Philippe Decouflé, Solo, The Place Theatre, 28 October 2004.
Philippe Decouflé's 'Solo' was surely the most magical work in this year's Dance Umbrella. It was a clever combination of old-fashioned showmanship and state-of-the-art, real-time video special effects devised in collaboration with the video artist and dancer Olivier Simola.
Early in the piece, Decouflé introduced himself using a microphone on a stand held out rather tentatively towards him by an assistant. The dance maker explained that this was a solo and in a solo there is only one person on stage. So he rather testily ordered his assistant to leave. In fact of course he was supported in this 80 minute piece by a small team, and for much of the time was not the only person on stage, sharing it instead with trombonist Joachim Latarget, although at one point he tied him and his instrument up with adhesive tape. With their help Decouflé conjured up dazzling illusions, phantasmagoria, and uncanny presences.
The piece started with video back projected onto a little screen in the middle of the darkened space. This showed the silhouettes of two hands that became the heads of imaginary monsters worrying and snapping at one another. Gradually light appeared behind the screen and the audience realized that this was not pre-recorded but live action filmed from a tiny camera on the floor. This now showed his feet dancing in close up; but because he was between the projector and the screen, superimposed on this image was the shadow of his upper body. These elements -- hands, close ups, and the relationship between dancer, shadow and his projected image -- formed the main elements of the performance.
Digital projection in live performance is always so big and seductive that one usually ends up watching the screen rather than the live performer. But in a way that seemed to be what Decouflé wanted. Although he has a powerful presence and adopted a comic persona, he used these like a stage conjurer to focus the audience's attention not on himself but on what he was creating.
Having introduced these elements, Decouflé then gradually built them up, working first only with one sharp shadow thrown on the right half of a large rear screen. Then he danced with two shadows, then these were filmed and projected in mirror symmetry on the left half of the screen. Then he moved close to the screen standing at the intersection between the two halves and as he moved his arms in strong angular shapes, a third projected arm appeared, and then a fourth, and then as he moved forwards his solo became a duet with his digital doppelganger.
As the piece progressed, his interactions with his projected image became increasingly baroque as real-time special effects were applied to the video image to create overwhelming complexity and some kaleidoscopic distortions.
Thus in a later sequence, which Decouflé told us was inspired by the films of Busby Berkeley, he danced with a chorus line of digital clones of himself one behind another receding to infinity. And there seemed to be a time delay between each clone so that when the real Decouflé made a throw away gesture with his arms it rippled away down the line. Then he became a swimmer who dived into the water and swam, moves which again rippled down the line in a sequence that was strangely reminiscent of Doris Humphrey's 1928 'Water Study'.
A little later he seemed to be quoting from photographs of Ted Shawn and his male dancers in the 1935, machine-inspired dance 'Kinetic Molpai'. Like them wearing only briefs, Decouflé flowed through a series of strong Shawn-like, geometric poses. Behind him these were transformed into a spiralling kaleidoscope of angular, moving limbs. Like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings, the live body which was actually creating them seemed almost to disappear. Decouflé seemed almost to be camouflaging himself so that, like a chameleon, he could merge perfectly into his environment.
One sequence that was performed without special effects was a solo version of his 1993 video 'Le P'tit bal'. This was set to a very French chanson complete with accordion accompaniment in which Bourvil recounts memories of lovers in an old ruined dance hall just after the war. Far from going along with the song's wistful but gritty nostalgia, Decouflé's choreography picked out, dissected, and fragmented its words (just as the projections dissected and fragmented his dancing). Thus the little dance hall (le petit bal) became a bouncing ball, while the French word 'appelait' (called) became 'pelle' (spade) and 'lait' (milk).
'Solo' was made last year to celebrate 20 years of Decouflé's company DCA, (founded in 1983 the same year as De Keersmaeker's Rosas and Lea Anderson's Cholmondeleys). For those who have followed his work over the years, 'Solo' was replete with quotations like this and evident re-workings of long term concerns. This was done not in a self-congratulatory or celebratory way, but seemed more like an exercise in self-examination, a taking stock.
All through 'Solo' Decouflé mesmerised the audience with increasingly complex and fragmentary processes building up his richly bizarre, if largely two-dimensional, imaginary world. He brought to the stage a sense of time and space usually only found in film and television, but injected it with what film and television lack: the excitement of witnessing the unique, unrepeatable moment of live performance.
Then right at the end, Decouflé danced tucked away in a far corner of the stage, poignantly alone with no video projection and under unremarkable, subdued lighting. All that was left was his now familiar movement vocabulary -- the conjurer's simple but strongly compelling hands, the strong stances that make boldly silhouetted shapes, and the quirky little isolations of head or shoulder (Marcel Marceau, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Nikolai). Like Shakespeare's Prospero at the end of 'The Tempest', Decouflé had finally renounced his arcane powers. But this performance will surely live on for those of us lucky enough to see it, indelibly fixed in our memories. Magic.