A PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and Dance Centre presentation. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Friday, January 18. Continues till January 20
There’s a moment in Cédric Andrieux when the titular solo dancer reveals what it's like performing a Jérôme Bel work for the first time. “We are people before we are dancers,” the slim, fair-haired artist says, marvelling that he’s never felt that way before.
That’s the simple beauty of Bel’s Andrieux, too. We get a window into the humility and hard work it takes an enormously talented dancer to realize a choreographer’s vision. The piece is one in a series Bel has created around dancer’s lives, and it may also be the most quirky and understated.
The formula is brilliantly uncomplicated. Andrieux may be telling his own story, but Bel’s deadpan wit and humorous pauses are all over the place. Dressed in nondescript blue trackpants, a hoodie, and tube socks, Andrieux stands before us, inexpressive, going through the chronology of his life: “At 14, I decided I wanted to become a contemporary dancer…” “At 16…I was accepted to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris.”
The dry history is punctuated by amusing revelations. He’s so ungifted at dance, one early teacher says at least it will be good for his “personal development”. At another point, Andrieux admits one of the reasons he follows a company to America is that he wants to have sex with one of its dancers. And just watch him show what a man has to wear under his unitard—and then head offstage to change into the thong and coral one-piece. “As you can see, it doesn’t hide anything,” he remarks when he returns.
Bel seems to have stripped out emotion from the story to remove any fake-feeling drama, and Andrieux’s understated revelations come across more raw and honest that way. When dance legend Merce Cunningham picks him out of a rehearsal, it’s less a momentous turning point in Andrieux’s life than an amusing twist of fate.
The approach also makes the dance sections that much more riveting when they occur. Whether he’s dancing his final-exam solo or Merce Cunningham’s gruelling Biped, Andrieux clearly expresses himself more through the body than through his soft, French-inflected English. And therein lies another lesson in Bel’s work: that dance can go so much farther than words.
The highlight for anyone interested in dance is Andrieux’s recollections of his eight long years with Cunningham. Though the set is bare, he puts us in the rehearsal hall where he and the others would have to execute endless, gruelling repetition. He stands where he would always be at the back right of the class; he tells us where the elderly Cunningham would sit in the opposite corner; and we can almost see what he’s seeing as he gets bored and his eyes drift out the window to the boats on the Hudson River.
But the rehearsals have nothing on the tortured creation process the famed choreographer used. Too disabled from arthritis and age to demonstrate movements to his dancers, Cunningham would dictate slow, sequential positions, first working on the legs and then adding near-impossible upper-body work. The legs jump and turn; the back doubles over, and the arms bend and stretch out at opposing angles. The sequence is a study in the commitment of a dancer to another’s ideals; just watch Andrieux’s determination to learn the steps—ones designed to push their interpreters far beyond the comfort zone. Then listen to him talk about constantly feeling humiliated because he can rarely pull off the moves. Through his words and through his movement, Andrieux reveals the unique mix of pain, monotony, and euphoria of a dancer’s life.
Don’t come here expecting moments of drama or earth-shattering revelations. Instead, in the most quiet, unobtrustive way possible, Bel is interested in getting at the person behind the stage persona. As usual for the Paris-based genius, he is also getting at some kind of truth about dance that goes far beyond the likable, self-effacing guy named Cédric Andrieux we’ve just spent 80 minutes getting to know.