There’s a moment in Marie Chouinard’s Orpheus and Eurydice when, all the dancers onstage, a complexly and articulately-writhing energy comes over the ensemble and turns it into a mad bacchanal herd of grimacing, bug-eyed, hissing demons. It’s so sensorially overwhelming (it’s directed, like all of the piece, to play straight out into the house) one feels, without abstraction, like a witness to any given Sunday in the furnaces of Hades. It’s the hell-as-sexy-dungeon that’s become as common as the fire-and-brimstone nightmare of the Bible. The design palette is narrow, stage dressed as a white box, dancers changing in and out of their own personal wardrobes by Liz Vandal (baggy denimesque overalls worn bib-down, hotpants matching or in gold lamé, white fur accessories, and gold pasties) for nearly every scene. And there are a lot of scenes, far more than there are transitions between them.
It’s an odd choice to take a story with such a simple, iconic arc and interpret it as a succession of often-looping tableaux. But Chouinard isn’t interested in retelling the story. She does that as well, early on, charging Mark Eden-Towle with the task of hitting the plot points in a screwed, distorted voice spilling up out of compulsive, agonizing restlessness. To perform Chouinard’s movement is to be infected by it: Her vocabulary, classically-grounded as it is, is dance-as-possession, reminiscent of Jennifer Carpenter’s choreographic approach to the same in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. But this Orpheus consists mostly of these tableaux alone, studies on and extrapolations in movement of the myth’s central themes and images. Which is fine. When done in dance it’s traditionally a one-act; some kind of dissective approach needs to be taken in order to present Orpheus and Eurydice as an evening-length that isn’t just glacially-slow, and so Chouinard gives us stage pictures and motifs that fold the story over and over on itself, much like Orpheus must have forever relived in torture his ill-fated decision to turn and look. (As Sharon Hoyer mentions in her preview of Orpheus at NewCity, much of the material in this show existed in process in advance of the decision to use the myth as a framing device—this explains a great deal.)
The representations she chooses—three dancers making a Cerberus, a frieze-like walk out of the Underworld for two not linked by arms reaching forward and back—are clear upon every reprise, allowing her to repeat them in modified form, switching gender for example. Eurydice isn’t played by any one dancer in particular, nor even always female and, on a couple of occasions, it’s suggested that we the audience are Orpheus and the dancers (Chouinard?) Eurydice (although whether we’re damning the work by observing it, or what that even means, is never made clear).
There are an interesting pair of objects that have remained stuck in the teeth of my mind: Before the piece begins, the only thing onstage is a white cube lit from within, a zygote that shines with what’s to come. There’s also a brief appearance by a large, bouncing black ball with hair, like an SEM image of a virus or bit of pollen. I can’t quite place them into the context of the rest of the piece, but they’ve stubbornly stood out as two of this Orpheus‘ most enduring images. One thing I appreciate about Chouinard’s work is her maintenance of mystery. It’s an important piece of the puzzle, and to keep a secret, a good secret that feels pregnant with meaning never revealed, is enough understatement to temper here, at least somewhat, an otherwise unforgiving barrage of input.
A climax of sorts comes when Lucie Mongrain as Eurydice leaves the stage and climbs over chairs up through the audience; standing on armrests and seatbacks draped with coats, it was absolutely harrowing to watch her make her way up the MCA’s incredibly steep, nearly-full house. As she passes, two men (James Viveiros and I think Masaharu Imazu) yell at anyone that turns to watch her ascend, screaming “don’t look back!” in multiple languages. Chouinard’s piece turns a corner here; bringing the action offstage is probably the only way to sustain the fever-pitch she refuses to let up, and breaking the fourth wall breathes new life into the remainder of the show, which I found much stronger than the unmoored gratuitousness of its multiple overtures. For all the aggressiveness it has coming out of the gate, not until Eden-Towle’s monologue—a good fifteen minutes in—does it feel like it’s actually begun. For anyone not shocked by honking, dissonant music (by Louis Dufort, which I actually liked quite a bit), nudity, men in platform shoes and strap-on dildos, simulated hardcore fucking in creative arrangements, yelling, screaming, guttural utterances, jingle bells pretend-inserted into vaginas and worked through gesticulation up into and out of the throat et cetera, there’s not a whole lot going on. If you’ve seen CMC before, and I have, none of this is telling you anything new, nor is it all that germane to the work’s agenda. The first quarter of the piece feels as unnecessary as the last three-quarters feels lean and vital.
But these dancers, all of them, inspire awe. Even those not given a star turn focus like lasers and bore pure intention into your assaulted retinas. That said, Carol Prieur and Manuel Roque (who, curiously, is only mentioned by name in one corner of the program and doesn’t have a headshot and bio like the rest of the cast) stand out as genius. They’re monsters, machines and poets, vessels through which every shred of potential in their roles is not only exercised but exhausted. To watch them is to stand in the wind tunnel of their talent, your face peeled back to the skull.
Over thirty years in the game, Marie Chouinard is still proving her commitment to dancemaking of uncompromised intensity and visceral engagement. Someone’s got to be willing to go further than anyone else and, without artists who define boundaries by obliterating them, the form has no sense of history. Love it or hate it, Chouinard’s work is made in and about the present moment, even as it drills into the universal truths of a story over two thousand years old. Orpheus loses Eurydice irreversibly due to a concern so full it causes him to forget the terms of her safe return; this, his second chance, he earns only because of his mystical and entrancing talent with music and verse. Mystical and entrancing talents won’t get you out of every pickle, and some mistakes can’t be unmade. Running fragments of this lesson through a series of sexual preoccupations, a compulsion for provocation, and using them to source a choreographic slideshow framed by signifiers of a mythic era (Grecian costumes, those frieze-like processions, pared-down design that echoes the timeless minimalism of true Classicism) in the end just give the lesson a new outfit to wear instead of a voice with which it may speak to our time. This makes a compelling contrast to the profound, genuine embodiment these dancers give every moment of this work.
Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s Orpheus and Eurydice repeats tonight and tomorrow afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art.