November 2012

Scene4 Magazine - Maguy Marin's "Faces" | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | November 2012 |

Catherine Conway Honig

Maguy Marin
Celebrating 30 years of choreography at the Festival d'Automne Ă  Paris

When French choreographer Maguy Marin was first approached by the Ballet de L'Opèra de Lyon in the 1980s to create an original work, the director of the company specified the subject. Cinderella. And the music. Cendrillon by Serge Prokofiev. Why they would commission a choreographer known for her intellectual approach and her avant-garde sensibilities to bring this essentially silly tale to the stage is an interesting question. More interesting perhaps is that it worked.  

Marin looks back at that time and remembers how intimidated she was by the thought of working with a company of such highly trained and technique-focused dancers. It was not a question of feeling unfamiliar with the ballet vocabulary. Marin herself had received substantive early training as a ballet dancer and had apprenticed with Europe's then bad boy of ballet, Maurice BĂ©jart. Marin's concern about working with the dancers was that she did not want their technical prowess to distract from the essentially humane issues she wanted to explore in Cendrillon.  

Scene4 Magazine - Maguy Marin's "Faces" | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | November 2012 |

So Marin decided to put the dancers in masks. She conceived the idea as a way to destabilize the dancers in their creative process. She wanted to remove them from their comfort zone of presenting themselves purely through the strength of their physical abilities and skills. Marin envisioned that the process of using masks would not only present a unique challenge for each dancer to present her or himself but in also knowing themselves as artists. She saw the possibilities for each individual dancer to explore themselves on a deeper interior level than facing the mirror cranking out another set of triple pirouettes.  

The rehearsal process for Cendrillon began in the mid-1980s and the resulting work in three acts catapulted Maguy Marin to worldwide recognition. Sadly, I have never seen the work. It was scheduled to be performed at University of California Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall in the fall of 2001 but had to be cancelled due to the turmoil in New York.  

Imagine my joy in learning when I arrived in Paris in late October that the Festival d'Automne was presenting a resplendent retrospective of Marin's thirty years of creativity. Festival d'Automne is an enormous undertaking involving music, dance, theatre and film being presented in theatres, large and small, throughout Paris over the course of four months. This will not be my last visit to this ambitious and beautifully produced extravaganza of performing arts.    

Scene4 Magazine - Maguy Marin's "Faces" | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | November 2012 |

In 2011, the director of the Ballet de L'Opèra de Lyon once again approached Marin about a world premiere piece for the company. This time there was only one stipulation: she would have complete artistic freedom as long as she used all of the company's 28 dancers. (Dancers in France are represented by a strong union; it's the same one that represents the Métro drivers in Paris. So civilized.)

Whereas, when Marin began rehearsals for Cendrillon, she encountered some resistance from the dancers, times had changed and this time around she found them all open and receptive to her ideas. She set about creating a work simply entitled Faces with a sound score of borrowed music, random found sounds, and other noises compiled with and by her long-time collaborator Dennis Mariotte.

Scene4 Magazine - Maguy Marin's "Faces" | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | November 2012 |

The stage set at Théâtre de la Ville-Paris was simple, practical and utilitarian. There were no curtains or wings, just a black floor defining the wide open space with vertical panels of fun-house type reflective mirrors covering the entire upstage wall. Both sides of the stage were lined with heavy iron costume racks loaded down with various articles of clothing hanging messily on hangers and draping over the horizontal rod. There were two relatively small, stacked video monitors downstage at both the right and left sides, and a small black upright piano tucked into the corner near the audience, downstage right.  

The piece opens as evidently some of her other works do. One by one, each of the dancers appears wearing pedestrian clothes and walks to a spot on the stage. There is nothing remarkable about their entrances except the calm, open expressions on their faces. And, in my case, the growing feeling of regret that I was not going to have the pleasure of seeing a single dancer dance all evening. This opening goes on for quite a long time, until finally it becomes clear that all 28 dancers were going to make their entrance in exactly the same way.  Face the audience, and look at them with a pleasant air as if waiting for a bus on a pretty spring day without being in any particular hurry to go any particular place.  

This happens in complete silence. Or, more accurately, what was supposed to have been complete silence. A word about Théâtre de la Ville-Paris. This large, well-maintained theatre seats about 1,000 people and is nicely raked to allow everyone an excellent view of the stage. The advertised performances were all sold out well in advance; a fact that I found quite interesting given that Maguy Marin isn't exactly a well-known figure outside of modern dance circles, even though she is French and this is a major French festival presenting an ambitious retrospective. Théâtre de la Ville-Paris is located on the Right Bank just across the Seine from the Latin Quarter, on the other side of a walking bridge from Ile de la CitĂ©. It's a beautiful, historical and exciting area where the sidewalks are filled with hordes of students fully living up to the clichĂ©s by chain smoking cigarettes and talking with great passion.   

The theatre was packed with students. They seemed enthusiastic as they made their way to their seats but one couldn't help but be overtaken by the hideous smell of their cigarette-smoke infused damp clothing—it had been raining in Paris for about a month. Living in California, as I do, where cigarette smoking is socially analogous to beating a poodle in public, I am no longer accustomed to this horrible habit or its accompanying smells and sounds.  

Back to the performance, once the lights came down and the dancers, as I have written, began their slow meditative walks to their positions on stage, the audience members started to cough. Throughout the entire performance, which was supposed to have been punctuated by long moments of contemplative silence, one constantly heard coughing.  

Marin has written and spoken extensively about her inspiration for Faces. She is exploring notions of mass consciousness, indoctrination and the uses of propaganda. Her family was exiled from Spain when she was young and some of these questions seem to have stemmed from the atrocities committed during the 20th century, especially in the name of war. However, she also explores such banalities as the retail habits of the masses and mass consumption of products, such as Coke.  

After all 28 dancers make their entrance, the stage drops into complete blackout and silence (except, as always, for the audience members' coughs). When the lights come back up, the performers have divided into two groups, one group wears fake black beards and the other group wears sunglasses.  Two of the dancers wearing beards take the beards off and put sunglasses on. Then three more follow. Black out. Costume change. Several dancers cross the stage carrying bags from a popular Parisian retail store, FNAC, while the rest drink from giant cans of Coke as the sound score blares with first jazz then disco music.  

Scene4 Magazine - Maguy Marin's "Faces" | reviewed by Catherine Conway Honig | November 2012 |

Following another blackout and pseudo-silence in the theatre, the stage lights up again to reveal a few dancers in elaborate religious regalia including long embroidered robes. Slowly the group grows in size as more dancers appear from backstage wearing these weighty costumes. A voice over of a sunny-voiced American woman describes, in great detail, her strategy for raising funds for one of her many causes. As she digresses into her reflections upon how Marx never anticipated the level of philanthropy that is found today, especially in the United States, the dancers drop their robes and fall, progressively to the floor.  

One after another, blackouts followed by different tableaux created by the dancers depict types of indoctrination and shape shifting. Some of the images, such as men wearing crowns and a man wearing an American Indian headdress, are recognizable as archetypes. Other images, such as when the entire group gathers center stage with their arms wrapped around each other as war sounds blast through the speakers, are emotionally compelling.  

Rarely do the dancers actually show any dancerly moves but this piece could only be performed by trained dancers. It is complex and requires precise timing and placement on the stage. There are also sequences where athleticism requires one group of dancers to support and even elevate another, such as when a Madonna figure is elevated from the center of a group. Or, in a particularly beautiful sequence, when female dancers, bent and struggling, support the full body weight of male dancers.  

As the piece progresses, they begin to paint each others faces white with blackened eyes and mouths. This spreads, slowly, throughout the rest of the piece though at times the face paint is obscured by masks. A large group scene is a casual dance party as the dancers all crowd together and move in time to the music doing simple dance hall moves. Violent scenes are depicted, a Christ-figure appears, machine gun sounds, scenes of oppression as dancers hold others on the ground with the weight of one foot on the others' backs. A dead body is passed overhead as the dancers create a long diagonal line. Then the dancers begin appearing in extremely high heeled shoes. The women first cross back and forth in a high-fashion stride and then the men. The lighting is such that only the lower legs can be seen—but what legs! Many of the dancers move downstage and are revealed in a pool of light to be wearing long, thick flowing blond wigs. A Karl Lagerfeld figure emerges.  

Still in white face paint with severely blackened eyes and mouths, in the final sequence each of the dancers leaves the stage alone as a video image of their face before the hideous makeup, looking innocent and open, is projected from the monitors.  

The dancers execute each vignette with precision and polish without looking mannered or staged in any way. Marin's direction keeps them in the present and keeps the piece from seeming like a long series of random events. It is the quality and commitment of the performers that enables this potentially disjointed quality to work in creating a whole. However, once it is all over, it must be said that the piece lacks a dramatic arc. While this may be intentionally designed to show the random and ongoing nature of man's culpability and malleability, it also feels somewhat unfinished.

Once it was clear that piece was truly over, the dancers lined up across the stage for their bows. To my enormous surprise, a large portion of the audience erupted in vicious booing. Then a competing force in the audience yelled Bravo! As the Bravos! drowned out the Boos! I felt that the entire sequence could have been part of the choreography. I leaned to the woman next to me and explained that I am a dance critic from the U.S. and I had never experienced an audience response like this. Was this normal, I asked. She equivocated in that very French style, as if to say yes and no at the same time, and then elaborated that it was probably because the audience was filled with students. They were probably expecting more of a classical performance, she posited.  

It was an exhilarating example of how quickly opinions can shift. In the end, the dancers received a long and appreciative round of applause.  

Festival d'Automne Ă  Paris runs in theatres throughout Paris until the end of the year including many more presentations of the work of Maguy Marin. www.festival-d'

Photographs courtesy of the Festival d'Automne.


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©2012 Catherine Conway Honig
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Catherine Conway Honig
Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in
the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Writer for Scene4.

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