By contrast, Henri Michaux: Mouvements is unadulterated pleasure. Probably under the influence of drugs, the Belgian-French surrealist Henri Michaux produced an inspired series of ink drawings loosely resembling the silhouettes of people and things in motion. Also a poet, he penned the following lines that give some indication of the free flowing idiosyncrasy of his black blobs and fluent brushstrokes. “Man who thrashes the parrot/who has no joints/ who does no farming/ goatman/ crestman/ with spines/ with shortcuts/ tuft man, galvanising his rags/ man with secret supports, rocketing far from his degrading life…”

Using the 64 page book of drawings as a score, Chouinard set her dancers the task of bringing the still images to life. Of course, it’s impossible for a three dimensional body to imitate a brushstroke or an ink blot, but therein lies the fun; its fascinating to watch the various strategies adopted by dancers attempting to translate into movement the rapid gestures and looping lines that we see projected on the wall behind them.

Appropriately dressed in black, some imitate the comic silhouettes with static poses, while others translate the swish of the brush into sequences of delightfully eccentric moves. Then come the pairs, trios and gangly clusters that convulse in hypnotic harmonies to embody the dynamism of the marks (Michaux was inspired by Oriental calligraphy).

Grabbing a mic and crawling under the carpet, a dancer speaks the lines of Michaux’s poem, while her colleagues continue to prance and pose around her. Her rendition is a tad melodramatic, especially considering the wacky irrationality of the poem. And perhaps inspired by Michaux’s lines “To the noises, to the roaring … To the sounds of the balafo and the piercing drill … to the joltings, rumblings, surgings”, Louis Dufort has added a loudly pulsating soundtrack that includes industrial sounds resembling the creaking and groaning of a ship’s hull. Rather than adding dynamism, for me the electronics detracted from the subtle comedy and superb fluidity of the dancers’ moves, which were so engaging that I was able to blank out the irritant noise.

Best known as an art critic, Sarah Kent began writing about dance for The Arts Desk in 2012, only stopping when she was invited to serve on the dance panel of the Olivier Awards. A keen dancer herself, she brings a fresh perspective to the role of commentator.

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