In 2004 Jérôme Bel, one of the most provocative performance makers of our time, created Véronique Doisneau, a solo for a Paris Opera Ballet artist who was about to retire. On the immense empty stage of Palais Garnier in Paris, Doisneau, in practice clothes, shared with the public reflections on her career, her favourite ballet moments and her thwarted dreams. The performance ended with a stroke of theatrical genius, when Doisneau highlighted the drabness of the corps de ballet’s lot by engaging, alone, in what the 32 swans do while framing the two principals in Swan Lake’s first duet.
The solo, available on video and on YouTube, provided the blueprint for similar works, such as the more recent Cédric Andrieux (2009). The personal history of the 37-year-old French male modern dancer, who moved to the States to become a member of the Cunningham company, is obviously different from that of the retiring ballet artist. Yet, Andrieux’s own biographical narrative also provides unique insights into the often remote world of dance, thus breaking any theatrical illusion in a truly postmodern/deconstructionist way.
While in Doisneau’s case the solo ended on a bitter note with her impending retirement, in Andrieux’s the narration concludes on a high note, looking at a potentially bright future. The work can be seen either as pure creative genius or as self-indulgent but I was totally hooked and loved every single moment, even though I was already familiar with the format and its delivery modes, namely the intentionally monochromatic tone of the voice, the held pauses, the way each dance section stood out, extrapolated from its original context. The dance interludes ranged from Andrieux’s graduating solo to an excerpt of his favourite work by Bel, via Cunningham and Trisha Brown.
In my view, this was the ideal way to start the new Dance Umbrella season, and not just because of the cutting-edge nature of the piece. Andrieux’s now bitter, now joyous recollections of Cunningham could be seen as a unique introduction to the first of the programmes that the Cunningham company presented last week at the Barbican, as part of its farewell season.
The three items presented on the first night dated from different periods of Merce Cunningham’s uniquely extensive creativity. In line with the ‘chance’ philosophy that Cunningham shared with composer John Cage and with which he worked all his life, they were not arranged chronologically. Which was a blessing, for one could sample different facets of the man’s creative genius in a relaxed, non-historical way. And enjoy it many of us did, captivated by the still vibrant modernism of each work, whether it was the cerebral, rarified inventions of the 1970 Second Hand or the mad postmodern actions of the 1958 Antic Meet. I only wish the company had danced them more consistently, as they did not look at their best all the time.
Another solo performance that premièred last week was Desh by and with Akram Khan. Khan knows how to fill a stage and enchant audiences with his charismatic game of words and dance. Yet this latest creation — which draws upon converging narratives and relies on the artistic efforts of Khan, visual artist Tim Yip, composer Jocelyn Pook and lighting designer Michael Hulls — suffers from an overcrowding of ideas which, despite being theatrically and visually enticing, detract from any potential pathos of the performance. It is truly the case that less — much less — would have been better — much better.