Le cri des méduses had its western Canadian premiere at PuSh Festival in Vancouver, Jan 27-28, 2023.
Gruesome, absurd, yet strangely fascinating, Le cri des méduses by Quebec-based dance company Alan Lake Factorie captures the horror and drama of its subject in a dreamlike 75-minute performance.
In his 1819 masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault displayed a darker side of humanity. The twenty-three-foot painting recounts a grotesque moment in history involving a French shipwreck off the coast of Africa, where a scramble for survival on a makeshift raft led to the dehydration, starvation, murder and cannibalism of over 130 people.
Drawing from the painting as inspiration, Alan Lake has created a surreal theatrical world in Le cri; it involves nine dancers and a versatile set made up of a large wooden “raft” and sheets of hanging fabric that slide across the stage. It has a sparse, warehouse-type feel, made almost post-apocalyptic by sounds of a haunting guitar, a distant operatic voice and whirring helicopter noises.
Like Géricault, who famously examined cadavers to depict the yellow-tinged, tangled bodies of the painting, Lake showcases bodies in new and unsettling ways, somewhere between life and death. In various states of undress, the dancers combine to create fleshy, moving architectures. They form a human caterpillar, all splayed out on their backs with a performer wriggling on each end. They pile like corpses and are pulled around the stage on a wheeled cart. When the energy builds, they throw themselves into phenomenal group choreography that has a wild, broken quality—somehow managing to look like they are falling apart while completing complex, skillful floorwork.
Relationships within the group are complicated. At times, the dancers seem to be helping each other—hoisting each other up over the raft, carrying and catching—and in other moments they hold back or suffocate each other. Claustrophobic, dysfunctional group sequences find their dénouements in tender solos and duets that allow individual performers to shine through. In one delicate moment, white light shoots down to form a cone inside which a nude performer slowly spirals their hands above their head, separated from the audience by just a thin sheet of fabric.
Lake’s sense of visual composition (he is also a painter and sculptor) shines through in the last section which introduces new and exciting materials. Goop squishes, water splashes and slimy paint is wiped across wood in a feast for kinaesthetic empathy. The set is an ever-shifting sea: the raft is tipped, wheeled and broken down like origami to create new landscapes for the dancers. Physical tableaus become visual art, burned into our memory by flashing columns of yellow spotlights that momentarily blind us.
Some images are particularly violent, and almost too much. Audience members are visibly unsettled when performers shoot paint at each other from what looks like a fire extinguisher, or when a performer hangs from his wrists off a set piece before being “executed” with red paint. Lake brings back a sense of humanity by having dancers softly wipe paint off each other with towels.
At the end, we are plunged even further down the rabbit hole (how deep does it go?). At this point the set has virtually closed in on itself. One performer, as if touched by the hand of Midas, rises from a bathtub coated in gold. Everything is dripping, splashing or slipping: purple liquid streams out from under a set piece; the white goop a woman was cradling is now a white cloak covering her; a man squirming in soil has found a companion. Amidst the chaos, there is a sense of balance in that final image, with dancers placed high and low around the space.
When the lights go out but the music continues to build, I find myself genuinely on the edge of my seat wondering what will happen next. What new marvel might Lake have for us?