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Updated: June 1, 2013 15:50 IST

Contemporising the past

Ranvir Shah
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Darkened dervishes. Skeletal and vegetal motifs. Sexual frissons. A scintillating evening at the Paris Opera.

The Paris Opera is a grand institution. One enters to a welcome by tuxedoed staff who gently usher you in. The beautiful people of the dance world — artistic directors, choreographers and dancers, critics and the cultural cognoscenti — are all here in their finest. It’s a special evening at the Opera in this year’s Ballet Season. Its director of dance, Brigitte Lefevre, has commissioned a brand new work on Ravel’s Boléro, but it is preceded by three earlier pieces.

L’oiseau de Feu (the Bird of Fire), by Igor Stravinsky, which was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev in 1910 and reinterpreted by Maurice Béjart in 1970, is the first piece. The romance of the phoenix’s rising is fore-grounded by the heady times of the revolution and resistance, and carry just the hint of the original. Dancers in fatigues create patterns — assembling and disassembling with the interjections of the bird of fire.

Then came L’après midi d’un faune — the classic piece of ballet performed by the all-time great Vaslav Nijinsky. The faun in all his animal sensuousness is re-invoked in a wonderful revival by the dancers of the Paris Opera. The charm and delight of watching the nymphs, dressed in Greco-Roman costumes literally lifted off a Greek vase, come alive in the lilting music and gentle dance moves. There is an incredible sexual frisson between the faun and the grand nymph that must have scandalised the audiences of the early 20th century. The rocky landscape set is recreated authentically and we are transported back in time, revelling in the poetics of attraction created by Claude Debussy’s score. Immediately following this was Afternoon of a Faun — an interpretation of the earlier piece by American choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Finally the treat of the evening — Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s reworking of Ravel’s Boléro. Collaborating with the international performance artist Marina Abramovic, who also worked on the scenography, the work was a revelation of the wonders artistic synergy can produce.

The Boléro has meant many things to many people. It is a piece of music that moves you deeply as you are pulled into its ever-swirling vortex. On the stage the dancers are slowly spinning — darkened dervishes who, after a while, start collapsing on the floor. It is a constant; falling down and being revived by the pull of the music — like magnetised puppets

Slowly the capes come off to reveal gauze-like white gowns embroidered with skeletal and vegetal motifs — all white on white. The dancers’ tempo of entering a centrifugal energy on stage is further heightened by the spirals of grey electronic static, which falls on the floor with incandescent, sharp points of light. Circles from the floor intersect, reflected by doubling on a large mirror, angled diagonally above them, and create patterns. The spectacle lasts 20 minutes and the standing ovation is half that!

I come out enriched and am sneaked backstage to meet the team. Everyone is gushing. I tell them it reminded me of the worship trances of the goddesses of the Malabar, Bhadrakali and her sisters, their incredible tantric energy. Animist, primal, seductive and magnetic — the work is hauntingly embedded in one’s memory despite the simplicity. It is a true work of art.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui says, “I come from a Sufi tradition and found this material primordial and forceful; it allowed us to interpret many things through the spiral. The costumes were trying to evoke Mexico’s festival of the Dead.”

Damien Jalet, who has worked with him for over a decade now, says “It is the movement of ascending and descending and a certain magnetic force that is important to me in this piece.”

They are both thrilled to have collaborated on the conception and set with Marina Abramovic — who is known most famously for her performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York The Artist is Present, where she engaged with the audience for over 700 hours. “I knew their work and always wanted to do something creative with them,” she says. “Even though I have worked with dancers, this was a first for working with choreographers. This collective work has opened up many questions — what about the Boléro do we like? I think the repetition and the obsessive quality of the music provokes many sentiments. I find it electric; it evokes life, death, jealousy, love, hate, the erotic — all the extreme emotions. It’s like a shamanic ritual mixed with elevated spirituality.”

Three pieces of music — Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel. Four choreographers and their interpretations to contemporise those works in their times. What does an evening like this evoke? As the programme notes say, “Creations, reinterpretations, transpositions: the history of dance is built around this incessant back and forth between past and present, giving rise to a unique sense of time that goes beyond the human context.”

Finally, it is about contextualising in the contemporary. What was daring, subversive, exciting, revolutionary and shocking becomes over time dated, museumised and fossilised; yet it is celebrated in our collective memory. Think of the work of Uday Shankar in the last century, the work of Mrinalini Sarabhai, and finally that of the iconic Chandralekha, 30 years ago. They are all moments in the history of contemporary dance expression in India. Yet, the interpretation of Ravel’s Boléro showed me that the markers of modernity, the gate keepers of critical reinterpretations, will always show us ways to see things anew — recreating and reimagining — finally rejoicing in a contemporary relevance. That is, we could say after all, one of the purposes of all art.

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