In his epic painting The Raft of the Medusa, Théodore Géricault chose to portray the shipwrecked group at a moment of potential hope. While the dead and despondent occupy the foreground, a small ship is barely visible on the horizon, which others frantically try to flag down. The painting was inspired by true events: After their ship ran aground in shallows, 150 people were placed on a raft and abandoned with almost no supplies. They floated for thirteen days on the overcrowded, semi-submerged raft, fighting and killing each other, some committing suicide, others starving and resorting to cannibalism. In the end, fifteen were rescued. Alan Lake Factori(e)’s remarkable Le cri des méduses engages this work, literally and allegorically, to explore human behaviour in the bleakest circumstances.
It’s not surprising that creator and choreographer Alan Lake has worked as a sculptor, painter and filmmaker: Le cri des méduses incorporates a number of multidisciplinary elements and materials and predominantly makes use of dramatic tableau. Tableau is an apt tool for the performance’s themes: there’s an instability inherent in the momentarily held poses, a strain between movement and stillness, individual and group. Lake and the dancers skilfully vary the tone of the tableaux, which often involve clusters of interconnected bodies, not unlike the intricately posed figures of the painting. In one, dancers form the structural base as they squat widely, their thighs providing the scaffolding for other dancers to mount them and encircle the group with generous arms, creating a sort of dog pile, a comforting solidity. Other groupings are more chaotic, limbs trailing limply along the floor. Inevitably one dancer dislodges and the entire structure falls apart as bodies become mobile again, independent.
Tableau works in tandem with the primary stage prop, the raft, which is used literally and also manipulated to evoke a barrier, refuge or cage (scenography by Lake and Marilène Bastien). Later in the performance, after the raft has splintered into smaller pieces, five dancers arrange themselves against a wooden plank that stands upright behind them, embracing each other. Another dancer takes a pressurized canister and blasts the dancers with black paint, fixing them in place against the raft, which is then wheeled downstage and displayed to the audience. In this startling, breathtaking moment, the raft, paint and the use of tableau reinforce the immobility of the dancers, the confinement of their predicament — a situation also referenced by the ship’s name, Medusa.
Even when not working in tableau, Lake has a gift for arresting duets and group choreography that emphasizes tension. In one of the most striking sequences, dancers clasp a belt or harness around their partner’s waist, dragging them upstage on their knees. The restrained dancers, bodies pitched forward and arms outstretched, attempt laboured steps downstage, which is sparely lit from above. This lighting by Karine Gauthier is often used to great effect, creating an exaggerated chiaroscuro on the dancers’ bodies, particularly when they’re unclothed. The tug of war counterbalance of bodies powerfully conveys desperation, manipulation and futility. Throughout this scene and the entire performance, dancers seamlessly switch roles, suggesting that it’s not one person oppressing another but a situation that locks each into a position, a relationality that punishes both.
Scenes of violence and struggle are choreographed to shocking effect. I keep picturing the dancer with her legs flat on the floor, back arched dramatically so her upper body and head are parallel to her legs, being dragged offstage by the neck. At one moment a rigid man is held aloft by two pairs of hands pressing into his stomach and lower back, a triumph of balance and force, delicately held. In Le cri des méduses, partnering rarely feels cooperative or supportive; here, actions are enacted on bodies. Because of the tremendous force of these encounters, solos or independent group choreography almost never match the intensity and inventiveness of duets and more complex group work, which is where the piece excels.
Like many works of allegory, the dance relies on symbolism, sometimes with mixed results. The best uses come from an ingenious prop, a shiny and opaque “slime” that holds its shape momentarily before succumbing to gravity, its very malleability expanding its interpretive possibilities. It smothers a naked dancer’s head as he lies unresponsive to the touches of another, the melting object mirroring his despondency and isolation. In the final tableau, a woman cradles a bundle of it, a baby, which over time sags through her arms towards the floor, formless, the promise of the future withdrawn. Other symbolic moments — a dancer rubbing himself in dirt, a golden woman meant to represent optimism and free will — appear too literal or prioritize visual flourishes over thematic impact.
The shift in title, from “raft” to “cry” or “scream” of the Medusa, locates Lake’s focus on human behaviour and response: it could be the cry of pain or abandonment, of survival impulse, of conflict between individual and group needs. As an allegory, whether it brings to mind climate or migrant crises, Le cri des méduses captures the urgency of its subject and exposes the frailty of our relations under pressure. As a dance and physical artwork, it frequently proves transfixing, even as the action unsettles and repels.