At the end, without warning, side by side, they stop and place their feet together in a firm, proper, ballet fifth position. I had been thinking of these marvelous women as heroic. Suddenly they look like convent girls, adding a virtuous amen to a possibly heretical novena.

Actually Delabie and François are heroes. After only a short pause, they reappear onstage, joining Vandamme and Aurélie Gaillard in Maguy Marin’s demanding and exhausting Grosse Fugue. There’s not a hint of the 19th century in Marin’s approach to Beethoven’s piece of that name. The women wear unglamorous contemporary clothes—mostly red—by Chantal Cloupet. Their hair is loose. There’s not a trace of makeup on their faces.

What Marin has invested in is the driving force of the music, its attacks and withdrawals, the strings that tear the air. The composer wrings his material dry, trying to create the most similarity and the most difference at the same time. A canon doesn’t slide into unison, it’s squeezed into it by a powerful hand. The four dancers enter the music as if it were a hurricane; stop and you drown.

The Lyon Opera Ballet in Maguy Marin’s "Grosse Fugue."
Michel Cavalca
The Lyon Opera Ballet in Maguy Marin’s "Grosse Fugue."


Lyon Opera Ballet
Joyce Theater
March 9 through 14

Elegance plays no role in Marin’s choreography. The women begin by racing back and forth across the stage, their hair flying. They gallop, sashay, and push into low jumps—sometimes hunching over and clutching their stomachs as they go. A suddenly lifted arm seems to ward off the oncoming flood of music. For the occasional breather, they walk or, gathered in a squad for a second or two, wrench their shoulders up and down. As the marathon progresses, they begin to drag along the floor, to fall, to roll, to grab their abdomens more frequently. They struggle to sit up and stare numbly around. In the end, they launch a final burst of energy (can’t let Beethoven win) and collapse into a blackout.

The company must attract brave dancers. I say that not because ordeal plays such a part in two out of the three dances shown at the Joyce, but because you can sense that they embrace every choreographer’s stylistic challenge. Don’t point your feet in this piece. OK. Don’t wear makeup for this. OK. I want you to think of your legs as knives. Right. Be alert to every rustle of movement around you. I can do that. Yes.

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