San Francisco Performances presents Compagnie Marie Chouinard

The mysterious, the sexual

“At the root of each new work there is always what I call the ‘mystery’—an unknown wavelength that calls out to me … My work consists of capturing this primordial wavelength, of ‘tuning’ it in a sense, and of arranging it in space and time with a structure and form proper to it.” So writes Marie Chouinard about her work as a choreographer. No description could be more exact for the works that her dance group, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, presented last weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of San Francisco Performances.

During the evening the choreographer’s interpretation of two classic works of the early 20th century were placed back to back with a short bridging piece choreographed to Canadian artist Rober Racine’s music.

The opening dance used Debussy’s music and Nijinsky’s imagery for L’après-midi d’un faune as well as the original story from Stephane Mallarmé’s long poem “Le faune,” in which a young faun pursues seven nymphs and, losing them, collapses in a culminating erotic gesture. But Chouinard’s interpretation is more abstract—gone are the nymphs shuffling in Greek garb, replaced by shafts of light that cut through the soft smoky triangle lighting the stage.

While the body positions of Chouinard’s faun mirror the ecstatic poses caught in photographs of Nijinsky as the faun—shoulders twisted forward to the viewer, hips and legs bent goatlike, hands open with fingers close together and thumb curving out in a two-dimensional picture of a hoof—the dancer’s movements are more reduced than the original choreographer’s. She—and it is a she: the dynamic Lucie Mongrain—stamps back and forth on the stage in a continuous but circumscribed linear path that reflects the two-dimensionalism of a Greek vase, an Egyptian scroll, or a contemporary photograph. She is both artistic representation and essential primal animal.

The eroticism of the faun is obvious. At one point, unscrewing one of the long horns that grace the faun’s head, the dancer folds into her body and rises again with the horn attached to her groin, erect in a upward curve.

When the lights come up on the second half of the program, these curved penis-like appendages appear again, placed as if they were vegetation arising from the floor, as the ensemble dances the interlude that acts as a transition to The Rite of Spring. Through these thick shafts of wheat or stubby saplings, the dancers fall, stretch, crawl and curve into each other. Racine’s accompanying music is a sound-field of dry objects rubbing against each other. Unmelodic, barely rhythmic but musical nonetheless. And entirely in keeping with the sexual ritual unfolding.

Dark Rituals

The lights die down, and when they come up again we are in the dark sexual throes of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.

So many choreographers have been drawn to this music and to the idea of a rite of sexuality and the body, but none has approached it in the way Chouinard has. Like most, she has stripped away the original vision of Russian peasants celebrating some ancient sacrifice to spring. Her interpretation is like that of her Faun, in which shafts of light become the vivifying revealers of eroticism.

Where most have choreographed the piece as solos and pas de deux against a background of synchronized corps, Chouinard has chosen to open the piece as a series of solos. As each musical motif interrupts the preceding one, a shaft of light opens up on a soloist whose movements interpret the new motif, and the light on the first dancer fades. This synchronous illuminating and fading creates a strangely iconic effect, suggesting the disappearance of life through the ages as well as vivid, almost catastrophic, birth in the moment.

All the dancers are nearly naked, dressed only in short black pants; their eyes are surrounded by squares of red eye shadow; the women’s hair is gathered in tight, small knobs like nascent horns. Their bodies shiver and shake, taking on strikingly animal-like qualities: a couple thrust their noses and jaws at each other like mating birds.

Movement is percussive, following the rapidly shifting rhythms that make Stravinsky’s work so attractive—and so challenging—to dancers. And within those expulsive beats, the dancers move with fierce abandon.

Then, during a particularly lyrical moment, a creature appears—preternaturally covered with curving spikes extending from her fingers and encircling her thighs and upper arms. She becomes the incarnation of mystery, of life’s will to exist. We recognize her immediately and are drawn just as quickly into wonder and amazement. Too soon she is gone, faded into darkness.

—Jaime Robles

Originally appeared in the Piedmont Post