“Man not by abdomen and buttock plates or vertebrae but through his currents, his weakness what recovers from shock, his startings.”
So begins a selection from surrealist French poet and artist Henri Michaux, who asserts himself in Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s current performance at the Newmark Theatre. If you’re familiar with Chouinard’s electric, transgressive, and sometimes bizarre choreography, it makes sense that she would be drawn to Michaux’s poetic transmutations of the body. If you aren’t familiar with this award-winning Québécois choreographer, this weekend’s show will serve as an excellent introduction.
The company, making its fourth Portland visit through White Bird, has brought two pieces with it. The first is 24 Preludes by Chopin, is one of the company’s best known. It premiered in Vienna in 1999 and was first performed in Portland as part of White Bird’s 2005-’06 season, Preludes displays early hallmarks of Chouinard’s unmistakable movement in a rapid succession of short, effervescent vignettes set to Chopin’s preludes, most of which run less than two minutes. The second is Henri Michaux: Mouvements, which premiered in 2011 and travels deeper into Chouinard’s corporeal experimentation. Consisting of 64 pages of simple, energetic ink drawings, a 15-page poem, and an afterword, Michaux’s 1951 book Mouvements becomes a physical score through Chouinard’s literal reading of its semi-abstract, figurative blots of ink. The dancers, dressed in black Lycra, cavort across the stage in front of giant screens onto which the drawings’ contorted shapes are projected.
Chouinard’s movement is unmistakable, but more nuanced than it may seem at first. You might be tempted to write it off as grotesque or simply weird if you only experience it through internet clips. People often post gifs or videos of perhaps her most infamous work, bODYrEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS, in the comment sections of online discussions about modern art, as knee-jerk examples of its excess or strangeness generally. I can understand that take if viewers have only seen her work online, without seeing the amount of play and esprit in the performance or understanding the company’s dedication to exploring the movements and peculiarities of the body. Chouinard’s dancers in bODY_rEMIX pull exaggerated faces and crawl, flop, and bounce across the stage in little more than gauze wraps and touches of body paint, employing canes and crutches in ways they were never intended to be used.
Perhaps it would be fair to write off this piece as mere spectacle if it were Chouinard’s only major piece, or if it stomped with the grim seriousness that so many major companies fall back on. But for four decades, Marie Chouinard and her company have been probing the limits of human movement and developing a sharp, experimental style that stands, tenaciously, on its own. ArtsWatch’s Martha Ullman West described this style well in her 2013 review of Chouinard’s feral The Rite of Spring: “Her movement is physically demanding — torsos are torqued, knees turned in, feet flexed. Timing, control, and occasional effortlessness (a sudden pirouette in the middle of a solo, for example) are also hallmarks of her style …” (For a taste of how Chouinard conceives of the body’s range of expression, you can always download her strangely entertaining app for iPhone and iPad, Cantique. If you do, try directing Carol Prieur, one of the company’s veteran dancers and a lead soloist of this weekend’s performance.)
It is truly difficult to capture just what defines Chouinard’s style, but it comes across even when the dancers aren’t moving; Preludes opens with the whole company standing at a slight but tense forward angle, crackling with potential energy. The work is a spirited dialogue between Chouinard and Chopin across the distance of time and the borders between dance and music. Each performance feels like a movement study of the musical piece it’s matched with. To casual listeners of classical music, Chopin’s piano works can easily blend together, passing amicably without feeling substantive.
But Chouinard’s choreography reveals hidden depths and layers of humor and experimentation in these short compositions. Sometimes she accomplishes this with simple techniques, like staggering the distances between dancers and viewers to align with the primary and secondary melodies of a piece. At other points, minute, tense gestures work unexpectedly well with the trills and breakneck changes in Chopin’s riffs. One particularly light and charming duet feels like two sisters dancing in their room, making up moves as they go along, grinning with what looks like genuine joy. In another piece, someone chucks a soccer ball onto the stage from the curtains and most of the troupe plays an impromptu pick-up game that ends as abruptly as it started. In a review, it makes no sense why that would fit into a dance that interprets piano preludes written nearly two centuries ago. Live, nothing could make more sense.
It’s not just the dancers that bring Chopin to life in this show–these notoriously difficult and intricate pieces are performed live by musical prodigy Qi Kong. Remarkably, he only joined the performance less than two weeks ago when scheduled pianist Susan Chan had to cancel. White Bird reached out to Portland Piano International, which put out a call for musicians with Chopin mastery. Kong answered the call with talent to spare. He plays the 45-minute program mostly from memory, watching the dancers to fine-tune the synchrony between dance and music.
Mouvements, on the other hand, starts in silence, as Prieur demonstrates what is to come. Standing alone on the stage, with her hair hanging free, she strikes poses that correspond to the ink figures projected on the screen behind her. Any other troupe might lean into the lyrical nature of the dashed-off figures, or take a straight-faced approach, aiming for a neutral presence so the source material could shine through. Instead, Prieur projects a sense of tantalized thrill, as if the black-and-white ink figures were a tasting menu that she and the other dancers can’t wait to devour.
The quiet doesn’t last long: a full-frontal assault of noise music by electronic musician Louis Dufort kicks in after the first sequence and doesn’t stop for most of the piece. Like the use of strobe lighting in both pieces, this may prove too grating for some viewers, but it’s a considered confrontation. I honestly found it refreshing to see a dance performance that understands what happens when you blast music that’s all peaks and highs. So many choreographers throw generic-sounding, hard-edged techno music at the audience as a shorthand for intensity, but it quickly loses its effect from a lack of dynamic range. Here it’s real noise, used in a way that pushes the audience closer to the psychedelic roots of Micheaux’s work. The beats and tones merge into a drone that, as the ear acclimates to it, then breaks back into individual components. Like the ink figures and the dancers who embody them, the music loses itself and becomes itself over and over.
Noise music and mid-century surrealist drawings might not seem like the most suitable pairing, but things are different in Chouinard’s world. She looks as deeply into her source material as she does into the body and all its possibilities. Her point of view is undeniably strange, but she is always generous with her vision. She and her dancers never flinch in following the twisting paths they blaze, and they reveal new things to us. As I was leaving the show, I wondered if the twisting paths Chouinard and her dancers blaze seem strange because they are strange, or whether they’re what anyone would find if they followed them as far as the company goes.