Chopin and Stravinsky confront an alien universe

Compagnie Marie Chouinard at Annenberg

3 minute read
'24 Preludes': Somehow, Chopin survived.
'24 Preludes': Somehow, Chopin survived.
Frenzied embodiments of raw sensuality descended on the Annenberg stage for an evening of dance by the Montreal-based choreographer Marie Chouinard. An entranced audience watched as these barely clothed, firmly muscled dancers fulfilled the rituals of their unorthodox balletic movements by appropriating the music of Chopin and Stravinsky.

The solo piano music in 24 Preludes by Chopin (1999) offered Chouinard a broad palette of musicality from which she could offer short dance segments that shared both a flowing lyricism and an extreme expressiveness of forms. Dancers swam in translucent lighting; an Olympian man repeated juicy, extended lunges and then segued into a slow walk where his undulating spine became the source of his locomotion.

From an alien universe, silent motions shifted into a heightened energy of angular arms, cupped hands at right angles to wrists, fluttering hands and arms. Men's Mohawk-style headpieces, mouths agape with sharply raked heads upon hyper-extended chests, and women with black tape over genitals and nipples set this species apart (their mundane, black bathing suit or leotard costuming notwithstanding).

Dragged by the hair

This species included a man who directed his woman partner across stage via her braided hair— a woman who, once freed, emitted a pronounced laugh. Another barely restrained woman with arms straight behind her was driven by a male partner as she snorted her aggressive energy forward and backward

Chopin's music of romantic swooning and stormy angst might never have survived the transfer to this world of surreal dreaminess and extreme bodily expressiveness. But Chouinard, for all her obsession with sexual aggressiveness, nevertheless excelled at molding her choreography into the music in ways that only few choreographers, like a Mark Morris, can manage. Chopin, catapulted centuries into the future, sounded quite at home among these extraterrestrials.

Phallic fangs

In her program's second half, Chouinard found a ready vessel for her assortment of angularly grotesque and strikingly graceful movements with her Rite of Spring (1993), set to the same Stravinsky score that sent the audience into an uproar when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes unveiled it in Paris in 1913. Although the original narrative danced then by Nijinsky may not have been followed (and when you might think that the Rite by now could use a performance rest), Chouinard and her outstanding dancers embodied every aspect of the music's percussive dissonances and polyrhythms.

Sequences of spotlit solos and small groupings of dancers heightened the mystery and velocity of the dance. The fragmented structure, similar to that of the earlier Chopin work, ran breathlessly with the dynamic changes in Stravinsky's score. Groping tentacled arms, phallic fangs attached to crotches and heads, and searching heads cocked and pecking and led by eyes shadowed in red makeup took these dancers from whatever future time they had inhabited in the first half back to a primeval time closer to our animal origins.

Annenberg in middle age

This sort of expressive aggressiveness may be a dated dance genre, but Chouinard's power sufficed to propel us into either a future or past that reminded us that perhaps our present isn't all that bad.

This performance was diminished not only by its lack of live music but also by an inadequate sound system that left the Chopin Preludes with a tinny sound, and with spotlights for the stage that bled their light across the audience. Dance Affiliates should be encouraged to present more such challenging groups in its "Dance Celebration" series. But with middle age, the 40-year-old Annenberg Center could use a tune-up.

What, When, Where

Compagnie Marie Chouinard. December 8-10, 2011 at Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. (215) 898-3900 or

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