A study in contrasts: ‘Trois Grandes Fugues’ and ‘Black Velvet’

By Miriam Cosic

These performances by the Lyon Opera Ballet and Shamel Pitts at the Adelaide Festival explore the body’s formidable potential

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues. Photograph by Andrew Beveridge

The Lyon Opera Ballet is nothing if not game. In 2016, it decided to match up three modern choreographic pieces to Beethoven’s intellectually and emotionally exacting Grosse Fugue, which had critics bellowing when it was first played as the final movement of his late work, the String Quartet no. 13 in B-flat major.

It was howled down as incomprehensible, with critics blaming this on the composer’s deafness, so Beethoven pulled it and rewrote the ending of the quartet. He later published the Grosse Fugue as a standalone piece, his Opus 130, and it has stood the test of time far better than the critics’ opinions. It now feels contemporary and utterly comprehensible. Even its tough contrapuntal score seems highly attuned to our fractured times.

The three dance pieces that make up Trois Grandes Fugues are very different in style, and respond to three very different musical interpretations of Beethoven’s work. All the choreographers are women. I wish this weren’t noteworthy, but it is still necessary to promote women choreographers, composers and painters – the artists whose job is to create, rather than interpret someone else’s creation. In this case, the dance is every bit as physically formidable and intellectually stringent as anything “the stronger sex” might devise.

Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin (American, Belgian and French respectively) are the women in question. Each of their works, danced to a recorded soundtrack on a minimalist stage, is utterly distinct in mood and tempo.

Childs’ highly formal work, commissioned for Trois Grandes Fugues, opens the evening. The recording is by the Lyon Opera Orchestra and has a suitably dignified tempo. Six couples, dressed in dove grey, dance in pairs in geometric sequence. They execute their arabesques and jumps and glides so lightly they seem to float, every so often breaking into brief contemporary diversions that merge seamlessly back into the spatial patterning they create. Childs is known for her swings between stillness and speed; here the dancers swing softly against the backdrop shadow of a huge lacy cage that two of them begin and end in, symbolising perhaps the beautiful constraints that apply to the flesh and blood of the human body.

De Keersmaeker’s version from 1992 is altogether different. Dancing to an almost punk version of Beethoven’s fugue by the Debussy Quartet, six men and two women, dressed identically in black suits, perform an equally regimented piece that is pushed to its physical limits with a masculine vocabulary in sync with the costumes. The dancers run and jump and fall and roll and rebound, often in line, sometimes in smaller groups, and with an energy that matches the intellectual drama of the music. It is exhilarating to watch. Slowly, as the piece progresses, the dancers begin to loosen their clothes, stripping to shirt or T-shirt; with no interaction between them there is no hint of sensuality.

The final piece, made by Maguy Marin in 2001, is all sensuality, though here too there is no physical interaction between the dancers. Four women, dressed in bright red skirts and tops, fly onto the stage like maenads, and don’t let up except for a few moments of exhaustion, perhaps, or despair. Hunching their bodies, flailing their limbs, falling to the ground, crawling along it, leaping back up as if reborn: the women wring all the emotion out of the Quartetto Italiano’s dramatic interpretation of Fugue’s dissonances and swells. Marin was an admirer of Samuel Beckett, and the only choreographer to collaborate with him. This piece shows their common interest in abstraction and in the insatiable need to find some meaning in existence.

Shamel Pitts’ Black Velvet is an entirely different experience. There is nothing intellectual or allusive to this work; rather, it seems to be a visceral response to the world that comes from deep within the subconscious of the two performers.

Pitts was a member of Ohad Naharin’s celebrated Batsheva Dance Company in Israel for six years before branching out on his own. He remained a devotee, indeed a teacher, of Naharin’s Gaga movement language, which develops flexibility, stamina, agility, coordination and efficiency – the standards skills of a dancer, one might think – as well as a deep and multisensory awareness of the body and its subconscious responses to gravity and other internal and external forces.

Pitts made his first show when he was 30: the autobiographical Black Box (2017). It embodied his desire to have the body do less but say more. Black Velvet is a development, a shared exploration of bodies in space, with Pitts and Brazilian dancer Mirelle Martins, who met when Martins took one of his Gaga classes in 2013.

The two of them worked up the piece together, resulting in a strange combination of primeval and post-human. Martins appears first, high above the stage, a commanding presence. She is naked from the waist up and has a skirt that cascades to the floor. She is spotlit and seems at times to be cradling an imaginary baby. Her height, it turns out, is because she is on top of a ladder that is being moved about the stage on wheels by a barely visible Pitts.

When the two of them are together on solid ground, an intense relationship is measured out in movement. Both are bald and wear only earth-coloured shorts. Their skin gleams, lit masterfully by Lucca del Carlo. They connect and disconnect in many ways: sometimes it echoes traditional dance, other times it is robotic, and yet other times it is sensuously passionate. The music shifts from the stillness of bells to high-tech thrash, paced by the protagonists’ movements. Pitts is sinuous and unpredictable, hard to look away from. Martins is more self-possessed, as responsive as proactive. They express the full gamut of interpersonal emotions.

The work is slight, compared to the masterful choreography of the Lyon triumvirate. Despite longueurs, however, it is moving in its own way.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues. Photograph by Andrew Beveridge

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