The Truth and the Narrative in Beauty: Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “The Golden Mean”

To the slow, pounding, pulsing kettledrum, its waves of sound hitting the audience, the two sheen-fabric wrapped shapes on the stage slowly writhe and discard their stiff shimmering sheaths.  So begins Marie Chouinard’s The Golden Mean, restaged for another amazing tour.  I would have a hard time describing what happens.  It’s modern dance, but the performers are all wearing golden wigs, masks, and tassles that run down their legs, at first.  They resemble fauns.  But this isn’t Prelude to “the Afternoon of a Faun”—the music sounds a bit like a science fiction chorale, voices, drums, chorus, building, sustaining, crashing, wincing and dodging, always aching with long-note beauty.

There are maybe twelve dances in the 80 minutes, and each one provides a chance for the viewer, the audience, to participate by bringing their own meaning to the dance.  Perhaps this was intentional; perhaps not.

The dancers, part ballet-part something deeply, bodily organic–they tiptoe, launch, lurch across the stage, always flowing in rhythm to the music.  They are all lovely to watch.  For the first few numbers we feel as if we’re seeing the birth of a civilization, a whole society; toddlers walk across the stage, learn to laugh and cry together, have first few sleeps; ensemble pieces involving the whole company break up the solo, duo and trio dances.  I was most captivated by the two dancers who seemed to be acting out a first relationship—a man who dates the pliable woman, the one he fits into any shape he wants; he is aggressive, demanding, sexual, and she is passive, not quite even awake in the dance.  He discovers how wonderful it is to slide her hand down his face, his chest, his groin; and she starts to fight him, pushing away, and they twist each other back and forth, as she starts finding her own inner aggressor.  They have tortuous sex, or the dance version of it, always moving, stretching, twisting and flexing those dancers’ bodies.  I was captivated too by the narrative I was creating out of the dance–the story I gave that dance, that I’m even giving that dance now in this essay.

We can’t help it.  Human beings, when we see two or more humans interacting with another, we come up with a narrative, a voice over, maybe, but at least a set of actions, reactions, motivations, based on the expressions, the movements that we see in front of us.   Try it at your local mall.  Watch people for any length of time and you give them a narrative.  You can’t help it.

I saw two dancers later in the work, one crying, one laughing, exchanging their emotions, never ever happy at the same time.  They seemed, one at a time, to delight in the other one’s misery.  I thought—man, Chouinard knows human nature.  Some couples just can’t let each other be happy—they trade off the miserability, laugh at the other one in some revolving-door schadenfreude.  They can never be happy.

But in some ways, for me to tell you the narrative undoes the dance.  So I’ll stop that.  The dance is without narrative so that you find what you want in it–but it is beautiful.  Their bodies slowly shed more and more clothing; their faces take on different masks, those of elderly women, those of babies.  One woman wore a four-faced mask and kept turning her head and I swear I couldn’t figure out which mask rested on her face… she just flipped faces as she pivoted and walked across the stage…finally picking up a read book, turning the pages as she turned her faces….  as if every face sees only a part of the narrative, never the whole.  But we all read it together.

The moment when the troupe was nude came with a most disconcerting set of masks–the mask of babies, forcing the audience to see these toned and beautiful bodies as children, and therefore part of a cultural taboo to think of sexually.  Even though the adults had attractive bodies, those baby faces completely squelched any sexual interpretation.  I settled for Innocence as the last act.

The masks–you couldn’t take your eyes off them.  When the faces of the elderly or the babies’ faces were placed on those bodies, you couldn’t help but read them as the face of that body.  It was very funny and surreal.  It’s the eyes.  We hone in on the eyes–and no matter what body is below, we will believe the face.

After the dance was over, the dancers had a talkback and we discussed the idea of Narrative.  At first, they talked about the spontaneity of the dance, that they script themselves new moves and moments based on their day, their own thoughts.  But even they admitted that there is some linear, motivational leap they make themselves in their own heads to get from one action to another, especially in the ensemble pieces.  They hold their own inner narratives about their dances.

We discussed how the dance does invite the reader to create meaning.  I’m reminded of Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  Keats can’t help himself but make a narrative out of the figures on the urn :

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

“Thou silent form dost tease us out of thought….”  Exactly, Keats!  I felt as if the dance teased out a thought, a narrative, out of each person.

And this, I think, is the brilliance of good modern dance.  Good Dance allows us all to have a collective experience in beauty, and allows us, simultaneously, to find our own individual truths and experience them privately.  It slips in perfectly between our firewalls and gets at our deepest held emotions and truths.  Against our own wills even, we weave a narrative out of beauty.  It is dangerous then to see it–it is an act of courage to watch it.  And it is an emotional act of community to sit and let the dance pull these narratives from us, in public.

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