Anyone who acknowledges the common phrase that “everything in art has already been done” has never seen Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a Canadian dance troupe that last performed in Pittsburgh in 2009. Saturday night, the group kicked off the “International Festival of Firsts” and the Pittsburgh Dance Council season with incredibly unique artistry.
Ten dancers performed two pieces and a surprise epilogue after the excited applause and standing ovation faded. From start to finish, the show may have been the best contemporary dance to come to Pittsburgh in years. The choreography and performance were unrivaled.
The first piece, “Henri Michaux: Mouvements,” was a physical interpretation of Michaux’s book, which Chouinard discovered in 1980. Mouvements is a fifteen-page poem that includes sixty-four pages of “India-ink” drawings.
Each drawing in the book was projected, one by one, onto a white screen at the back of the stage. At the same time, the dancers performed a movement translation of the poem word for word, even dressed in simple black like the words on the paper.
The images looked part animal and part Rorschach ink blot, sometimes obviously shaped and other times open to interpretation. The dancers took their turn with solo material that mimicked the images. Although the movement literally mirrored each picture, there was no part of the dance that was boring. In fact, much of the uniqueness of the choreography came from the obscure look of the art.
That simple structure continued, as did the frenetic, bound and angular choreography that worked in harmony with Louis Dufort’s tenacious musical composition. The sound score consisted of electronic music with a pulsating rhythm that could have passed for hard rock.
The piece brought the visual art alive with tribal athleticism and raw, unfiltered honesty, and ended with a surge of energy. A single spotlight appeared on stage, while everything else turned to black and a strobe flashed continuously over the dancers who sped up the choreography in an amped up (nude) version of the movement. The result was remarkable.
“Gymnopedies,” the second work on the program, was inspired by duets, or “the duo, loving, erotic” as Chouinard put it. The dancers provided the musical accompaniment, a few of them taking turns to play Erik Satie’s gymnopedies on the piano.
The set was ornate with heavy, dark curtains and a dimly lit piano in the front right corner of the stage. Perhaps it was the ghost-like visual of the dancers wrapped head to toe in large sheets, but the stage appeared haunted.
Slowly, each dancer revealed themselves in the nude and walked purposefully as couples to the back curtain, disappearing backstage. They reentered in a clump, wearing black loose fitted costumes and melting into one another. Their mass of bodies moved across the stage leaving one couple to an eerie pas de deux, skittish but seamless.
The music became abrasive as one dancer pounded out the notes of the simple scale. Five dancers with their backs to the audience turned quickly around to face front, a look of surprise on their faces as the piano stopped with one funny and hopeful note.
In another notable section, two dancers circled a small spotlight that grew larger and larger. The pair eventually embraced and kissed, and continued in a duet of push-pull that became vocal and quite humorous. The piece ended with several dancers once again swathed in sheets. One couple remained, nude and moving toward the back of the stage in a spiraling phrase that felt like discovery.
When the applause broke and audience members moved toward the aisle, one dancer entered the stage signaling the evening was not finished. In a surprise ending, the dancers performed a broken down, absurd version of what we had just seen.
One woman reprised the piano music; later, another dancer played a recorded version on his portable boom box. A few of the performers stood at the front of the stage and explained the movement styles they had used in the choreography, totally deadpan. Eventually, some of the cast made their way into the aisles, sitting on audience members’ laps and comically flirting with each other in sexual play.
The humorous end to the evening was welcome after the intensity of “Mouvements” and the haunted beauty of “Gymnopedies.” One goal of Pittsburgh’s “First” festival was to “capture your imagination, challenge you to think BIG, and leave you seeing the world in an entirely new way.” Chouinard’s program did just that. Her work was innovative and hypnotic in a way I had never seen.