I’ll be the first to confess that I’m hopelessly out of my depth when talking about dance forms, movement theory, or the history of circus arts. My area of expertise has an average radius of about 20 inches and stands just 1 inch high if placed flat on the ground. It is made of plastic pipe and its secrets–only those I am ready to understand–have been revealed to me in a few select backyards, cleared-out-once-were-living-rooms, repurposed tae kwon do dojhangs, and humble movement studios of the small but happening town of Carrboro, NC. And yet…
Yet I must speak about James Thiérreé. It approaches the realm of folly for me to venture a comment on the movement art of this 37-year-old legend. And yet! I recognize so much in his movement that is meaningful to me, so much that I want to better understand, to inhabit, to learn and to teach. In saying this I feel a mist of admiration, longing, and sadness suffuse me, because the little bit I know tells me that his dance (which for perhaps the first time seems an insufficient term) is comprised of elements so particular, and so inimitable, that to even hope for such an education would be an exercise in absurdity. And yet.
Thiérreé was born into the very cradle of surreal, re-imagined circus performance. His mother was the 4th child of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene O’Neill) and she–along with his father, a French actor and artist–created the first “new circus” in France in 1971. In this context, the ideas behind performance took precedence over staged feats with wild animals and glittery costumes. The imagination became the central piece in the act. This redirection and reinvention of circus arts thrives today in acts such as Cirque Berserk and our own hoop friends the Code Red Circus Conspiracy. And–perhaps needless to say–in Thiérreé himself.
I saw Thiérreé’s Au Revoir Parapluie at BAM three years ago–being lucky enough to have a smart and discerning friend who knows much more than I do about dance–and my mind was properly blown. And! Yet! Tonight I saw 70 minutes (missed the first 10 because I was in the wrong building) of Thiérreé’s newest piece, Raoul, and I felt in every part of myself all that had changed since the last time witnessed this master, this genius, this magician of movement.
What had changed was me. I had grown older. I had been with my movement practice for three more years. Those years had taken me through the loss of my life’s greatest love, a move from home, a new start in a big city. I had begun to understand the limits of the body. I had deepened my own relationship to movement. I had experienced my body as nothing but a channel for pure energy, pure motion. I had begun to see that the body has its own language that doesn’t need another language. I had finally begun to understand dance.
What had changed was him. He created a home onstage. Before you even understood that it was a home, it began to break down. Everything was funny. Everything was frightening and beautiful. A huge silver fish chased him. He portrayed the utterly real slow-motion of film and dreams. Arcs of wind moved through his entire body. He shook with sound. A scorpion-bird ate more of his house. The world beyond was icy cold and mercurial. There was no safety. He mined through the darkness with a single light. He found a fellow-man, a soldier’s shadow. He was blessed by large and gentle creatures. Finally, he sailed through the sky.
He slid through frames of movement as easily and casually as one might rifle through a huge pile of old family photographs. I was awestruck at the simple breadth of what he was able to suggest through movement. With one swing of his forearm, he introduced a wave of comically vulnerable uncertainty, releasing peals of laughter throughout the theater. He echoed the most elemental motions of air and water, and in the next moment was suddenly on the ground as an overpoweringly convincing gorilla. He picked up a violin, giggling, picking at the strings. In a breath he was playing Schubert.
Throughout the performance, I kept thinking of organic form, an idea first advanced by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which he recognized that the apparent collapse of traditional poetic forms (the epic, the sonnet) was actually a renewal of form–from the strict constraints of specific meters and rhyme schemes to shapes and sounds more unique to their occasion, and hence better suited to the philosophic and moral complexities that he and his colleagues were beginning to encounter in a bigger and more technologically-driven world. The questions and explorations–the very concerns– of the poem began to affect the forms the poet chose. And the poet, unable to find the right choice within existing forms, began to shape his own.
To me, hoopdance is a living event of organic form, evolving into new technique and new depth of expression literally day by day. In Thiérreé’s dance, I see the masterful achievement of a lifetime synthesizing the skills and techniques of dance and circus arts into a new form which is itself alone. The hoop, in its toyful humility, gives us a kind of kids’ window onto the experience. I peer in, standing on a very large box, my eyes wide with wonder at the sight.