Régine Chopinot is one of the major names in the state-supported French dance scene– director of the national dance center at La Rochelle (which does not appear to have a website)– since the mid-eighties, and one of a number of prominent French choreographers whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to see. Fortunately, I was in Paris during the city’s premier of her latest work, “Cornucopiae,” at the Centre Pompidou. Without knowledge of her work more broadly, it’s difficult to come to terms with Cornucopiae, which was deliberately odd, tedious, and detail-oriented– it’s choreographic inquiry limited itself to methodically labored walking, a few spastic, cartoon-like explosions, and slow, abstract motion vaguely reminiscent of “dance.” Although I’m hardly a defender of the lyrical wonder of dance, Chopinot’s particular reformulation of the choreographic field never really seemed to equal its graphic presentation by the new media artist Jean-Michel Bruyère.
Bruyère’s set evoked a quasi-scifi, minimal, and evidently surrealist-inspired post-apocaplyptic wasteland, through which Chopinot’s bumbling chorus crept, rolled, tumbled, and wailed beneath the weight of a presumably alien environment. By far, the most striking element of the work were its “oven-mitt-esque” costumes, in which the performers were completely insulated and removed from their environment, their faces shielded throughout by grey shovels.
This choice has a clear resonance with the art historian Christine Ross’ recent book-length study on depression as an aesthetic paradigm, The Aesthetics of Disengagement:
“Art has become a producer of depressive screens that ‘conserve the living under its inanimate form'” (The internal quotation is from Pierre Fédida, “Des bienfaits de la depréssion.”)
This resonance certainly doesn’t entail that Chopinot, nor Ross’ analyzed artists, are representing depression; quite to the contrary, disengagement is posed as a mode of retreat that threatens the validity of representation itself. Moreover, Chopinot’s accompanying text is characterized by Artaudian excess: “La bouche au cul/Qui souffle à merdre…Par cul lâché me suis cachée/Par trou léché me suis trouvée/Bon nez cochon qui sent la truffe.” (A rough, fast translation: “Mouth to ass/that breathes shit… By loose ass I’m hidden/By licked hole I’m found/Good pig nose that smells truffle”)
Chopinot’s exploration of dance, language, and withdrawal parallels some of my own most currently vivid research, but I have a low threshold of tolerance for this kind of seemingly outdated heroic-anal rhetoric. Likewise, although Bruyère’s work is visually brilliant, I’ve had large reservations about its theoretical premises since first encountering his work, “Si Poteris Narrare, Lictet” (2002). (Here’s an interview with Bruyère at Festival d’Avignon that I haven’t yet had a chance to read.)
If Bruyère’s erotic affirmation of the negative is thus also preserved within his insulated costumes in Cornucopiae, Chopinot’s challenge would be to develop a choreographic language that faced the same structural challenge, i.e., what becomes of dance when its expressive complexity is subjected to a logic of self-containment. The apparent failure of Cornucopiae was that, in discarding the traditional vocabulary of dance, it merely retreated to a provocatively infantile choreographic language, rather than producing forms derived from an internalized aesthetic process render distant to the spectator. In other words, Chopinot’s work maintained a simplistic means of mimetic production between “outside/inside” or “subject/object,” even as its ostensible inquiry was aesthetic disengagement.
A final note of interest during the performance– it’s been a long time since I’ve been to see a work that provoked such a pronounced negative reaction in its audience. Although not quite a “Rite of Spring” riot, a number of audience members loudly left during the performance, boos and clapping competed at its conclusion when the dancers revealed their faces to take a bow, and a scuffle was nearly started by an older woman who threw her program at the stage and visibly cursed the performers. Evidently, even at the Centre Pompidou, the goal to “épater le bourgeois” hasn’t entirely lost its force… In an era when the experimental has become itself a cliche, why would this occur? Is it possible that the proponents of mainstream artistic values have a particular interest in maintaining the integrity of dance, even as they suffer the increasing abstraction in the graphic arts that one inevitably experiences in any visit to the Pompidou Center?
Update June 2009: While preparing for a forthcoming presentation at Performance Studies International on the emergence of language in contemporary choreography– my examples are Vera Mantero, Deborah Hay, and William Forsythe– I was struck that this performance could also apply. Nevertheless, I would not alter the above analysis, which understands Cornucopiae, and its spoken language, as grounded in a decidedly residual, “avant-garde” framework. Yet its muddled speech and evident self-enclosure decidedly relate to my current work… as a result of which, I have stumbled upon a short documentary clip about Cornucopiae at France 3’s site for media-rich cultural reportage, culturebox