Sept. 30--The initial performance of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's International Festival of Firsts by Compagnie Marie Chouinard was a brilliant success that culminated in the U.S. premiere of the Montreal-based choreographer's "Gymnopedies."
Chouinard formed her company in 1990. The 11 dancers who performed Sept. 27 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, were well-disciplined and expressive, and displayed extraordinary stamina for what is very high-energy choreography. Several dancers were impressive in other ways, such as one who gave a dramatic delivery of extended poetry by memory, and several who played piano by memory, too.
The program opened with the slightly older of the two works on the program, "Henri Michaux: Mouvements," which the company first performed in August 2011 in Austria.
The piece begins with a solo dancer in black assuming the shape of individual drawings from Michaud's book "Mouvements," performed in front of a large white sheet on which the drawings are projected. Chouinard's development of this vocabulary includes extended riffs with multiple drawings.
The ballet is performed to an aggressive and noisy score by Louis Dufort which, like it or not, is perfectly suited to the nature of this ballet.
The dancing is angular, convulsive and fearless. The dancers don't speak, but several roar. The effect is edgy and primal, just on the verge of being human.
"Gymnopedies," which was first performed in June in Portugal, is a witty and primarily joyous exploration of the duet. The first music heard is from Richard Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," a clear signal of erotic longing but, except for one return of Wagner's music, the rest of the ballet is performed to the cool, gently regretful and haunting piano pieces by Erik Satie, which are the ballet's title. Dancers play Satie's music live at the piano while their colleagues dance.
The action begins with dancers paired and enclosed in big sheets grouped together at the left front of the stage. Their hands peep through the small opening at the top, looking vaguely like an Indian teepee. Each pair in turn sheds the sheet to walk naked to an opening in the backdrop through which they disappear.
Chouinard's subsequent exploration of coupling, mainly clothed, includes ones with conflict. Harmonious pairings are filled with unexpected developments.
There is an inherent wit in the way Chouinard plays with movement, but humor becomes a significant factor in itself when one of the women dancers puts on a small, red clown's nose and others dancers follow.
Chouinard is more enlightened than to think humor is always at someone's expense. Her good-natured humor cuts loose after the curtain drops for more than a minute in what is a joke, a false stop that is not actually the end of the ballet.
The rest is an uproarious jest continuing that joke. Pairs of dancers perform amidst the audience: one pair in the middle of an aisle, another in the middle of a row. Simultaneously onstage, Chouniard runs through a sequence of bits that produced gales of laughter from the audience as performance and curtain call routines mixed.
(c)2013 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
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