Opera ballet

Dance review: “Body and Soul” from the Paris Opera Ballet – dark and powerful boogie

By Jessica Lockhart

Body and soul generates a whirlwind of passions – joy, frustration, pleasure and rage.

An online performance of the Paris Opera Ballet’s performance of Crystal Pite Body and soulpresented by the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival until July 15.

A scene from the Paris Opera Ballet Body and soul. Photo: Julien Benhamou.

The pandemic shut down the world. Now, as we re-emerge, the art world and dance festivals are cautiously welcoming their audiences. Jacob’s Pillow 2021 Dance Festival will offer a scaled down version this summer. There will be no indoor theater performances, but a few on-site outdoor presentations as well as online-only performances. Opening week featured Dorrance Dance in person and the Paris Opera Ballet online. The Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest national dance company; it was founded in 1661. This performance was the American premiere of Body and soul, created in 2019 by Crystal Pite.

Pite is a Canadian choreographer who usually works with a number of close collaborators when creating a new ballet. Her costume, set and musical assistants helped her build the work of an evening for the Paris Opera Ballet. Body and soul features a cast of 35 exceptional dancers whose efforts are enhanced by elegant costumes, a stunning soundscape and evocative lighting. The piece is made up of three parts. Pite was obviously interested in the transformation of the stage space: first we are in a dark and intimate space, then in a wide open place, and finally we venture into a strange and out of this world place.

The ballet begins with two dancers sharing the stage in immobility: an austere beam of light illuminates them. A voice intones: “Figure I is lying on the ground, Figure 2 begins to pace. Right, left, right left. Repeat. Chin, neck, shoulder…a struggle. The voice continues to describe every detail of the couple’s movements. This two-minute opening section establishes the central theme of the entire dance, which is an examination of conflict and connectedness. Pite uses text repetition to explore how voiceover can change tempo and timing and can subtly shift moods. The text is in turn spoken, whispered and shouted, each intonation triggering different emotions.

After the initial duet, the entire cast performs to the same voiceover. They repeat the requested movements, but not as individuals. We see two masses standing against each other. Men and women were dressed in black suits with long overcoats, white shirts and ties. This formal look adds to the dark intensity. We see variation after variation on the same situation, as the dancers repeatedly attempt the way the two characters (or groups) meet. Sometimes it’s two angry mobs; it may be a woman and her dying lover. The exploration of pushing and pulling via various groupings continues, with dancers shedding their coats and shirts to reveal singlets – the view adds a rawer feel to their movements. Body and soul generates a whirlwind of passions – joy, frustration, pleasure and rage. A dark and powerful beauty is present everywhere. Owen Belton’s original score serves up the power of the text, skillfully layering vocals, chants, wave sounds and many other ambient sounds.

The second part was danced to the Préludes, opus 28 by Frédéric Chopin. At first, the classical music provides a soothing effect, enhanced by a now lit and open stage. After a while, the dancers begin to treat Chopin’s preludes with humour.

A scene from the Paris Opera Ballet Body and soul. Photo: Julien Benhamou.

The third part begins with a dark scene and the sounds of squeaking and whispering. We see the outlines of some kind of insect or animal. The soundscape becomes eerie and inquisitive. The background fades to a faded red and we see creatures with long pincer arms moving together in a pack. As they leave, a very different animal appears on stage, covered in an elaborate mane of fur and wearing a headdress filled with long, shaggy hair. The creature’s face is covered so we can’t tell what kind of animal it is when it walks around. The futuristic “insects” return, and they follow the directions given by the voiceover. They start to fight.

Most of the evening is spent in serious study of how people struggle to resolve disagreements and learn to get along. The play’s unusual conclusion, with its violence, poses a difficult question. Was this commotion really necessary?

At the end of part three, as the last insect creature exits the stage, we suddenly hear a bluesy garage-rock song. The furry animal reappears wearing a flared bottom. The “insects” come back and get rid of their claws. What looks like a collection of soul dancers and voguers all move together to a song called “Body and Soul.” The lyrics repeat a mantra: “I get what I want. Not everything I want. A piece of your heart. Your body and your soul. So that’s Pite’s message! It’s so fun and weird. It’s almost as if the seriousness of the whole evening boiled down to a single idea. We are all one creature with the same basic desire: boogie. Happy post-lockdown America, it’s time to dance.

Jessica Lockhart is a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in Dance Criticism and holds a BA in Communications from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is an award-winning freelance journalist with the Maine Association of Broadcasters. Currently, she is also working as a Program Director at WMPG Community Radio.