Four choreographers, four works: Gauthier Dance in Swan Lakes

Theaterhaus, Stuttgart
December 15, 2022

As the title of this Gauthier Dance programme suggests, Swan Lakes is an homage to the familiar ballet. But while each of the four works was inspired by the classic, its themes and images, and each is decidedly contemporary, each is also very different with connections are often loose as the choreographers offer a very personal view.

Swan Lake inevitably evokes images of female dancers in feathery white tutus, moving elegantly and gracefully on pointe. In Le Chant du Cygne: Le Lac, Marie Chouinard certainly delivers tutus and pointe shoes. But it wouldn’t be by the grande dame of Canadian contemporary dance if there wasn’t a twist.

Le Chant du Cygne: Le Lac by Marie Chouinard
Photo Jeanette Bak

It begins against a projection of a sea of flames, which later turns to calmer water. Chouinard’s white tutu-ed swans edge on in slow motion. They are in pointe shoes, but only on one foot. They look beaten, certainly psychologically, perhaps physically too. Is this the real effect, that beneath the usual veneer, that Rothbart has on his women, you wonder. They scream silently. They crawl, hobble and edge painfully before each comes to rest on a small block. A nest, a refuge, perhaps.

Each also has a pointe shoe on their right hand, their arms and hands looking remarkably like swans’ necks, heads and beaks. Abstracted references to the classic Swan Lake abound elsewhere too, not least in the way the swans hold their forearm to their forehead. There are hints of Tchaikovsky in Louis Dufort’s music too.

These women may be down, they may be abused, they may be without freedom, but they are not out. They are not without power and pride. They are swans with a cause. And they have a message that they protest. Loudly.

Gauthier Dance in Le Chant du Cygne: Le Lac by Marie Chouinard
Photo Jeanette Bak

That comes with an abrupt change of light. They chant forcibly, ‘Un violador en tu camino’ (‘A rapist on your way’ or ‘The rapist is you’), the Chilean feminist manifesto that denounces sexual violence against women. Devised in 2019 by the arts group Colectivo LASTESIS, it has its roots in the use of political-sexual violence by the police during a social uprising. It condemns the judiciary’s failure to protect women and their rights, and draws attention to how violence is normalised. “It’s policemen. Judges. The state. The president. The oppressive state is a rapist man… The rapist was you.”

It is powerful stuff. Swans and lakes for sure. But in a way that makes you think, makes you sit up and take notice.

The other three pieces are all much more detached from the ballet. No doubt the links are there, but while there are momentary hints, generally they are buried in the depths of the creative process. Much of the time, without the programme notes, you would be hard pushed to make a connection.

Untitled for 7 Dancers by Cayetano Soto,
part of Gauthier Dance’s Swan Lakes programme
Photo Jeanette Bak

Untitled for 7 Dancers by Cayetano Soto is danced to an electro-score by cellist Peter Gregson. On an empty stage, in black and against a black background, seven dancers walk on as humans but then twist and fold as if the midst of some sort of physical transformation. As they switch between soft and strong, there are hints of each performer battling against what is happening.

Movements are animalistic, although not particularly bird-like. Sometimes awkward, sometimes angular, they do have an elegance of sorts, certainly a raw physicality. There are moments when it flows with a gloomy beauty, but it struggles to communicate. Was I on the only one watching the time code display in the corner counting down to zero, I wonder?

More gloom came after the interval with Gauthier Dance artist-in-residence Marco Goecke’s Shara Nur, which has a characteristically dark, ominous mood and haunting music by Icelandic singer Björk.

Gauthier Dance in Shara Nur by Marco Goecke
Photo Jeanette Bak

The title is the name of a lake on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal in Russia. Mineral rich, the waters are said to have healing effects. They also turn red the skin of anyone who swims in it, presumably the reason for the cast’s pink shirts.

Goecke is an impressive dance-maker who usually does communicate, reach out and touch chords but not here. When dancers appear out of the billowing mist, there is lot of the choreographer’s trademark fragmented, fluttering movement. But, although there are occasional clues, including fleeting appearances by a couple of bunches of black swan balloons and one dancer holding, then scrunching up, a paper cut-out swan, anything much in the way of meaning remains resolutely hidden. Perhaps that’s not surprising, however, given that Goecke’s programme note refers to the isolated, remote lake being one of secrets, and about which little is known. Like Shara Nur, the lake, Goecke’s dance felt very deep and very dark.

Gauthier Dance in Hofesh Shechter’s Swan Cake
Photo Jeanette Bak

Hofesh Shechter brings a change of mood with Swan Cake. It looks and feels like a party. And like a party cake, it is bright and vibrant.

The dancers’ casual street clothes are colourful too. They encourage the audience to clap, to join in the party mood. It’s convivial. It’s upbeat. The movement vocabulary leaves no doubt as to the choreographer, but there’s masses of variation, the choreography structurally complex with patterns and formations appearing time and again out of apparent chaos.

Connections to Swan Lake initially appear invisible. Perhaps this is what might happen if the swans managed to escape. But look carefully. Is that little motif the dancers stroking the necks of imaginary swans? Are they a variation on swan arms? Listen carefully too. Yes, there are Shechter’s often referenced Eastern Mediterranean and folkloric tunes, but that is definitely the ‘Dance of the Cygnets’, albeit twisted and played around with.

A slice of Swan Cake was a great way to round things off. One classic, four choreographers, four works, four styles. And an evening in which the dancers of Gauthier Dance were outstanding as they moved between the demands of the different choreographers with ease.