Stripped to the Essence: Compagnie Marie Chouinard Goes to the Throbbing Center of THE RITE at Carolina Performing Arts

Compagnie Marie Chouinard first came to Chapel Hill from Montreal in 2009, with a jaw-dropping performance of Chouinard’s Orpheus et Eurydice, which was co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts. (See my review here.) It was clear that the astonishing imagery and take-no-prisoners attitude hadn’t just popped up out of nowhere for this commission–this work must have grown out of a long history of daring. This year, CPA included the company in its year-long series , The Rite of Spring at One Hundred, focusing on Igor Stravinsky ‘s music and the dance allied with it. The October 14 program included Chouinard’s 1993 version of The Rite of Spring, and her 1994 re-interpretation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for Claude Debussy’s 1894 Prelude d’Apres-midi d’un FaunPrelude to the Afternoon of a Faun–and we could see that she had worked for quite a long time with many of the elements that made her Orpheus so explosive.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s solo, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Photo: Sylvie-Ann Paré.

Sex is at the heart of both works. Chouinard uses everything available to get at the eroticism inherent in the music and the historical responses to it. Although the works are replete with carefully crafted detail, there is no frippery. In her art, the dancers are animals, human animals, imbued with the unselfconscious procreative force that determines life. As a viewer, I find this incredibly refreshing. No mewling about self, no navel-gazing, just provocation to think because you perceive sensually.

The brief Faun solo is somewhat limited kinetically, but richly imaginative visually. On the 14th, the Faun was danced by a woman, Dorotea Saykaly. Because we knew this from the program, we had to deal with whatever feelings might arise from her extended phallus. Yet it was difficult to think of the dancer as anything but the Faun after about 30 seconds. The lighting design (Alain Lortie) emphasizes the partially-matured quality of the young male creature created by the costume, which is padded out in places–one thigh, one calf–and bristled in others, with a single antler echoing the erect phallus. The Faun prances in and out of highly focused white light beams as the music frolics along. Ultimately, a low red sidelight catches him, visually engorging the phallus, and he ruts upon the ground. The shower of stars falling on him at the climax was less imaginative than the other components, but it made an effective final punctuation mark.

Chouinard’s The Rite of Spring, with its ten dancers, was far more engrossing. The dance opens to susurrant, panting music by Rober Racine, Signatures sonores  about 15 minutes long). The word “pheromones” kept floating up in my mind while hearing what could have been an insect orchestra. On a stage pierced by arced shapes (emergent buds, phalluses, horns, claws), some dancers appeared in cones of light, on their backs, arms and legs tentatively angled and reaching–as if they were emerging from pupae. Throughout the piece, these cones of intense light beamed on here and there on the stage (lighting design by Chouinard), illuminating individual dancers, and doing startling things to our perceptions of space and time as they sculpted the velvet dark around them. When the cones were not active, the overall lighting was even, but never bright, and had a portentous quality, urging the troupe to action. Once the creatures had emerged in mating form, darkness fell for a moment, while the first bars of Stravinsky’s bassoon motif floated out.

There is no common phrase to say what happens after those notes. You can’t say “all hell breaks loose,” because it is not hell. You can’t say “the heavens split,” because heaven has nothing to do with it. Maybe I can say “all earth breaks loose,” in dissonance and harmony. Chouinard has jettisoned the storyline hewed to since Stravinsky/Nijinsky in favor of getting right to the point: mating. The rite of spring is mating. No folk-costumes needed. These dancers wear nothing but snug black briefs, marked only with black stripes in a contrasting sheen, except when they wear some or all of the curved shapes in various locations and provocative arrangements. (Blessedly, there are no falsely modest bra-tops for the women.) The bodies gleam, magnificent in their power. The women wear their hair pinned in knobs studding their heads. All are red about the eyes. The reach, they chase. They pound, they rock, hips like springs. They stamp, they kick, they leap, they grab.  Spring drives them; they race with the music to its throbbing conclusion. Yet, that conclusion is not quite as satisfying as The Chosen One being held overhead at ritual sacrifice’s end. Chouinard returns to the insect images, and refrains from one last punctuating moment. In theory, I appreciate this–the wheel of life keeps on rolling; spring is but one season. But a sense of completion is generally a good thing at the end of a performance. Its finite quality is one thing that distinguishes art from life.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard dancers in spring’s true rite. Photo: Nicholas Ruel.

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