When we are young, we dance freely, spinning in circles with our eyes closed to soundtracks our parents have put on—most likely something upbeat and happy—like The Beatles. Our hands held to our bodies only by centrifugal motion as our upper extremities flail about, floating by the wind beneath them. As we age, our bodies are molded into codified forms structured by societal standards of proper ways to walk, run, sit, stand, leap (or not leap), skip (or not skip), and please, no spinning. Our movements, whether proprioceptive or well thought out, are self-monitored by the movements of those we see around us. Furthermore, movement is refined to be gender specific so that even the slightest cues become indicative of a particular gender group. But, what would happen if we couldn’t judge our movements based on those we see around us? What if—like the old blues song “No mirrors in my Nana’s house”—we couldn’t see (and censor) ourselves and thus our movements were generated and dictated only by feeling and touch and sensation? What if we closed our eyes and spun—on a stage for everyone to see?
This inhibited sense of self is what dancer/choreographer Sophie Lamarche Damoure achieved in her piece titled Paupière (“eyelid” in French). The dance is part of an independent contemporary dance festival titled “Faits d’hiver” taking place throughout the month of January in multiple local theaters around Paris. What initially drew me to this particular performance was that it was advertised as being inspired by the idea of aveugle, blindness. This intrigued me because as other students in the program have mentioned, Paris seems to have a large sum of blind inhabitants who receive plenty of aid from their sighted neighbors but who mostly navigate the complicated intersections and metro system with only a guide dog or stick. It is hard to imagine what constitutes a sense of space for a blind person. As someone interested in art therapy as a form of rehabilitation, the idea of putting a “sick” or “atypical” body on stage was both intriguing and upsetting. I went in to the performance assuming that the dancer/choreographer was blind; I reasoned that the performance could either be extremely exploitative or incredibly ingenious. I was relieved to find that it was closer to the latter.
At the beginning of the piece, the dancer laid face down on the floor beneath a structure of red felt wire that traversed the stage diagonally from upstage left to downstage right. The set resembled the blood vessels that obstruct one’s vision even though the brain renders them invisible to the natural eye. She was dressed in a floor-length red canvas dress that clung tight to her torso and swayed below her hips. Stark spotlights bestowed luminance like beacons in select locations on stage. The rest was dark. The dancer started by barely moving her heel, then her finger, in small twitching motions. Then the music began: fast, tension-filled, balzato strokes recorded by Henryk Gorecki of the Kronos Quartet. As the music crescendo-ed, so did her movements. Her fingers, wrists, then arms articulately glided on the floor away from her body and quickly retracted back to a crouching position. Her fingertips surveyed the stage below her. She swayed her center of gravity back and forth as if a tiger staying agile on its paws before pouncing. A student of Kabuki and Noh theatre, the dancer was grounded in her actions despite her quick tempo. Her gestures were punctuated; phrases of quick staccato movement alternated with pauses of stillness except for her breathing. The overall sense was one that mirrors that of eye movements or “saccades.” Our eyeballs jet back and forth across a scene, scanning quickly for important information and lingering over confounding elements. I was captivated.
It was so refreshing to see movement that was removed from the classical paradigm of ballet—movements that seemed to have truly visceral origins free from Balanchine ideals of a perfect turnout. The dancer’s body was skewed and inverted, not open and presentational. The audience watched somewhat voyeuristically as the dance was not performed for us, but rather as an exploration of the space. Each movement was centered in the self and stemmed outward, only briefly, before returning back to an introspective state. There was no narrative. But for forty minutes, I watched as this dancer found herself and contextualized herself within the space. . As the piece continued, the music switched between fast agitated dissonant strokes to lyrically bowed notes that were suspended in the theater. The dancer progressively moved from a low position lying on the floor, to a crouched fearful pose, to finally a liberated vertical stance. One of the most striking images was when the dancer placed both of her hands below her breasts on her ribs and plunged them downward toward one another creating a V-like pattern on her abdomen. The movement was accosting simply because for the first time in the dance there was a movement to which I instinctually assigned meaning. I interpreted it as a movement that possessed an inherent sexual reference even though it was merely a tactile exploration of her body. The dance became less about exploring the space and more about exploring the self; in particular, there were movements that gestured explicitly to the eyes.
Suddenly, the lights went out but the music continued. It was ambiguous whether or not the movement continued too. One had to strain to detect even outlines of the dancer’s body in the dark space. It was almost as if the audience was forced into the perspective of someone blind. This is why the dance was effective. It did not tell a story about a blind person’s struggle—instead, through the agitated, punctuated, quick gestures and the uninhibited exploration of space and self, the audience was confronted with the same emotions that an unsighted person might experience. There is an anxiety about one’s surroundings and yet an abandon of expectations.
As the dancer bowed, it was unclear whether or not she was actually blind. While her biography says that she studied ballet, and thus is probably sighted, she danced most of the piece with her eyes closed or her eyelids barely open. I realized that my appreciation of the piece was affected by the dancer’s physiological state—however, perhaps it is not a physical blindness that should be investigated but rather a more philosophical blindness to our surroundings and to ourselves that should be questioned.
Photo courtesy of Ouest-France.fr