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Flash Review, 5-14: Don't look back
Lost and found with Marie Chouinard

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Dance Insider and ExploreDance.com have combined forces to provide exclusive coverage of the Paris dance season. The DI's Paris bureau is also sponsored by Therese Poletti, Eva Wise, Linda Ramey, Marcello Angelini, Tulsa Ballet, Maura Nguyen Donohue, Alison Chase, Donna Scro Gentile and Lisa Grimes of Freespace Dance, Catey Ott, Darrah Carr, Robert Johnson, Mark Whitmore, Nancy Reynolds, Catherine Monnig Levine, Jean Warmbold, Stephan Laurent, Sheila Marion, and Martin Ringel. To find out about sponsorship opportunities for all budgets as well as super-discounted advertising on the DI and ExploreDance.Com, e-mail us.)

PARIS -- I first met Marie Chouinard, whose "Orphee et Eurydice" had its French premiere Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, where it runs through next Tuesday, in 1995 in New York. I was green, so to have this reputedly eccentric Canadian artist serving flowers at our interview impressed me. I was less wowed by her version of Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps," which was just a bit too stripped-down downtown for my tastes. But my cousin, a playwright and drama professor, was emarvelled (if you'll pardon the Franglais). We saw Chouinard's 'Sacre' the night of the day Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated (a sacrifice, after all). I remember because my cousin was not even sure he was up for the theater. Afterwards he thanked me, saying it had been the perfect antidote.

What I love about Marie Chouinard's "Orphee et Eurydice" is its unrestrained DANCE brio. Even when it's tragic, its execution is joyous and vivant. Credit here goes to the choreographer for her commitment to her movement and dramatic themes, her creative and technical rigor, her expansive rapacity with the playing space, and for giving her dancers a lot to work with, but it also goes to the 14 dancer-interpreters for their sincerity. Because if one looks at the choreography objectively -- apart from its interpretation by this cast -- it's often marked by a ribaldry which could have been played and interpreted ironically, mocking the myth. We're talking about a show where the performers wear gold-colored nipple rings linked, for the women, by chains. And where an early scene starts with the men appearing with penis attachments -- more highlighted then obscured by being silhouetted -- and ends in mass, lusty, unrestrained, exhibitionist humping by all the couples. And a work where there's lots of inchoate moaning. And more than a bit of camp: In one sequence where we finally get to a literal rendering of the story, a narrator who may be an actual hearing-impaired person speaking or may be imitating what sounded to me like a deaf person's speech relates the basic story, with text projected on a screen upstage translating him moments after, as the actor-dancers play, tableau-like, the various chapters. My favorite involves the three-headed dog Cerberus guarding the entrance to the Underworld, portrayed by three threesomes of dancers mock-menacing then mock-docile after Orpheus serenades them. But in this whole sequence, it's like Chouinard is rewarding us for giving her some lee-way in the very loosely Orpheus and Eurydice related first third of the dance-play by finally acting out -- even spelling out -- the basic legend in a carefree, break-neck fashion.

Where we go from here is a deliciously gutteral venting of the emotions involved and invoked in this story, as Chouinard and her gutsy and lusty interpreters offer various variations on the myth's central theme. The most stunning moment for me was when the lusciously blonde Lucie Mongrain suddenly crashed through the fifth wall and stepped up into the audience, mounting the steeply scaled seating to the middle reaches -- at one point she stood between another legend, Carolyn Carlson, and me -- while emitting a breathtaking paene, until two men retrieved her. You can't fake it at this proximity, and Mongrain was just as authentically suffering close up as up onstage.

If I have a complaint, it would fall into the terrain that probably most annoys choreographers like Marie Chouinard, so I'll ask her indulgence for just relaying it as I felt it at the time: I thought the 70-minute piece might end when all the dancers shuffled laterally across the stage to composer Louis Dufort's Brazilian-style fanfare. But I quickly revised this thought at what I now remember as the actual ending, an intimate duet in which a woman who could be Eurydice revives a guy who could be Orpheus after he appears to be in his death throes, arching his back in his passing. He'd been moaning earlier, tragically punctuating an otherwise celebratory group dance.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard in Marie Chouinard's "Orphee et Eurydice." Michael Slobodian photo copyright Michael Slobodian and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Along the way there are lots of gold bells, being stuffed into crotches and then magically pulled out of mouths, and rolled across the stage en mass; there's a poetic snake dance -- in which each of a line of dancers traversing the lip of the stage has a wiggling snake jutting out of the mouth -- executed, like much of the group passages, in an almost hieroglyphic line that recalls Jerome Robbins's "Antique Epigraphs."

And, oh yes, it should be said: Don't be deceived by the at times outlandish ambience. Chouinard is a serious, grounded dancemaker who counts on confident and masterful technique that is precisely articulated. At one point I noted that amidst all the apparent madness, the women's releves were crystal clear in their rhythmic pacing and definition. As Jeanne Liger put it in the program notes, from her first solo "Cristallisation," Chouinard has done ferocious work on "the gestures which escape" and with "the rigor of the classical vocabulary."

After the performance, I had the temerity to ask Marie Chouinard if she chose "Orphee et Eurydice" as a vehicle for the movement, or if she chose the movement to reveal the story. (Temerity because for a critic, this is kind of like a student asking a professor for the code.) "I started the choreography before I thought of 'Orphee et Eurydice,'," she explained. "And then when I started the choreography, I realized, 'This is about 'Orphee et Eurydice.'"

Marie Chouinard gets a lot of press about being... special. Even the program notes for the Theatre de la Ville describe her as a woman 'hors-norme.' I'm not sure that this serves her, as it suggests that Chouinard's aesthetic is at least affected, if not driven, by just the desire to set herself apart as wierd. In fact, based on what I saw last night, verified by our brief conversation afterwards, I'd say she's the most admirable kind of artist, the kind always ready to surrender to the Muse.

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