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Paris Performance Calendar

Water and bread, not wine and cake: choreographer Mylène Benoît speaks up for dance [by Tracy Danison]

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WONDER by Mylène Benoît:  “Body memory working on the body present”. Photo © Fabrice Poiteaux

The portico on the Théâtre des Abbesses boasts a quote from Pina Bausch, a genius, sure, but also beloved of those who knew her: “Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost.” ... Over her writing desk, where I often sit procrastinating, my Karine, also beloved of her friends, has a brittle yellowed Post-it note with a quote from, of all people, Augustine of Hippo, a man terrified of the beat of his own heart: O, Mensch, lerne tanzen, sonst wissen, die engel im Himmel mit dir nichts anzufangen/ “O! Friend! Learn to dance or the angels will not know how to begin with you”.

These words and these persons move me.

So you’ll understand why the choreographer Mylène Benoît impressed me so during a panel discussion on the future of dance at Palais de Chaillot in Fall 2021, just when we were first coming out of lock down. Alone among the personalities involved, Benoît pointed out that dance – movement, live performance –  was a need. And in saying that, she reminded a lot of people for whom dance-performance can often be just a budget – especially in trying times –, that dance is a human need, a fundamental value - water, not wine, bread, not cake – not entertainment or a culture product. Op. cit., Augustine and Pina.

I bestirred myself to make an appointment with to learn more about Benoît’s thinking.

Until her appearance on the panel, I knew of her only through an intriguing 2018 performance piece called Gikochina-Sa / ぎこちな / La Maladresse (“Awkwardness”), which she created in conjunction with a 2017 residence in Japan. I saw it through the Rencontres choregraphiques internationales de Seine Saint Denis 2018 program. Gikochina-Sa/La Maladresse explores a potential gestural and poetic language deriving from unintentional movement. Working with Atsushi Heli, an expert in the gestural repertory of Japan’s Nichibu dance genre, Benoît was seeking to create a unique – unique in the sense of un-reproducible – performance language.

During our talk in late November 2021, in Lille, where Benoît currently lives with her partner and her two young children, I realized that the Gikochina-Sa is a good introduction to what turns out to be Benoït’s ongoing quest to get a handle on the nature of dance and its representations. She’s a born intellectual with a love of matter and energy, seeing and feeling.


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On the power of women, ARCHEE by Mylène Benoît. Photo © Delphine Lermite

While Benoît has a good hand for doing current or classic or political themes – I’m thinking here of her most recent work, Archée, touching on the power and place of women, she also tends to embed such broader questions of dance nature as “the diffusion of images and their articulation into the body” or “body knowledge and memory” or “co-opting body with image in social choreography”.

Archée makes its Paris début as I publish, at the Palais de Chaillot, National Dance Theater, from 8 to 17 June, 2022.

At some point during our long conversation does a sort of Ode to a Grecian Urn invocation. I can’t recall if it happens à propos of any one of our talking points, but she stands, walks, situates, positions and then swings her leg up from the exact join of her hip, rippling thigh, knee, ankle, foot upward until the root, arch and spread of her sole comes lightly against the flat smooth plaster of the wall just behind her chair. Judgments and terms roll over me. To me, foot and wall become numinous: I feel, “each itself, themselves together”. That’s good “dance”! Again to myself, I figure “ballet” though I can’t recall offhand such an image, let alone such a move in ballet. Maybe it’s the “gracefulness”.

Mylène Benoît today bills herself a visual artist as well as a choreographer, which she describes as doing “choral arrangement”. During our chat she says she thinks of the body as a corps sachant, “an information body” at macro and micro (cellular) level. Dance, she also tells me, is movement over which we can impose or share cultural images or emotions, or teach ourselves emotions. In this communication function, dance is “primary belonging”.

Her present thinking, Benoît says, has its origins in her first creation project, a video installation, which got her wondering about the authenticity of the images of emotions and attitudes she was using.  She wondered, for instance, whether and how the cartoon images of emotional states such as anger, sadness, or surprise derived from real body states or postures. Using short choreographies to explore the issue, she says she was surprised to understand that the images, or memes, she was using were not attached to real-body experience. They were, instead, a part of a separate narrative repertory – “figures” – representing “emotions” that may or may not exist, or, if they exist, may or may not be universally or, even, just, identifiable. In a nutshell, figures or memes are ways of talking about movement but do not describe or express it. Body movement itself references the whole movement of an individual as it interacts with and relates to itself and Others.

L’AVEUGLEMENT: “The body in transformation of forms of encounter with the world. Photo © Patrick Berger

As a result of her explorations and experience, Benoît says she determined to use only real-body experience in her choreographies. But, although movement communicates, movement is essentially “silent”.

What Benoît means by “silent”, I think, is something like “present without language”. Remember the opening scene in 2001, Space Odyssey. Some apes suddenly start whooping it up around a monolith. The whooping it up against the silent monolith enables the production of a third thing – for Kubrick, a “human” – that is different from the apes and differently perceives the monolith differently.

Clearly, movement, like the monolith, is another genre of communication to sound or figurative communication. They are not necessarily “complementary”, seeming more like two streams of water, each generating its own fluid ecology. The meaningfulness, or the “third thing” enabled, come more from proximity than otherwise.

So it is, perhaps, that Benoît takes care to call herself a “visual artist” and “choral arranger”: where the principle character is silent, how and where and with whom and who says what where are the most important ways to enable a meaningful spectator experience.

As to need, if it’s clear there’s a type of communication we call “language” and humans need its memes, figures and narratives, it’s also clear to Benoît there’s a type of communication we call “movement” that enables us to “impose and share … images and emotions”. Whether dance is more important than talk, as I think, is a matter of opinion, but that it is a human need, equal at least to language, seems to me, indisputable.

On leaving, I ask Benoit what she expects will be the result if we required kids to skill up dance as we require them to do for talk?

“The body creates, reshapes and liberates narrative," she replies. "What we’ll get is better health, more empathy and [since the process is archeological as well as teleological] … more introspection, from cell to species to personal experience."

May 18, 2022

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March 31, 2022

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February 13, 2022

February 08, 2022

January 27, 2022

January 05, 2022

October 07, 2021

September 15, 2021

August 18, 2021

November 01, 2019

August 20, 2019

May 16, 2019

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November 15, 2018

October 31, 2018

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