Just Words by Serge Bennathan reaches unabashedly for the heart with its words but hits the guts with its movement. Les Productions Figlio’s latest evening-length work addresses somewhat rare topics in contemporary dance these days such as love, beauty and art, all without apology. It is an honest portrayal of the choreographer himself and where he is on his artistic path. He poses questions that are not slick or en vogue but derived from the musings of an artist who has been choreographing for over three decades.
Just Words begins in darkness. Quiet percussion music builds as the lights slowly reveal a theatre exposed to its bare bones. The silhouetted figures of the three performers (Karissa Barry, Hilary Maxwell and Serge Bennathan) stand upstage, behind a line drawn on the floor in light. The scene conjures up images of battle, preparation for conflict or the starting line of a journey — likely Barry and Maxwell’s state of mind as they are about to embark on a gruelling hour of full-on dancing. The three move straight downstage in confident, wide strides before Bennathan belts out, “Vasy!” (French for “go on”) and the piece begins in earnest. His exclamation is the command of a ringleader, the instruction of a director or the order of a coach, all roles Bennathan’s voice plays throughout the piece.
The dancers open into a long elastic lunge with their arms spread wide in second position. It is a formal position but also generous and almost heroic. From there they rise onto a risky relevé before swirling off balance and into a wild phrase of quick movement that bursts them across the stage, changing levels in and out of the floor, in unison.
Bennathan’s signature dynamic quality shifts are at work in Just Words. At one moment detailed fingers like antennas paint the sky, and the next explosive jumping gives way to sensual spirals, quick rhythmic scampers and then back to tumbling through space. The dancing is ferocious. Maxwell and Barry attack the movement and claim the space without restraint. They are fierce and strong performers who tackle both the imagistic subtleties and the powerful athleticism in Bennathan’s vocabulary. The musical score composed by Bennathan’s longtime collaborator Bertrand Chénier is subtle and well supportive to the piece, with plenty of space for the poetry and the choreography to be heard and seen. In addition to Chénier’s music, the piece includes an unintentional real-time soundscore made up of the sounds produced by the dancers: squeaking sneakers and the breathy exhalations of their exerting bodies. It’s bodily music that is palpable and draws the viewer into the dance. This ferociousness in the movement is paired with Bennathan’s poetry spoken throughout.
In the first poem of the piece, Bennathan places himself directly downstage centre, holding his pages, addressing the audience directly with sincerity and humour. He asks, “Do we still speak about love?” before reciting a love poem. The words overlap with the dancing and they blur together.
Bennathan’s role in the trio shifts between voyeur, ringleader, narrator and participant. He moves sparingly in the piece and seems to be a part of a different world than the one occupied by Barry and Maxwell. The relationship between him and the dancers reads differently at various points in the work. At times they appear as typical female muses, dancing for the master, while at others they are the subject of his poetry or juxtaposition to it.
Likewise, the relationship between words and dancing also changes throughout the piece, each taking its turn to be in the foreground or the background. Though in this regard, the viewers’ own perspectives determined a lot. While seasoned dance viewers may be practiced at placing the dancing foreground and leaving the words to slip in and colour their experience, others might take in the piece with the words leading.
In one particularly poignant moment, Bennathan speaks to the audience as Barry and Maxwell abandon their dance and move purposefully toward the voice. In slow motion they each place a hand on his shoulder and remain there until he completes his words. It is a simple image and the sole moment of physical contact between the three. It is almost as if the dancers were drawing energy from him and he from them, a touching reference to the invisible ties that connect artists, performers who share a stage and those who share the practice of dancing.
When Just Words arrives at the first solo section, the unison breaks and the dancers are given voice. Barry speaks a text written by Bennathan titled “What is it?” that she delivers with fieriness as she asks the title question repeatedly. In the second solo Maxwell, who has been running through a series of small impulses, like a fighter pumping herself for the fight, is called into action by the last line of Bennathan’s poem In the Company of Dancers. He looks downstage toward Maxwell and says, “I call them simply the courageous,” launching Maxwell into movement. Her solo foreshadows and is an attempt (and failure and re-attempt) at the bravery and courage described in the last poem of the piece.
In the final section, Bennathan gets to the point of his work. It is about artists. With only a small touch of nostalgia, Just Words is about Bennathan’s own life in dance as much as it is a tribute to those who dedicate themselves to the craft and to their bravery. “Courage, yes, yes, all of this to talk about courage,” he says. “Courage to one who stands firm. Courage to one who dares venture into doubts,” and later, “The artist guides you. Yes, that’s the right word, guides.” His sentiment about the artist and her role likely hit the heart of every dancer in the theatre. The work is hopeful and heartfelt, sentiments that are uncommon, but refreshing.