People coming to see the Lyon Opera Ballet without foreknowledge might well be startled. The name sounds like a hangover from an earlier century, but during the 25 years it has been in existence—especially for the 19 that Yorgos Loukos has been the company’s artistic director—the Lyon Opera Ballet has presented work by cutting-edge choreographers from around Europe and from America.

There were no “pretty,” sugarcoated works on the program that the troupe brought to the Joyce last week. No foolish ones either. Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds, William Forsythe’s Duo, and Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fugue made the stage radiate artistic intelligence and artistry—both in terms of performance and choreography.

Many dance lovers fervently hope that when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company completes the two-year life allotted it following the death of its director last summer, his works will continue to be present and flourishing in our lives. There’s reason to be wary: When a piece is performed by dancers who don’t have the maker’s style in their bones, details and intentions can erode. But if future productions of Cunningham’s dances turn out to be as good as the Beach Birds that former MCDC dancer Banu Ogan staged for LOB, we can count ourselves lucky.

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

Details

Lyon Opera Ballet
Joyce Theater
March 9 through 14

This beautiful 1991 work is one of several Cunningham dances set to music by John Cage that allude to the Pacific Northwest, where the choreographer grew up and where he and Cage met. Cage’s spare score for piano and other sounds bears a quotation from Joyce’s Ulysses: “Between the river and the ocean, birds on the beach. . . .” Marcia Skinner’s unitards are white from beneath the breast to the ankle, and their black upper parts continue into gloves. The wonderfully imaginative design increases the image of wings that seem to join at the center of the dancers’ backs. You can also, if you wish, link the interplay of black arms and white legs with the piano keyboard from which Eric Dartel drops sparse notes into long silences.

Beach Birds seems to begin in a quiet dawn, with eight dancers scattered about a blue-lit space (Skinner also designed the magical lighting). They’re barely swaying, but small movements begin to erupt here and there. Someone cocks a head or bends to the side; someone else picks it up. The pianist slowly tilts a rain tube. A flock instinct is at play. When Cédric Andrieux (once an important member of MCDC) enters and makes big decisive moves, the others briefly freeze; suddenly everyone quivers a leg.

Even as the movements become faster and cover more ground, they come in flurries and subside into pockets of quiet. A latecomer (Caelyn Knight) enters with a rush. There’s a sudden banging sound like flotsam bumping a pier. Prancing around Andrieux, rotating him as she does so, she suddenly lays her cheek to his bent back, and he turns his head to nestle it against her neck. Meanwhile, in a corner, Agalie Vandamme jumps and hops again and again.

The dancers perform with wonderfully alert sobriety. Intent on their business, they seem to pick their way through tides and, with long, articulate limbs, explore invisible currents of air. Cunningham, I think, would be delighted.

Forsythe created Duo in 1996, when he was still the artistic director of Ballett Frankfurt. Like Beach Birds, the piece requires its performers to focus on the movement, without playing to the audience. But while Cunningham choreography often presents itself as something to be serenely explored and experienced by the dancers, this duet of Forsythe’s makes it plain that the performers (Dorothée Delabie and Amandine François on opening night) are executing demanding tasks that they must exert themselves to stay on top of. You could think of the cast of Beach Birds as tackling difficult tasks too, but deeper, almost magical qualities lurk in Cunningham’s material.

The costumes for Duo (by Forsythe) pit severity against sensuousness. The two women are dressed in black, and their hair is pinned up sleekly. They wear soft slippers and socks, but their legs are bare below their black trunks, and the top parts of their long-sleeved outfits are semi-transparent. In other words, their bare breasts are visible through this mesh armor. Thom Willems’s recorded piano music is very spare, the notes sweet, but Forsythe’s atmosphere is harsh: A high strip of white lights from the front of the house makes the stage look barren and dark at the back.

The two women move in immaculate unison much of the time. There’s nothing soft or indecisive in what they do. It’s as if Forsythe had done some homework on a ballerina avatar, trying to see how he could twist or invert or stretch her traditional skills and make us see movement from unusual perspectives. Partway into their first phrase (repeated and later varied), the women fall backward into a sitting position and twist to lie crumpled on the floor; we’re invited to study their haunches. When they lift one leg high, it’s neither quite to the back in an arabesque, nor quite a side extension, but something between the two. As in Beach Birds, the movement comes in flurries and then subsides into calmness (sometimes the two recline like odalisques), but always you feel the rigor of the activity, and the women’s breath comes in audible rhythmic whooshes. Delabie and François cut paths every which way across the stage, as if they planned to carve it up and take parts of it away with them.

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.

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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