Auckland Arts Festival: Bend it like Beckett

By Janet McAllister

May B, an avant-garde dance piece by Maguy Marin, shocked audiences at its 1981 debut. Photo / Claude Bricage
May B, an avant-garde dance piece by Maguy Marin, shocked audiences at its 1981 debut. Photo / Claude Bricage

France, circa 1980. You're a classically trained dancer of 28 or 29, and you're choreographing an avant-garde piece inspired by the works of Samuel Beckett.

You have enough chutzpah and self-belief to write to the great man, an icon of 20th-century modernism, in his mid-70s. He agrees to meet you in a St Jacques cafe in Paris, near where he lives.

This was the situation Maguy Marin found herself in when creating May B, to be performed in Auckland next week as part of the arts festival. It's a seminal, influential piece, which shocked audiences at its 1981 debut with its groundbreaking blend of dance and theatre.

Some called it "anti-dance" but it had popular appeal and catapulted Marin to the forefront of the world-leading contemporary dance scene in France. So far it has been performed more than 700 times around the world by Marin's company, including in Wellington in the early 1990s.

But when she met Beckett, all this was before her; she was still relatively unknown, a young artist in awe.

"I was very young, like in front of a monument," she remembers. However, while photographs of Beckett at the time show his famously intense white-eagle stare, there was no need to be afraid. "He was a beautiful man, sensitive and respectful."

And much of what he told her found its way into May B - the score includes Schubert because Beckett told Marin he was a favourite composer.

Marin thinks Beckett was curious about how she as a choreographer, rather than a person of letters, would interact with his work. Like Beckett's works, May B portrays the human condition as absurd tragi-comedy but the writer understood that the choreographer wasn't trying to re-enact his work in dance. Rather, she was investigating movement as he investigated language, breaking it down into the smallest units, gestures instead of words, re-examining them one by one with new wonder.

Ill Seen, Ill Said, a Beckett novella title from the era, disrupts a small but significant grammar structure while in dance, Marin says, "we try to open up technical possibilities, but these are not only lifting the leg or jumping a lot. It's also how to move very little things in the body."

She was also interested in confronting the ideal of bodily "perfection" invented by classical dance - flexible, straight and extended - and Beckett gave her a good opportunity to do so. "The bodies in his works always have problems; they cannot move or they cannot see."

Dance critic Raewyn Whyte, who has so far seen May B twice, says the result is impressively virtuoso, crafted and precise, but at the same time, instead of being drily technical, it is full of rich, grunting, howling humanity. The work shows intimate moments in the life of what an American reviewer called an endearing "dusty clump" of "ancient naifs" - they kiss, march, have a birthday party, play follow the leader and masturbate.

In the middle of the masturbation scene, during a show in Japan, an audience member started screaming. Marin found out later he was exclaiming in astonishment: "Wow, in Europe they do it like we do!"

One of the main themes of the work is how difficult it is to live together and yet how much we need each other. Marin believes this touches audiences today far more than it did 30 years ago as, in general, we are now more atomised, distanced from each other as separate, more lonely individuals.

This is anathema to Marin, who emphasises the desirability of individuals working, living and arguing together in long-term collaboration.

"Everyone is becoming an auto-entrepreneur. I think this is terrible," she says.

Instead of hiring dancers for each separate project, as many choreographers do these days, she insists on keeping her core company permanent, even though to do so is "completely dinosaur". That way, dancers aren't competing with one another in auditions all the time but are committed to working together.

She also emphasises sharing between art forms ("I'm porous") and still has a respect for and enjoyment of classical dance - in 1993 she choreographed a Coppelia to be danced in a housing project for the Opera Ballet in Lyon, where she lives.

"Dance is one of the most open disciplines. A lot is mixed into the work of choreographers - visual arts, theatre, music. Some think this is sad; I think it's joyous," she says.

Marin has created more than 40 major works but May B is still the first piece that new dancers in her company learn - she sees the work as a blank canvas, a base for all her other work: "I haven't changed a step."

And yet, each dancer's interpretation brings something new to the work. In Auckland, one of the dancers will be performing the work for the first time; another performer first learned it 24 years ago. Marin sees that mix of fresh and mature interpretations as valuable.

That the company keeps performing May B is a statement in itself. "People want to change all the time ... They get tired of everything, even themselves," Marin says. Over the past 30 years of digging deep, she still finds surprises in her youthful work. Beckett would approve.

Auckland Arts Festival

What: May B, with French choreographer Maguy Marin

Where and when: Aotea Centre, March 9, 11-12 at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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