Carolina Performing Arts brought some superior strangeness to UNC’s Memorial Hall in the form of Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s Orpheus et Eurydice, which it co-commissioned as part of its Gender Project series. The Canadian choreographer’s exploration of this ancient myth is physically stunning and intellectually demanding. No rehashed romantic riff on the poet’s sad weakness and loss of love, this dance theatre piece is less a version of the story, than a plumbing of its depths. It takes you down to Hades on a fast train fueled by Eros, and when it puts you off at the return station, you understand much, much more about the danger of looking back.
A great deal of dance theatre today starts in someone’s head, but for Chouinard, the body is the source of everything, including thought and language. This makes for unfettered power on the stage. Stage images almost unbearably grotesque lace together with moments of such sexual power and sequences of such grace that the viewer is whiplashed and sucker-punched into stunning insights.
Chouinard universalizes the myth by making all her women Eurydice, and all her men Orpheus — and vice versa. Through clever changing of costumes, the roles move back and forth between the sexes. Gold Lycra hotpants and pasties switch off with French blue cargo pants. Whoever is wearing which, there is plenty of skin on view. Where many artists talk about gender-bending and transgression, Chouinard accomplishes both in this work. Two scenes were particularly likely to break through your mental boundaries. In one, the five men sashay slowly onto the dimly lit stage, each Orpheus strapped into black platform stilettos and a magnificent prosthetic phallus. Silhouetted against the pale back wall, they move through a series of elegant shapes: It is as if they are inked letters flowing onto a parchment, issuing from the poet’s pen in some daring ode to sexual power. All too soon, they are attacked by the five Bacchantes in their sexual frenzy, and it is not long before Orpheus’ battered head becomes a voiceless monument on Lesbos.
Another protracted scene is literally transgressive. Eurydice, a chain swinging between her nipple pasties, and her tiny gold pants supplemented by fur anklets and a headset, comes leaping over the stage apron and into the audience, a furious, tongue-less, wordless gabble pouring from her mouth. This is late in the piece, and the skin that had been so cool and white when she first appeared is now pink and slick with sweat. This barely-clad woman springs from armrest to armrest, over row after row of slack-jawed viewers, while from the stage men shout: “Don’t look back! She will disappear forever. Don’t look back!” As she passed over the audience, neck after neck tensed with the effort of not looking. It was as if the entire crowd were one body, and its hackles were rising.
Chouinard is hardly the first to associate creativity with sexuality, but this work is an unusually clear statement of the erotic component of the propulsive, future-seeking force that generates art. Orpheus’ song was silenced by his own backward-looking fear. Eurydice, the tree nymph, flowers each year — but does fruit grow on a branch without a poet to describe it? Life, love and art all depend on looking forward. That is the message of a truly avant-garde artist.