Kaija Pepper (KP): What would it be like to inhabit the world of manga, the Japanese cartoon art form that fills its pages with forceful depictions of energy and stillness in characters whose emotions tend toward epic proportions? “Manga”, Serge Bennathan’s full-length duet, goes some way to answering that question through transforming those one-dimensional, black and white drawings into real-world – although admittedly highly abstract – modern dance.
Toronto-based dancers Susie Burpee and Linnea Swan star as the plucky heroines engaged in battle with monumental, though unspecified, forces that sweep them into extreme physical situations. Because this is dance, we don’t learn the details of their adventures – without words in either speech or comic book captions, there is no concrete story. In fact, “Manga” seemed constructed without a narrative or dramatic through line at all, and struck me as a series of sketches – all clear and richly textured, done by a master artist able to evoke what he wants in a few sure strokes.
These are my first thoughts, Megan, after seeing the work at its premiere in Vancouver, where Bennathan has recently relocated and set up his own company, Les Productions Figlio. Before that, he spent fifteen years as the artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers, when I know you were a close observer of his work. Now that you’ve seen “Manga” during its Toronto run, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
Megan Andrews (MA): I was struck by the layering of sound, light and movement in this work because I found their combination unusual for Bennathan. In past works, he has generally integrated these three elements in a more organic way, with each clearly and conventionally supporting the others. In “Manga”, the relationships between elements were much more contrapuntal. The sound, lights and movement have autonomous lines throughout, with sound continuing through many blackouts, movement at times in silence, and lighting changes taking primary focus while the dancers remain still (which they do quite often for relatively long intervals).
The effect was jarring at first, and I wondered at certain points whether something had gone technically wrong, but with the repetition I recognized the purposefulness of the choices. The individual timings and phrasings of these elements create significant tension throughout the work, and the dancers seem to battle against the existential forces made present through the sound and lights. This more abstract dynamic also seems to be a departure for Bennathan from previous full-evening works, which are grounded in the dynamics of interpersonal and community relationships and more dramatic/theatrical narratives (I’m thinking of “Tziganes” (2004) and “The Invisible Life of Joseph Finch” (2000), for example). What did you think of this structure?
KP: On the same night you saw “Manga” in Toronto, I saw Ballet British Columbia’s remount of Bennathan’s 1994 ensemble piece, “In and Around Kozla Street”. I thought afterwards about how I just fell into this work, which builds a strong emotional resonance that left me deeply moved by the end. “Manga” took more concentration on my part and you’re right to point out a more abstract dynamic behind it. I think that’s what I meant when I said I saw it as a series of sketches – related yet independent – which every artist has the right to do, but which has a different sort of interest for viewers. Once I recognized that, I began enjoying myself more.
MA: I will never forget the flying kiss in “Kozla Street”, which I first saw danced by Crystal Pite and Jay Gower Taylor when they were with Ballet BC. She runs and leaps into his arms and he spins her off her feet, around and around, and all the while they maintain a kiss on the lips.
As for “Manga”, the piece opens with the low screeching strings of Bertrand Chenier’s ambient score. We sit in the black for what seems a long time. Eventually, a grid of light appears on the stage floor, eight dusky squares with a brighter centre square – the frames of manga comics. Swan and Burpee, in black slip dresses and knee-length leggings, stand in opposite corners, arms raised and slightly curved forward toward each other, antagonistically. They wait. We wait. Then … they simultaneously fling themselves in the air in a barrel turn, to drop, roll and begin pacing on all fours about the space like animals stalking prey. Every so often, they collide and struggle against each other, side-to-side, grunting a little. They release and continue their caged pacing.
What was your response to the movement vocabulary? Throughout the work, I definitely saw movement images of fighters (boxers or wrestlers) and also of ballet dancers, though exaggerated and distorted in a kind of diva-grotesque.
KP: Your description of the work’s opening makes the whole thing present for me – it’s been three weeks since I saw it. What struck me overall was the sense of purpose in the choreography, which is typical of Bennathan. The dancers are forthright and determined in their movements, and I like that. The tension in the hands creates angular shapes full of import – sometimes it’s just a finger held stiffly aloft, like a lonely sentinel – and the extreme stretch when they stand on tiptoe seems to suggest a naïve enthusiasm that is so touching.
Yes, I did see ballet, but in a very strange way! It was in a section where the music sounded all rippling and haunted. Swan and Burpee round their arms in a neat fifth position to frame their faces, and then Burpee flutters her fingers softly against her ribcage, and soon Swan joins in – and I swear I heard and saw “Swan Lake”, though even at the time I laughed at what I felt was a brief episode of, perhaps, overly imaginative associations. It was over a minute later as they began turning with their short skirts swirling round their hips and their hair flying in those completely un-balletic, full-textured turns I’ve seen before in Bennathan’s work.
Yes, too, to the fighters you saw – only I thought of them as warriors, who seemed to be battling huge forces – whether environmental or existential, or both.
MA: The program note, in Toronto at least, indicated that in “Manga” Bennathan was continuing his exploration of “what is the essence of an artist”. The ballet images that we both saw also played a role in “Absences” (2006), Bennathan’s last work as artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers. I took them there as a reference to Bennathan’s own background as a ballet dancer for Roland Petit’s company in France. Perhaps it’s not so specific or personal; however, there’s something heartwrenching and nostalgic about seeing Swan and Burpee gliding, turning and posing in that odd, almost decrepit way. I think about having seen Merce Cunningham dancing in his old age and how beautifully awkward he was – a consummate artist whose body was failing him. Though Swan and Burpee are still very much in their physical prime (and dance this taxing piece with poise and assurance), I couldn’t help but think about the effects of aging on the dancer and the struggle therein, between expressive impulse and physical constraint.
That brings me back to the images of fighters or warriors. Dance artists – artists in general – do struggle with and through their chosen media to manifest their vision or expression in the world. In one way, I see “Manga” as a kind of auto-referential dance – about dance.
KP: We had the same program note in Vancouver, which also mentions that the “seed” of the work was Bennathan’s desire to continue working with Burpee and Swan. While I don’t feel this insider information helped me enter the particular theatrical reality of “Manga” (and when I read the note in the bustle of the theatre, it was in a distracted way), I enjoyed what I saw as fleeting references to the art form itself. Perhaps for you they were more integral because you’re still a dancer yourself. MA: Coming back to the movement, I agree with you about the naïve enthusiasm of those upward reaches on demi-point with slight side curves. There’s hopefulness there. And the grounded shuffles and rhythmic skips and hops, also typical of Bennathan’s palette, reveal a giddy determination. There’s passion, attack and abandon in his work, along with quirky and poignant moments. Do you recall the sequence near the end when the two dancers arrive in unison downstage right facing the audience, to open their arms to the side, palms upward? They stand for a long time, simply looking out at us, almost beseeching. I felt like I was being asked to face them (and to face myself), as human beings. It seemed as though they were saying: “What are you going to do?” The preceding storm of movement (you mentioned environmental forces and I agree) and the shifting dynamics of music and lighting set up this moment perfectly.
KP: I enjoyed this section because it brought the dancers right before us. Earlier, we do see Swan clearly when she stands and pulls Popeye and other exaggerated faces – but then she’s like a cartoon character in a crazy make-believe existence. In fact, they’re mostly in their own world, and it’s as if we’re not there. Here, Burpee and Swan are women – as you say, human beings – sharing the same space as us.
Having the performers so far downstage also took them a little out of the forbidding space created by Jay Gower Taylor’s “Environment Design”, which encloses the stage with black curtains on three walls. For the most part, it’s as if Burpee and Swan are on some distant planet, with lighting designer James Proudfoot creating squares and strips of illumination that are welcome but lonely oases in the dark.
Maybe “Manga” is an inter-galactic adventure into Bennathan’s mind – about manga and dance, and the theatrical and the real world – and it’s all created with no special effects whatsoever! I’ll sign off with this thought and just add that I’d love to be able to return to the theatre and have some more fun exploring “Manga” and our reactions to it and to each other’s views.
MA: Before I wrap up, I have to say that I’m glad you mentioned the design. It was cavernous, with those black walls rising ever upward. However, the impact for me was in the fact that, with no wings or upstage exits, the dancers really had no way out; at times I felt like they were truly trapped – their existence constrained to the pages and frames of a comic.
I agree it would be great to see the work again and I’ll be interested to see where Bennathan goes next. While he has a very strong and consistent signature as an artist, I feel his move away from Dancemakers has enabled him to take some risks with his vision, free from the obligations of that company structure and core audience. “Manga” has a dark and ominous tone that was certainly under the surface in his past works, yet here comes much more into the open. The edge it gives complicates his work in a good way, and it’s exciting to see.
Thanks Kaija. Let’s do this again!