For all of art's supposed real-world impact—its carriage of cultural lineage and its educational value—sometimes I think it exists simply to furnish my mind. And like any furniture, only a few pieces stick around through the movements of life.
I see a lot of exhibits and performances that, sooner or later, just slip away. No matter how admirable they might seem during the encounter, how morally flattering or consoling, what does it really mean if I don't remember it? Maybe the true measure of art is simply that it lasts—not in canons but in individuals, leaving a psychic mark people can use for their own inspiration and insight.
Compagnie Marie Chouinard's exquisitely traumatic Orpheus et Eurydice, a Carolina Performing Arts co-commission at Memorial Hall in 2009, left such a mark on me. Some of the images and the feelings roiling within them—contorted women pulling glittery gouts of fabric from their throats, silhouetted men in dildos bending gracefully at the knee—got stuck in my head, crumbling away at the edges, mineralizing the sediment of my inner life.
Chouinard is a French-Canadian dance artist who has been working since the late '70s, building a rarified reputation (she was knighted in Canada in 2007) for avant-garde provocations of overclocked beauty and ugliness. This Saturday, Chouinard's company returns with another Carolina Performing Arts co-commission, Gymnopédies, set to compositions by Erik Satie, the fin-de-siècle French pianist whose aching ruminations are equally beloved by fans of classical, minimalist and ambient music. The program also includes Henri Michaux: Mouvements, a vigorous interpretation of the drawings of the esoteric poet and painter.
Anyone who saw Orpheus should recognize in Gymnopédies Chouinard's distinct visual style—bodies in constant sinuous motion clump in morphing, flowing friezes, with solos and duets flaking off here and there—and her conceptual terrain. A sexually charged state of play degrades toward antagonism, coercion and captivity.
But where Orpheus blared beautiful agonies with demented glamour, Gymnopédies constrains the same shocking forces in a quieter, more elegant package. Less outwardly wrenching, its relative delicacy only focuses the raw panic throbbing in its heart.
Creatures in states of distress so extreme they almost exult in their suffering populated Orpheus. It certainly didn't give me hope for humanity or change my mind about anything. Was it enjoyable? Yes, in its gorgeous affront to the senses, but it was also pretty gutting—a visceral exposure of emotional truths about feeling cast out and the ways people hurt each other through desire, especially how men treat women.
Gymnopédies is another punch in the gut. Chouinard's work is brave in that it airs out the depths of fear, but it is not moral or proud. It is unflinchingly honest and rank with shame. It rips something open and leaves something behind, where so many other shows mark only old calendars.
At first, Gymnopédies feints toward a softer side of Chouinard. As a dancer begins to play Satie's music, the gentle dissonance moving under the placid surface is like memory haloed in sound, and it encircles a scene of idyllic innocence. Dancers born out of white chrysalises walk off holding hands. The nudity that had been flushed with obscenity in Orpheus is pristine and chaste.
But then, of course, something bad happens. As the pianist begins to misplay chords, as if losing her faith in this story of sweetness, the dancers steal back in black clothes that begin to flow off their bodies. One couple engages in some struggling floor work, the woman trying to escape the man.
The newborn creatures are awakening to desire and shedding innocence, and as the movement grows more carnal, it also becomes more deeply snarled in nets of power and submission. The piece starts to exert its inexorable emotional crush, resounding with compositions of spare, perversely classical grandeur.
A very tall woman blinded with a black sash duets en pointe with a much shorter man, whose hands keep straying up her inner thighs. Dancers cavort in clown noses, pulling dumb faces. An anguished singing woman is grasped and groped as she tries to leap away from her partner. Eventually, someone has sex with a keyboard, or with discord itself.
Despite the chaotic energies unleashed, the scenes are very clear in their emotional dimensions and open in their narrative content, so any feelings of self-recognition they stir up are uniquely yours to interpret. It won't exactly make you feel good, upstanding or secure in your relationships. Maybe you won't even like it. But if you can keep your gaze fixed on the dazzling obsidian mirror of Chouinard's obsessions, you might see something you'll never forget.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Nude awakening"