Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work for 'Trois Grandes Fugues'. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is a program of three separate works each set to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, opus 133. Any dance can offer access into its music. Might three distinct choreographies set to the same music enhance that experience threefold?

Originally composed for string quartet this is dense and passionate music. Here, to different recordings, are set the works of choreographers Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin. Would Beethoven have accepted them all? withheld copyright? encouraged the endeavour? been flattered? had preferences, maybe even a favourite? How about you? Is there any purpose to rhetorical questions? (Of course there is. I ask them all the time and like the fact that they invite but don’t insist on answers).

Childs’ dance was calm, analytical (she had opted for an orchestral version with its larger merged sound, very different from the distinct instrumental voices in the quartet used by the other two choreographers). Here the music score moved the dancers, six couples, through many combinations and permutations, torsos and limbs, verticals and diagonals, within the theme and variations, but chose not to transition the performers into a human, social, dramatic or poetic space. They danced to us.

Scene from Lucinda Childs’ Grande Fugue in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Stofleth

(It made me long to see a revival of the similarly abstract yet highly resonant Prismatic Variations, choreographed by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr, from our own national ballet company repertoire).  

In real contrast, De Keersmaeker’s choreography was energized by its dancers, six men and two women, excited and committed performers, occasionally stepping back for a breather or to adjust their clothing—then up and at it again, full tilt, every move delivered with clarity and light. They danced for us.

Marin’s piece opened to music only, in the dark. What a powerful reminder of her extraordinary MayB, brought to an earlier festival here. That work distilled her encounters with Samuel Beckett and all the characters in all his plays—opening with a long strain of Schubert played in the pitch dark. (‘I’ve forgotten half my life, but I still remember this’—that’s Leonard Cohen in posthumous song lyrics). Then came the dancers, a quartet of women in dark red dresses, one dancer per instrument, absorbed into Beethoven’s emotion. They were occasionally airborne in galvanised elevation but only as attempt to escape, not to celebrate. At one point they moved forward and sat at the front of the stage, as if to explain something. They danced inside us. 

Scene from Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo: © Jaime Roque de la Cruz

The clean, the engaged, the deep? the morning, the evening, the night? air, water, earth? cerebral, social, wild? skin, flesh and blood? reveal, illuminate, absorb? Which would you remember the longest? Which would you prefer? You can of course say yes to everything if you don’t want to judge or to choose.

For this Festival season the artistic director invited three artists to take a week each in a lightly defined curatorial role, to guide us in anticipating and accessing their take on the forthcoming program highlights.

I accepted this as a personal invitation to curate my own Festival (which we all do to some degree anyway, depending on family responsibilities and other constraints)—so my curated version of Trois Grandes Fugues opens with New Zealand String Quartet sitting centre-stage playing the Beethoven through, first as music alone. (It’s in their repertoire, actually now in their dna, and they performed it here in recital only a few weeks ago. The players are second to none in the world so how ironic to have been sitting beside them in the audience). After all, musicians in a string quartet move in a kind of miniature ballet all their own—sustaining urgent eye contact, exchanging taut gestural signals and cues among themselves, not sending communication just one way towards a conductor who is controlling an orchestral ensemble. I’d have asked them to play it again for each of the three choreographies. Then as a sublime and anchoring epilogue, we’d have sat, audience and musicians, in total pitch darkness, while they played it all again a fifth and final time. That way we’d have come to know the music in live renditions (I don’t believe audiences listen with care to recordings …) and the middle slow movement, searching among sadness for some hope, might have become ours to have and to hold forever

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Dance diary. October 2019

  • Ten years ago …

This website is now ten years old. While I initially went it alone, Jennifer Shennan from New Zealand joined me as contributor in 2014. Between us we have written 650 reviews, news items, and articles since the site went live in 2009.

My first post was really just a very small photo diary of an amazing few days I spent in 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a job for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was the last job I did for the Division and was an initiative of one of the Division’s most generous donors, Anne H. Bass. In those few days in Phnom Penh I helped set up a project to interview dancers who had survived the Pol Pot regime and who had gone on to perform, teach and pass on the rich Cambodian dance heritage. I sat in as an observer for the first two interviews, one with Em Theay, the other with Soth Sam On.

The full project, the Khmer Dance Project, was completed a few years ago and several of the interviews are now available online (with English subtitles as the interviews were conducted in the Khmer language). Here is a link to the online version of the very first interview, that with Em Theay, which was conducted on the terrace in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

I kept a diary of daily events during the short time I was there, largely so I could report back to the donor in New York. Looking back over what I wrote, the diary entries focused mostly on technical issues and how to improve the methodology of the project. But I also discovered a non-technical (more or less) incident that I had forgotten. I wrote for day five:

The working part of the day began with a tuk tuk issue when my regular tuk tuk man was not at the entrance to the hotel. I eventually got to Bophana [an audio-visual centre in Phnom Penh] but had to ask Pen [Hun Pen, the interviewer for the project] to work out whether this other guy was prepared to stay with us for half a day. Yes and no. Eventually no. Pen found someone else. I went to the interview location [the home of Soth Sam On] in the car with the crew. Pen, Pen’s boyfriend and Suppya [Suppya Nut, member of the project team] took the tuk tuk. The car got lost and the driver (the translator) took great pleasure in pointing out to me a rat eating at the garbage in one of the streets we went down.

The whole experience, despite the odd rat, was an amazing one and I returned to Cambodia on a private visit several months later when I visited the temples in Siem Reap. The featured image on this post is from that visit.

  • Adelaide Festival 2020

Next year’s Adelaide Festival has some interesting dance events. I am especially looking forward to Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois grandes fugues, a triple bill from three choreographers whose contemporary dance works I have always enjoyed—Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Maguy Marin.* All three have exceptionally individualistic choreographic styles and for this production have created separate works to the same musical composition—the 1825 Grosse Fugue by Beethoven. Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian in London, calls the show ‘one of the most exhilarating, uncompromising evenings of dance I’ve seen in ages.’

Scene from Lucinda Child’s work for Trois grandes fugues. Photo: © Bernard Stofleth

Then, having recently interviewed Lloyd Newson for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, I am looking forward to his revival of Enter Achilles. In addition, Australian Dance Theatre will be performing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem as directed by Romeo Castellucci.

For more information on the Adelaide Festival 2020, follow this link to the Festival website. There you can read more about the items mentioned above, as well as other dance works being performed, and can download the full program.

  • Norton Owen and Jacob’s Pillow

I was delighted to discover recently that my friend and colleague in the United States, Norton Owen, was honoured with the award of the prestigious Louis Rachow Distinguished Service Award by the Theatre Library Association in the US. The image and biography below are from the Association’s website.

Norton Owen
Norton Owen, 2016. Photo: © Bill Wright

Norton Owen is a curator, writer, and archivist with more than 45 years of professional experience in dance. He has been associated with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 1976 and has been Director of Preservation since 1990, overseeing the PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement, and archival access. He is the curator of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an acclaimed online video resource, and host of a new podcast entitled PillowVoices. In 2000, Dance/USA selected him for its Ernie Award, honoring “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance.” He has also received awards from the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, and the José Limón Dance Foundation, and he is a past chair of the Dance Heritage Coalition. In recognition of his 40th anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow, the Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor.

See also Norton’s advice for visitors to the beautiful venue that is Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, at this link. I hope to get back there in 2020.

  • In the wings …

As we head further into the eleventh year, watch this website for reviews and/or news of these upcoming November events:

  • Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek, which is season two in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations;
  • Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella from Queensland Ballet on tour in Canberra;
  • Bespoke from Queensland Ballet in Brisbane with new choreography from Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior;
  • Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel from Royal New Zealand Ballet;
  • Stanton Welch’s Sylvia during the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season; and
  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards for 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

Featured image: Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: © 2008 Michelle Potter

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

*Links to my reviews of Dance by Childs and Rain by de Keersmaeker go back to 2014 and 2011 respectively. My access to and capacity to embed imagery has changed markedly since then!

Dance. Lucinda Childs Dance Company

25 October 2014, Théâtre de la ville, Paris, Festival d’automne

Lucinda Childs made her hour-long work Dance, performed to music by Philip Glass, in 1979. The work was revived in 2009 and a filmed version from 1979, shot by visual artist Sol LeWitt as his part in the 1979 collaboration, was digitally remastered and used as an accompanying component in the revival. I didn’t manage to catch Dance in Australia when it was shown at the Festival of Perth in 2012, but the revival is currently touring in the northern hemisphere and I was lucky enough to see it recently at the Festival d’automne.

The title, as notes for the production tell us, was inspired by Merce Cunningham’s statement that dance is expressive only of itself, and by Gertrude Stein’s remark that ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’. Dance is indeed ‘about’ dance. There is no narrative and the work is most commonly regarded as an iconic piece of late minimalist art. But behind the facade of minimalism is a structural and visual complexity.

Artists of Luncinda Childs Dance Company in 'Dance'. Photo: Sally Cohn

Artists of Lucinda Childs Dance Company in Dance, 2009Photo: © Sally Cohn

The work consists of three separate sections each about the same length—twenty minutes. In the opening section, the dancers—eleven in the company I saw—move across the stage from left to right, mostly working in pairs, with their dancing pushed along comet-like by the Glass score. At first they seem to be repeating the same movements—small jetés (grands jetés style but done sideways); small turns; and off-centre, tilted movements—but gradually it becomes clear there are many small variations and changes of tempo, punctuated by moments of stillness, or moments when the stage is briefly empty. The footage, projected onto a scrim, follows the dancers’ real-time movements, giving two views of the choreography. At times the footage seems to be super-imposed onto the dancers. Sometimes still shots from the film appear. Sometimes single figures are there. Sometimes the projections are above the dancers, as if the stage space is a two-storeyed structure. Sometimes the screen is split.

This technique, finely integrated with the performance, produces some interesting results, not only because of the visual complexity it produces, but because it shows the different styles of the dancers of 1979 and those of today. While the dancers on film appeared to be much more relaxed and loose limbed, I admired the precision of the present company, especially in the arms and carriage of the upper body. Their dancing seemed to me to be much more aligned with the mathematical, or highly ordered qualities of Childs’ choreography.

The central section, a solo originally danced by Childs, begins with a larger than life-sized image of Childs, almost pushing itself into our space. At first it seems like a still from the footage, but then Childs blinks! After a while the image disappears and the solo in real-time begins, with choreography more focused on ‘every day style’ movements—casual walking and swinging of the arms.

In the final section the dancers work in fours and the floor patterns they create are square, or take on the form of a parallelogram, in contrast to the horizontal lines of the first section. The work comes to a climax superbly, with a quartet of dancers demonstrating the strength of the company’s technique—those fouettés sautés with arms whipping into stretched second position were beautifully executed. Then in a surprise move, which I probably should have expected, the work came to an abrupt end.

I was curious that the film showed Dance being performed on some kind of a floor cloth marked out in squares, large and small. Some had dark borders, others had lighter ones. It was like one of those puzzles that asks, ‘How many squares can you see in this drawing’? I assume this was Sol Le Witt’s work but I can’t be sure. I wondered if the original production was performed on this squared design, or whether it was created just for the film. But all in all Dance was a totally fascinating collaborative work full of intricacies, and splendidly performed.

Michelle Potter, 26 October 2014