Dance criticism: “Body and Soul” from the Paris Opera Ballet – Dark and Potent 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 soul, presented 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 has closed the world. Today, as we reappear, the art world and dance festivals are cautiously welcoming their audiences. The Jacob’s Pillow 2021 Dance Festival will offer a smaller version this summer. There will be no indoor theater performances, but a few on-site outdoor presentations as well as online-only performances. The 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 first American of Body and soul, created in 2019 by Crystal Pite.

Pite is a Canadian choreographer who usually works with a number of close collaborators as she creates a new ballet. Her costume, decor 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, stunning soundscape and evocative lighting. The play 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 a place wide open, and finally we venture into a strange place, from another world.

The ballet begins with two dancers sharing the stage in stillness: 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 change moods. The text is alternately spoken, whispered and shouted, each intonation triggering different emotions.

After the initial duet, the entire cast performs on the same voiceover. They repeat the requested movements, but not individually. We see two masses rise up against each other. Both men and women wore black suits with long overcoats, a white shirt, and a tie. This formal look adds to the dark intensity. We see variation after variation on the same situation, as the dancers look at how the two characters (or groups) meet. Sometimes it’s two angry crowds; it could be a woman and her dying lover. The exploration of pushing and pulling via various groups continues, with dancers shedding coats and shirts to reveal underwear – the sight adds a rougher feel to their movements. Body and soul generates a whirlwind of passions – joy, frustration, pleasure and rage. Dark and powerful beauty runs through everything. Owen Belton’s original score harnesses the power of the text, agile layering of vocals, chants, wave sounds and many other ambient sounds.

The second part was danced to Frédéric Chopin’s Préludes, Opus 28. At the beginning, the classical music provides a calming effect, reinforced by a scene now brilliantly lit and open. After a while, the dancers begin to treat Chopin’s preludes with humor.

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

The third part begins with a black scene and sounds of crackles and whispers. We see the outlines of some kind of insect or animal. The soundscape becomes strange and inquisitive. The background turns molten red, and we see creatures with long pincer arms moving together in a pack. As they depart, a very different animal emerges 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 make out what type of animal it is when it wanders. The futuristic “bugs” return, and they follow the instructions given by the voice-over. They start to fight.

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

At the end of Part 3, as the last insect creature comes off the stage, we suddenly hear a garage-rock blues song. The furry animal reappears dressed in bell stockings. The “insects” come back and get rid of their claw arms. What looks like an assemblage of soul dancers and voguers all move together on a song called “Body and Soul”. The lyrics repeat a mantra: “I get what I want. Not all 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 boils down to one idea. We are all one creature with the same basic desire: boogie. Happy America post-containment, it’s time to dance.

Jessica lockhart is a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and holds a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is an award-winning freelance journalist with the Maine Association of Broadcasters. Currently, she also works as a program director at WMPG community radio.