Maguy Marin b. 1951
Umwelt (2008)
Duration: 66:12

New York Times
June 19, 2008
An Ordinary-Looking Bunch, Reflecting the Random Activities of Others

Periodically one of the nine dancers in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” steps from the forest of standing mirrors assembled onstage to peer at the audience. The lights grow bright overhead (though the numbingly loud score doesn’t let up) so that these confrontations seem somehow out of time, like those moments when you remember something important: a lost lover, the immutability of death, yourself.

“Umwelt,” the Compagnie Maguy Marin piece that opened on Tuesday as part of the Joyce Theater’s French Collection festival, can be translated from the German as “world around” or “environment.” It begins with the entire cast, an ordinary-looking bunch in street clothes, standing in a row and staring at the audience. “The Show Must Go On,” a work by another French choreographer, Jérôme Bel, which also offers viewers a mirror of themselves, comes to mind briefly. Both works draw on an intellectual French practice of pedestrian dance-theater, in which not much dance, as it is traditionally understood, occurs. And both, incidentally, caused kerfuffles in their native land. (How the French love their protests.)

But unlike Mr. Bel’s work, the reflections “Umwelt” offers do not comfort or charm. (Audience attrition at the Joyce was considerable.) Nor do they build to any “aha!” epiphanies or satisfying conclusions. They only roll on, like a tape somebody forgot to turn off.

In program notes Ms. Marin, one of the most important choreographers in France, writes about “inventorying what is possible” and “a poetics of being with the world.” She offers two Beckett quotes, including “without here nor there nor ever approaching nor moving away from anything all the steps of the earth” from “For to End Yet Again.”

Beckett would recognize much in Ms. Marin’s unrelenting vision. Cast members slip in and out of sight, darting between the mirrors to perform randomly repeated activities: eating, trying on clothes, making out, dandling a baby doll. Sometimes they act alone, sometimes in tandem. You are lulled by the mundane nature of it all, or as lulled as you can be given Denis Mariotte’s howling soundscape — which seems the result of an unholy union between machines and powerful forces of nature — and the wind machines that keep the mirrors swaying and the performers’ hair and costumes wildly blowing.

And then there is a rupture. The formerly coddled baby appears on the ground and is kicked, as you might idly kick a bottle cap down the sidewalk. A woman is thrown down by her lover, or carried naked on his shoulders, a mere object. Two dancers crawl backward, dragging dead creatures in their teeth. They shake them the way animals do before feeding. Humans, after all, are animals, too, the scariest kind.

Such bestial descents are prefigured. Before the baby, cans are kicked. Before the creatures, drumsticks are gnawed to the bone. The detritus, psychic and real, piles up in this powerful, haunting work, as the performers toss their props to the front of the stage and move on to the next task. Whether the activity is loaded or meaningless, they perform it drained of life.

Yet here is life
in all its unvarying variations. We keep going, locked into our little umwelts, only occasionally remembering to look up. When we do, more often than not, we find only more reflections of ourselves.