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Tracy Danison, Paris correspondent

… and Débussy, too: Josephine Tilloy, Thi Mai Nguyen, Lisbeth Gruwez & Claire Chevallier

1. Thi-MaiNguyen_Premisse - copyright DannyWillems_0DS1929
“Prémisse”, Thi Mai Nguyen. The Princess soliloquizes the “commemoratio dilemma”. A man of infinite jest. Photo © Danny Willems


Etoile du nord
and Théatre de la Bastille recently gifted me a little trinity of dance jewels: Josephine Tilloy’s Evila and Thi Mai Nguyen’s Prémisse at Etoile and Lisbeth Gruwez who danced pianist Claire Chevallier’s Débussy’s Piano Works at Bastille.

Keep them all in mind.

Evila and Prémisse were part of Festival ZOA, Zone d’occupation artistique, a woman-centered production effort that is new to me and, at view, full of promise.

Because politics or culture issues tend to come down to positions, they don’t usually work for me as themes in movement art. I say this as a person who supported Bill Clinton’s position on criminal justice and now wonders every night how much of that cop’s weight on George Floyd’s neck was mine.

Anyhow, as poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin noted: “Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone!”. It’s is life experience plus imagination what does that. Movement art is the art of experience plus imagination. So movement art can’t really get across unrealized “positions” or “points-of-view”.

With well-thought out visual choreography and physical talent, Evila and Prémisse manage get to get well beyond positions and points of view to experience shared with spectators and a broad space for imagination. With the same result, like a magician who bears a flame in the palm of her hand, Lisbeth Gruwez manages to turn an interpretation of Débussy’s Piano Works into a moment where personality, material, movement and sound are music.

Josephine Tilloy’s Evila works on the plan of Wildman Fischer’s Merry go round (1968): once you realize that the up and down is intimately linked to the round and round, in the head a light comes on. Tilloy puts onto a carrousel and in harness and swimsuits the three delicate be-tutu-ed dancers who usually go up and down under glass with the minutes and hours on the mantelpiece. The carrousel turns and turns and these objects – they are objects! –  of housewifely charm churn to objects of sexual fascination, females, pole dancers, orderless cluster-fuckers… If I’ve got rollout, scenario and imagination all undone and mixed up, blame the transparency of the choreography. Also its effect: an existential nausée in the sense Sartre meant it – This here here is a construct.

Considering the affinity men and women generally feel for each other, the deliberate, enforced inequality of women and men puzzles me. Apart from forcing humanity into the roles freed-man overseers, camp guards, prisoners and, as Christine & The Queens put it, “Half-ladies”, inequality strangles love.

I think Thi Mai Nguyen’s pointing the baffled affinity from first to last explains a large part of my strong feeling for Prémisse (“Beginning”). The show notes of begin with “Kali est sans limites, s‘éclatant sur la piste de danse. Une main d‘homme la prend, elle le fait danser.” It is a really lovely solo dance performed with (an seeming preternaturally) beautiful body to a choreography that’s meant, I think, as narrative mime.
What I saw on stage was woman discovering desire, then its traps: dress, nakedness, affinity, dance, love … not a relationship… a situation she must, can’t, doesn’t want to, escape. Instead of sleep, she discovers blood and a bodiless male head in her bed … She must compose herself with that… situation, too… turns the dead head on its head, births it, turns the man into her baby, herself from object of love to giver of love – very psychoanalytic. But the long and short of it is that Thi Mai Nguyen’s dance makes a myth for today’s Kali  – paints a dilemma and its impossibilities that grabs the spectator by the throat. Good stuff.

As to Débussy’s Piano Works and its magician.

Gruwez’s “solo” is actually a quartet of pianist Claire Chevallier in play, Débussy’s music, the personality of Chevallier’s Erard pianoforte and the dance between Gruwez herself and Chevallier-the-pianist-at-play.

It’s been a while – and between pandemic, Putin’s war and the rising tempo of climate catastrophes, what a while it’s been! – so I can’t say if Dancing Bob Dylan was the last time I saw Lisbeth Gruwez perform or if it’s just the particular pleasure at the memory that makes me think so. However it may be, the magic she uses for Claire Débussy’s Piano Works is very similar to and has very much the same result as Dylan.

Gruwez has a choreographical sense grown out of what I think of her “casually precise” intensity. I’ve watched her off-stage in a crowd. She’s John Keats’ Empathy, smoking cigarette after cigarette, La Part de l’Autre moving within and away from friends, fans and strangers alike. Her intensity, I think, is made from an uncanny awareness of both what is on her plate and just how it gets eaten: awareness of the qualities of the space around, awareness of the presences of its human and not-human inhabitants, of phenomena happening, awareness of her own proprioceptive processes. It’s this casually precise intensity that makes me remember her dancing Dylan: a process of going from understanding the great poet, dancing his rhythm, seeing his images, to caressing the moment of making.

In Piano Works – Débussy, Gruwez uses her casual precision to show – as a magician shows a miraculous flame burning in the palm of her hand –  pianist Clair Chevallier within the complex of relations of people, things and sounds that shape into “music”.

For my money, in Piano Works, it’s opening the piece by “unsexing” herself and Claire Chevallier that works the initiating spell of the performance. Casually undoing an expectation about the duet, unsexing unlocks other energies: the same effect as Lady Macbeth’s invocation. Other energies make it easy to believe what you want to see, makes seem be.

Other energy enables dramatic tension, which, gives Gruwez the chance to casually and precisely distance herself from her interpretative role to give the performance its autonomy. Gruwez, who has strong natural equilibrium mixed with years of body training, wears a set of tippy-slippy deck shoes to falsify that. As well as the visual dissonance, the resulting slight physical tension has her say to onlookers, “I’m not interpreting Débussy, see. I incidentally heard a snippet of Preludes (or something!) from a window by chance open to the rain – makes me wiggle a little. I’m out for fags, actually”. In other words, forget the magician, look to the palm: there’s Chevallier’s straight back, concentration, her attention, her regard, herself, her bench, her limber fingers listening, hands like bobbins weaving the discerning sound of that ancient, enormous, looming piano. Piano Works – Débussy is itself. The moment you see is its music.

Whether she’s made of sugar and spice and intensity casual and precise, as I’ve suggested, or something even finer, Lisbeth Gruwez is a performer to see.  Be sure to look on her troupe’s site if you’re out exploring in France – you might catch her in one of those surprising local culture spaces. 


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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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