Review: Olivier Dubois - Tragédie - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 8 - 10 May 2014
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Monday 12 May 2014

Olivier Dubois - Ballet Du Nord.'Tragédie'. Photo: Francois Stemmer

Performance reviewed: 8 May

A life lesson I am lately trying to impress upon my five year old son, is that being bored can be a good thing; it can ultimately prove a quite productive experience. Something he has been teaching me, or reminding me of at least, is that dancing naked is whole lot of fun. Both of these lessons are expertly proffered by Olivier Dubois and Ballet Du Nord in his fleshy and economically epic creation Tragédie, in a limited run on the main stage of Sadlers Wells last weekend.

A long first section of the continuous 90 minutes was taken up by walking. Dancers enter with a modest swish through a stringy upstage curtain threshold and methodically trot their way downstage and back up again, repeating this forward and backward pacing trajectory in every possible combination of personnel and pattern for what seems like ages. The 18-strong, half male, half female cast appear completely naked throughout and this walking motif, the extended parading of them as corporeal subjects, was almost like watching prisoners of war being monotonously marched through a concentration camp. Francois Caffenne’s at times harassingly loud and droning score, often reduced itself to ominous thumps like the footsteps of a giant, or crescendoed precariously like a plane taking off in turbulence, generally taking on the character of a kind of apocalyptic elevator music for this denuded purgatory of plodding figures.

The spare rigour of this first part served multiple purposes however, and despite quite a few stifled yawns and eye-rolling sighs from those around me – a few punters couldn’t take it and checked out early here – the section’s pay off both necessitated it, and was well worth it. Immuring us within a single rhythm and subtly shifting structure for so long allowed us to get over any of our internal giggles over the whirligig boobs and willies, or our similarly base preoccupations about whom we might see as the ‘gifted and talented’ as it were among the exposed troupe of professional dancers, and to settle in to considering these bodies as real people, to get used to them.

Getting to know the dancers by plainly regarding them physically in this way and for so long, set up the possibility for a sympathetic magic to occur midway through, when they slowly started getting more twitchy and suspicious in attitude and mannerism, gradually adding facial expressions, letting a stumble or a dart out of formation perforate the incessant and conforming perambulation, in short becoming more properly human – like us. Of course, they eventually break through this wall of constraint altogether, offering themselves up ecstatically in tribal sequences of hyper-energetically executed rain or fertility dances, flinging and dervishly spinning themselves around with loosely jointed limbs and pulsing hips; sex organs jutting up to the sky, groins ground into the earth, palms raised in worship or to shield against the harsh sun, or the constant onslaught of life.

Far from reducing the ‘human subjects’ of his artefact, namely the dancers themselves and their bodies, to ‘every’ men and women, Dubois’ deceptively minimal approach which proceeds to burst the seams of its own initial strictures, serves to deepen and enrich our experience of these people (and therefore inevitably also of ourselves) as ‘real’ individuals, as well as representatives of the ‘human condition’. We are allowed to see the dancers as remarkable beings, both as performers but also just as people, a straddling of subjective position that is definitive of a swathe of contemporary dance practice since the mid-twentieth century, and which is approached here with particular virtuosity by both Dubois and Tragédie’s truly generous cast.

When they finally devolved completely into orgiastic chaos, the effect was not shocking or indulgent, nor was it exactly sexy, but rather joyful, very joyful in fact, such as to even make you catch your breath at times. I mentioned my little son before and his penchant for dancing naked because the experience of Tragédie was indeed much more regressive than erotic. At the end the cast stood panting and spent, but staring at us expectantly, still wanting us; they were children not ready to go to bed yet after a session of raucous play. In this moment I felt I had come to love these dancers and their bodies, not just for their beauty or skill, but mostly for the sheer munificence with which they reminded me of my own childhood naked dancing.

Read an interview with Olivier Dubois in the Evening Standard

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College.

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