Maguy Marin may be considered a national treasure in France, but for those of us who weren’t around in the 1980s, it isn’t always easy to reconcile that image with her most recent work. In the past few years, Marin has firmly turned to “non-dance” with a series of creations hell-bent on denying the audience the measly pleasure of seeing performers move; a few have just been seen in Paris as part of the Maguy Marin retrospective presented by the Festival d’automne this year, including the 2006 Cap au Pire, a glorified lighting installation set to a Samuel Beckett reading.
Another Beckett-inspired production goes a long way towards explaining Marin’s enduring influence, however. May B, her first hit and a landmark work for French contemporary dance, is as much of a revelation today as it must have been in 1981, when it heralded new perspectives for dance. The current revival at the Théâtre du Rond-Point drew instant cheers as the curtain fell, and they were wholly deserved: with its structural integrity and seamless use of both dance and theatre, it remains, 30-odd years after its creation, an uncomfortable vision of human nature.
Marin met the 75-year-old Beckett as she was starting work on May B, and it is hard to imagine a better dance realisation of the author’s world. On stage, 10 performers act out absurdist images of alienation: covered in off-white chalk that steadily falls off to cover the stage, they start out as distant, still figures to Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger, until whistles set them in motion. Dressed in nightclothes, they shuffle forwards and backwards, their faces made masklike by the chalk. As they join in a grotesque pack, their emotions resonate as if from a distance, whether it’s the gleeful sense of discovery when they masturbate or the sudden violence as they split into rival groups.
Throughout May B, words are reduced to a logorrhea of grunts and jarring, bloodcurdling laughs; the performers project both a feral sense of rhythm as a group and an image of all-encompassing humanity, with symbolically old, hunched, imperfect bodies. The central scene, a reinvention of Beckett characters from Godot’s Lucky and Pozzo to Endgame’s Hamm and Clov, leaves dance aside to focus on pure theatre and culminates in a whimsical fragment where the entire cast mimes a birthday song to a blind, imperturbable man.
May B comes full circle towards the end, when the characters enter and re-enter with suitcases through doors at the back to Gavin Bryars’ melancholy “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. For all their anxious encounters en route, they seem to be going nowhere, until one of them stops in the centre and utters the first words from Beckett’s Endgame: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” There is no relief in that particular journey, and Marin matches Beckett every step of the way.