Mathilde Monnier and company try to go beyond all endings

BEIRUT : Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, usually held to be one of the finest classical dancers in history, is most famous for having created “The Dying Swan” in 1905. Set to a segment of “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens, the dance enacts a supremely graceful, and arguably glamorized, death scene.
“The Dying Swan” became Pavlova’s signature piece. She performed it over 4,000 times and, as the story goes, cried out from her deathbed: “Prepare my swan costume!”
The three-minute dance had a huge impact on performances of that other great anthropomorphic ballet, “Swan Lake.” Dancers taking the role of doomed Odette took Pavlova’s style as a reference, particularly for the climactic lakeside suicide scene.
Both “The Dying Swan” and “Swan Lake” are still performed, but Pavlova’s mark is to be seen in brand-new creations. “Pavlova 3’23”,” the latest work from legendary French choreographer Mathilde Monnier, wears the prima ballerina’s influences on its sleeve.
Monnier and her team of nine dancers – five men and four women – paid a visit to Masrah al-Madina on Thursday and Friday to perform “Pavlova 3’23”” as part of the Beirut International Platform of Dance (BIPOD).
A dancer playing a gracefully expiring bird might seem overly trite for these cynical times. In “Pavlova 3’23”,” however, the trope was placed in the austere, intellectual setting that characterizes Monnier’s creations. The resulting incongruity frequently hit the funny bone, intentionally or not.
As the lights went up, the dancers lined up along the back wall of the stage, standing impassively to the sound a repetitive electronic jangling akin to a ringtone, which served as a kind of aural punctuation mark throughout the different phases of the performance.
The dancers strode around the stage before dropping, with the ringtone’s cessation, to the floor. From the hand of one dancer tumbled a skull, Hamlet-like. After a while, dancer I-Fang Lin rose, sat on a stool and launched into an extended diatribe in her native tongue, which sounded to the untutored ear like a variant of Mandarin.
It was hard to work out the subject of Lin’s speech. Occasionally she would flap her arms and once or twice she broke into song. Running alongside was a soundscape of rumbling, groaning noises, spattered by blasts of interference.
Longeurs occurred periodically in the “Pavlova 3’23”.” It is certainly a brave decision, and possibly a foolish one, to begin a performance with an extended anecdote in a language that, in all likelihood, none of the audience could understand.
Thursday night’s spectators became fidgety in places. Some may have wished that Monnier didn’t feel the need to pad the fireworks of her performance with these moments that almost seemed designed to bore.
The fireworks, when they arrived, were impressive. Another dancer launched into a dramatic solo, flinging her limbs around with spectacular elasticity. Every gesture was heightened, from her efforts to stand on the very tips of her toes to the position of her supplicating arms. Perhaps in reference to the melodrama of “The Dying Swan,” these efforts caused the dancer to let out sharp exhalations, vying with recorded breathing noises in a short, panting symphony.
A male dancer strode to the front of the stage and unraveled a roll of sticky tape with a harsh ripping sound. Immediately, he began to enact a horrifying death in slow motion. Gurning with pain, he floated toward the floor, seemingly weightless, before hauling himself back up only to fall once more. The effect was strongly reminiscent of a big-budget action movie, where the hero is ripped to pieces by a hail of bullets to a soundtrack of swelling strings.
The rest of the stage business, however, was completely other. The dancer’s colleagues strode rapidly back and forth, adorning his body with a ridiculous parade of objects – sunglasses, a feathered headdress, a torch, green tape. As quickly as they were dispensed, these accessories were plucked away and replaced by others. The corps’ insensitivity to the dancer’s manifestation of suffering was unsettling.
Later, the dancers’ mismatched speeds was reversed, with the corps lumbering around the stage at a snail’s pace while a female dance scurried and leapt, scrabbling at her impassive colleagues while the recorded soundtrack emitted threatening string and click sounds.
The preoccupation with time and speed is a recurring theme of Monnier’s work.
“[V]ery often my ideas of dancing are related to time,” she says in an interview published in the BIPOD program, “and it is one of the first things I work on: What will the relation to time be and in which space?”
Several times during “Pavlova 3’23”” there was an attempt to freeze time altogether. A series of solo dances were punctuated by dynamic, slightly campy tableaux: One dancer brandished a trumpet while another, stripped to his underpants, peered into his colleague’s mouth with a torch, like an under-dressed dentist. Another dancer lay curled against a huge model of a skeleton hand.
During the most extraordinary moments of “Pavlova 3’23”,” however, the whole team was in frenzied motion. Dancers careened off one another other, lifting and being lifted, escaping, entwining and falling. The effect was of an endlessly amorphous chain of Heath Robinson-esque machines built from human beings.
Although the movements of individual dancers appeared to be improvised and chaotic, it soon became clear that these were minutely planned sequences. The audience began to spot exactly the same structures formed in identical sequence. This was something akin to the dance equivalent of an illusion from M.C. Escher: A seemingly endless sequence of repetitions, with the beginning and end impossible to identify.
It was at these moments that Monnier came closest to the stated aim of the performance: To go “beyond all endings.” Of course, the audience at Masrah al-Madina couldn’t go all the way with Monnier – the curtain had to drop at some point in the evening. “Pavlova 3’23”” fizzled out in blackout and applause, with a select group of fans rising to their feet in ovation.

Matthew Mosley