As a season for artistic appreciation, summer is fidgety and easily distracted. Think action-adventure blockbusters tearing across the multiplex. Think loud, Big Gulp-sized outdoor music festivals. And if you’re looking for refuge in more high-brow cultural activities, think interminable, grumpy queues in just about any museum you care to name. As one wag put it, “Summer is kind of like the ultimate one-night stand: hot as hell, totally thrilling, and gone before you know it.” It’s not exactly a contemplative season. No, if you crave something thoughtful and considered, you need the seasonal equivalent of a fine Bordeaux. Something to swirl in the glass, sip, linger over. You want autumn. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” Keats called it, pointedly omitting any mention of one night stands.
At any time of year, staging a solo performance is courageous. But in the season of one-night stands, trying to build an intimate relationship with an audience over the course of an evening is emotional daring on the same level as walking a high wire between skyscrapers. So when Cédric Andrieux took the stage and, before he speaking a word, allowed long moments to pass in silence between him and his audience, you knew he was asking a good deal of them. But he offered, for those who were able to slip into sync with him, a great deal in return for that commitment.
Conceived and directed by French choreographer Jérôme Bel, the eponymously named performance piece Cédric Andrieux is an hour-long live documentary of sorts. Facing straight ahead, a wireless mic curling around his jaw, often looking more focused than fearless, Andrieux shares the story of his life as a dancer with sharply detailed anecdotes and dance demonstrations.
His life in dance did not have a bright beginning. He was, he says, not outwardly suited to it in any way. On seeing Andrieux, age 12, enter her studio for the first time, his dance teacher assesses his chances for a professional career, saying, “Alright. This will be good for his personal development.”
But Andrieux’s mother, a product of the Cultural Revolution in 1960s France, loved modern dance for its egalitarianism and freedom, and she inspires her son to stay with his studies. In due course, he’s accepted into one of the leading dance schools in Paris and there finds himself relentlessly tested, compared, and ranked alongside the other students. The school, he says, “Destroyed everything my mother believed about modern dance.”
A distinguished dance career follows. Andrieux arrives in the United States, dancing first with the Jennifer Muller Company, and later, thrilled by the invitation, he joins Merce Cunningham’s renowned ranks. The Cunningham studio is mentally demanding, emotionally draining, physically punishing. Andrieux demonstrates for us the warm-up routine he practiced every day, without variance.
“This,” he says, now bent over and pretzel shaped, “is the exercise I hated. It always hurt. I could never get my back perfectly flat.” Moving through more of the exercises he tells us, “Around this time is when I started getting bored. I look at the other dancers. I look out the window. I see New Jersey.”
The goal of all this misery is to achieve the unattainable, to convey through performance Cunningham’s notion that, “It’s only when movement becomes awkward that it becomes interesting.” All of this comes at a terrible cost in wear and tear on a dancer’s body, and Andrieux makes this point without dwelling on it for our sympathy. He does make clear that for all their dedication and talent, a dancer is fundamentally the choreographer’s employee, their instrument.
Performing excerpts from works by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Philippe Tréhet, he demonstrates each choreographer’s approach to movement, beauty in motion, and the intellectual underpinnings of their art.
Andrieux does a wonderful, soft-spoken job of lifting the veil on his profession and how it has informed his life. Like the unitard that “doesn’t hide anything,” Andrieux doesn’t pull any punches either. As a Cunningham dancer, he frets that he will never be able to do all that Cunningham expects him to do and this, for him, is humiliating. To cover his living expenses in New York, (the dance company barely pays a living wage), he takes part time work as a model in a figure-drawing class and gives a hilarious demo of the typical ungainly pose which he was meant to hold for hours on end. There’s a lot of humor in these stories and a lot of heart in them, too. We follow his return to France where other choreographers, “less violent” in their demands on dancer’s bodies give Andrieux a chance to heal, regroup, and finally reaffirm his love for dance.
It all makes for a splendid, low-key evening that works its way into you rather than coming at you full in the face.
For his efforts, Andrieux earned himself a solid round of applause from his audience. Fitting, but less enthusiastic than he deserved. Personally, I blame summer.