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Tracing lifelines

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Thierry Niang’s A Time of Spring at the Invisible Dog Art Center


Although Thierry Thieû Niang, a French dancer/choreographer, has visited New York on many occasions in the past – from early experiences with Trisha Brown to more recent collaborations with the director Patrice Chereau and conductor Pierre Boulez at the Metropolitan Opera – this spring marks his New York debut with a choreographic creation of his own making.

Niang’s A Time of Spring, presented here as part of DANSE : A French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas, comes along with some fascinating history. Earlier this decade, Niang had been invited to conduct a workshop in Marseille, France with a group of senior citizens who’d had the opportunity to meet the dance luminary Pina Bausch and see her signature piece Kontakthof (restaged on that occasion with an elderly cast) shortly before her passing. While exploring iconic dance productions, Niang’s group had zeroed in on The Rite of Spring, using the historic Nijinsky/Stravinsky collaboration as the springboard for an open exploration of ideas in a workshop setting, not necessarily intending to create a performance. Fortunately, as it turns out, the public presentation of this workshop was seen by the director of the famed Festival d’Avignon, who immediately invited the work to be presented as part of the festival’s mainstage season in 2011. A resounding success, the production had since been invited to tour in many other cities.

According to the choreographer, the showing I saw here is the 45th performance of this work, and yet this “Brooklyn version” of A Time of Spring is unique in that it is the first time Niang assembled a local cast (more than twenty men and women aged 65 and above, with one notable exception) and set the piece on them during a choreographic residency hosted by the Invisible Dog Art Center, where the work recently premiered. (On a side note : following the Brooklyn engagement, Niang is due to work with another group of the New England seniors under the auspices of the Vermont Performance Lab, and present their staging of this work at Vermont’s Marlboro College as well as at the Massachussetts International Festival of the Arts later this month.)

Niang’s production is a work of arresting simplicity. The performance opens with a series of quotes from Nijinsky’s diaries, earnestly read by the writer Stephen Greco – as he reads, the elderly cast members slowly enter from various corners, hallways and entryways of the Invisible Dog’s stripped down, industrial third-floor performance space, gathering in a tightly packed formation in the center. Shortly afterwards, along with the first chords of Stravinsky’s score, a young man in athletic gear begins running (and does not stop, for the duration of the entire performance) in a wide circle around the silent cluster. The main choreographic metaphor – the circle – is immediately introduced, and becomes the topographical marker for the piece. The runner’s circular motion seems to set up the spiraling movement of the cast : during the ensuing minutes, the floor patterns of the cast, sometimes walking, sometimes running, are concentric circles and spirals, all moving in the same direction – at times, it feels as if I am watching a kind of a cosmic choreography : planets orbiting around an invisible sun. The cast may be elderly, and yet the air of spring is everywhere, not just in the music, but also in the golden, late afternoon light coming through the exposed windows, and blossoming tree branches billowing outside.

Throughout the work’s 45 minutes, Niang adopts a sparse vocabulary, more or less all variations on the spiral form, walking/running, and simple gestures that occasionally evoke images of community, togetherness, loneliness, and elation, before they vanish again in the whirlwind of this circle of life. There is something incredibly poignant about the dynamic of subtraction, the slow but steady stripping down of elements that are initially presented : with each minute passing, some cast members remove pieces of clothing, or wigs, gradually exposing their aging bodies before disappearing off-stage, ultimately leaving just the young runner alone on the stage, continuing his seemingly neverending circles – just like the unstoppable march of time.

Ivan Talijancic - Bachtrack - 19 mai 2014 / Photo Maria Baranova


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