Dance review: The important discomfort of Maguy Marin’s ‘Salves’

The French choreographer's White Bird show is confident and angry

Compagnie Maguy Marin in "Salves"/Christian Ganet

Compagnie Maguy Marin in “Salves”/Christian Ganet

By Ním Wunnan

Untranslated, the title of Maguy Marin’s “Salves,” which opened at the Newmark Theatre Thursday night and continues through Saturday, gives the show an unintentional irony in English. French for “Salvos,” English speakers will have associations with soothing treatments or medicinal balms, but it would be a mistake to enter the show with any expectation of comfort.

Marin’s production is a smartly choreographed confrontation that rewards close reading and employs savvy compositional restraint in the service of being legitimately unsettling. To us art nerds, there is something reassuring, in the heyday of “bad-boy installations”, about seeing a “challenging” piece that has its own confident and angry voice. But if you’re not already full to the brim with the tropes of abstract protest, most of “Salves”‘s 70 minutes will probably be very uncomfortable and confusing. Be prepared, and go see it.

The closest thing to a plot in this very theatrical piece is the frantic, coordinated effort by the dancers to host a dinner party. Most of the Twentieth Century gets in the way, crawling out from under the platforms the dancers have carefully constructed to knock them off their seats in their brief moments of rest. Iconography is as disruptive as history—paintings, prints, and sculptures parade through in a variety of efforts to civilize the stage, or to fix the spirit of the moment. They all fail—paintings fall from their hangers over and over, and each sculpture is built to fall apart and scatter. (I have to say that breaking a model of the Statue of Liberty felt a little ham-handed at first, but given the chronology of references to French history and Western democracy which surrounded it, it’s certainly not an arbitrary choice.)

The cultural references that are literally thrown around the stage refer to the French revolution, the world wars, racism in France, and the few aspects of early modern art that we still remember as a protest against the modern era. Connecting this dispute between bourgeois comfort and the bizarre and violent history of the modern era to French history may be especially unwelcome to American audiences who want to preserve their idea of France as just a place where everyone understands poetry more than we do, eats well, and has sex often—a sort of global reserve of sophomore-year-in-liberal-arts-school. The Beckett quote that gets written on the back wall early in the show offers an explicit reason for the richness of 20th century European art that rejects more romantic explanations: “When you’re in shit up to your neck, there’s nothing left to do but sing.”

The show contains specific and considered references to Beckett, Goya, Delacroix, Warhol, Elvis, Dada, Marianne, Saartjie Baartman, Picasso, and the French Revolution. It displays some of the tightest, most elaborate engineering and prop-work I’ve seen in an independent production. There’s enough material for an essay, but not enough time for one here. So, regretfully, I’d like to focus this review on points directed at the viewers who did and will find this show upsetting or frustrating. For the rest of you, if you like some bitters in your drink, just know that you should not miss this show. It’s smart, haunting, ambitious, and desperate in a way that doesn’t fade into the background of all the other contemporary work hoping to fit that description.


Compagnie Maguy Marin's "Salves"/Jean-Pierre Maurin

Compagnie Maguy Marin’s “Salves”/Jean-Pierre Maurin

These troubled viewers aren’t my figment—Maguy Marin has caused walkouts before, so I paid special attention to the post show huddles and reactions in the audience. The most notable reaction didn’t even wait for the show to finish—some tense (and unoriginal) man shouted “boo” moments before the lights came back on and stormed out. Afterwards, I counted three obvious arguments in the lobby, and eavesdropped on comments, including “Good thing I had three martinis” and someone reading a text message along the lines of “I couldn’t stay any longer. What did I miss?” They laughed out loud at the thought of answering the question.

If you didn’t know a show had just finished, the body language of much of the audience could have been mistaken for a dozen couples simultaneously on the verge of breaking up. Not that they were all arguing or upset—most appeared to be the kind of self-soothing group conversation that happens so often in our culture. Something has jostled you, in public, and we have so much more vocabulary for the comfortable, the satisfying, and the soporific that, faced with the pressure to connect your experience with your neighbor’s, you tacitly agree to negotiate a revision of what just happened that fits into the language we know better.

Usually this involves lines like “it’s all subjective” or “a matter of taste” or “I don’t know enough about that kind of thing to say.” It’s the conversation that people have when they have experienced something unsettling together, and work together to create the fiction that they prefer; the kind of conversation you have two weeks before a fight.

It’s easy to mistake this feeling with the one you get after a bad performance. You enter a small world and hope for a full experience of it, and instead you get something disjointed, aborted, or self-devouring. You feel cheated and indignant—you deserved more than this, you expected more than this. Some viewers, especially those with frustrated art teachers in high school and pretentious friends in college, are nearly exhausted by the effort to distinguish any non-classical dance from Danny Kaye’s dig at Martha Graham in “White Christmas.” If you are one of those viewers, thank you for making that effort to watch. Keep going to shows. Go to shows like this one. It will be worth it.

I’m not trying to tell you that you shouldn’t feel what I describe. I just want you to feel that in the right place. The only reason I was happy when I left the show is that I’m the kind of jackass that thinks more people should feel unsettled, doubtful, and afraid of the future like I and many people I admire do in our studios, and it makes me happy to see work that is so good at digging into a comfortable audience to make them feel that way. There’s some comfort in knowing others feel it too, but with the price of having the reasons for those feelings confirmed.


Maguy Marin's "Salves"/Courtesy White Bird

Maguy Marin’s “Salves”/Courtesy White Bird

Besides the direct quotations of 20th century art, there’s another layer of relevant reference is “Salves.” One of the fundamental differences between theatre and film is that the stage allows for all-over action, while the camera is constantly defining a single focus of attention. Using complex stage mechanics and careful spotlighting, Marin borrows this visual language, repeating the stage version of close-ups and even freeze frames. Many of these moments have a very similar character to French New Wave film. This is strongest in the spotlit closeups of the dancers’ faces as they are grabbed from behind by disembodied hands in a visual chorus of hear-no-see-no-speak-no-evil.

Two of the most common press images for this show are of the stunning Daphne Koutsafti in one of those scenes (about to have her ears covered), and then Mayalen Ontondo in mid-flight, struggling to set the table. I don’t think this is an irrelevant selection. Throughout the show, we see exceptionally tight choreography whenever the dinner party is concerned, battled and undercut by the chaos and history that presses in. It keeps the hope of a coordinated society where people work together.

While the impressive Kaïs Chouibi has the only traditional dance solo in the piece, Koutsafti is the conceptual soloist. When the bucket-brigade of dishes breaks formation, it’s Koutsafti who drops the plate. She’s the one to dress as Marianne, the spirit of the French revolution. She gets placed like a statue, consumed by the sets, but seems to stay a little more pure in character than the rest of the transformative cast. So I think it’s very relevant to represent the show with that photo of her, about to have her ears blocked to the dissonant action around her in one of the most cinematic passages of the piece.

Incorporating the visual language of the avant garde cinema helps us remember that, despite how stylish and amusing these films may seem now, we need to remember that many of them were made as absurdist rejections of the excesses and horrors of the 20th century. Marin confirms this association with an impossible-to-miss Fellini reference that enters the violent surprise finale of the show.

It’s a big mistake to read this kind of work as something meant to entertain us or confirm the assumptions the we need to get out the door to work in the morning. The director did not do a bad job by making you feel like the chance for something wonderful has been squandered. A good portion of modern history did that, and the director and an incredible crew of dancers and technicians did a great job of finding that feeling in you.

3 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    A thoughtful, well considered review, I enjoyed reading. The Becket quotation we saw in the beginning also marked continuity in Maguy Marin’s work–the first thing of hers that I saw was a piece called May B, presented on one of Portland State University’s erstwhile contemporary dance seasons. I would add that there is iconography in Salves to remind us of
    our own relationship to the French and French history,specifically the small replica of the Statue of Liberty.

  2. Darleen Ortega says:

    I am not someone who minds at all being unsettled–I seek out such experiences and write about them frequently, including in my regular column in the Portland Observer. My frustration with this pied was not that it was unsettling but that it is self-indulgent. I am probably one of the audience members with the most tools and I felt quite antagonized by the experience. In order for more than ten people in the audience to be enriched by the piece, we needed context that was supplied neither by the piece nor by the liner notes. To place something this abstract (more performance art than dance, in my opinion, in a season of dance without preparing the audience better was a mistake, in my view, and the mistake was not the audiences.

  3. Barry Johnson says:

    I don’t think SALVES was abstract: the imagery was quite specific, though the images didn’t connect to form a clear narrative or “essay.” For me, those images suggested a lot.

    Were White Bird audiences “prepared” for SALVES? I think they were if they are regulars at the White Bird Uncaged series or go to TBA. But by “prepared” all I mean is willing to accept something less than complete understanding. Marin herself probably expected an antagonistic or oppositional response, hoping that over time the images she planted start to make sense.

    Explanatory program notes thorough enough to explain the elements of SALVES would have been LENGTHY, and the piece supports multiple interpretations anyway. But maybe some more background about Marin’s choreography and her aims for SALVES would have been useful, I agree.

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