France’s Lyon Opera Ballet returned to the Joyce after 15 years with a wonderful program of works by Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe, and Maguy Marin, which runs through Mar 14. Even though none of these works were New York premieres, it was enormously gratifying to see them all together. Beach Birds (Cunningham) and Duo (Forsythe) resonated with one another strongly. I’ve always considered the two choreographers as two very distinct monumental skyscrapers, but in this program, put together by Lyon’s artistic director Yorgos Loukos, they came into sharp focus as proximate buildings in a neighborhood. These two cool works were balanced by Marin’s visceral, hot-blooded Grosse Fugue.
The choice of music for each dance helped with the comparison—for Beach Birds (1991), John Cage’s delicate score, played live, of plinking piano notes and rain sticks; for Duo, Thom Willems’ offstage live piano, similarly spartan, and augmented by an additional gentle soundscape. Both choreographers in these works chose to use their own rendition of classical ballet as a foundation. Merce’s varied groupings, suddenly accelerating phrases, and unselfconscious interactions have often evoke the movements of birds or groups of animals. In a bit of a rarity for him, Cunningham acknowledged his debt to nature in the title here, and with fluttering hands, undulating arms, and darting leaps. Marsha Skinner designed the pitch perfect costumes, with black spanning between fingertips, as well as the dawn-to-dusk lighting.
Duo, from 1996, is one of Forsythe’s sock dances, occupying a technical space between outright ballet on pointe, and his more recent theater-based performances. The two women (Dorothée Delabie and Amandine Françcois) wear sheer tops and black trunks and are dimly lit by fluorescence. The dance begins and ends with skewed classical posés, but in between the women slip to the floor and flip their limbs and bodies so that we can feel their weight. Both of these choreographers’ ballets could not be done without impeccable ballet technique, yet both men show how it’s possible to depart from, yet acknowledge, tradition.
Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fugue, to recorded Beethoven, was performed at Fall for Dance recently, so it’s interesting to see it on the more intimate Joyce stage—and how it worked on both scales. Four women in red move forcefully in horizontal lanes, diagonals, and their own quadrants of the stage. Their aggression matches the music’s dynamics, from bold barrel leaps finished with whipping arms to minute skittering steps, bodies slumped forward. Marin’s dances often carry plots or implied storylines, but here, the movement itself is the subject. Toward the end, the dancers sit on the stage edge, panting from exhaustion, before resuming their exercise in finding, and pushing, the limit.
Image: Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds. From left to right: Ruth Miro Salvador, Franck Laizet, Denis Terrasse. Photo © Jean-Pierre Maurin.