A woman stands onstage at the Paris Opera. She talks with a quality that is soft, open, a bit hesitant. A light pink rehearsal sweater, reminiscent of little girl dance tights, frames her 42 year-old woman’s body.
This uneasy relationship between girl and woman is one of the elements that choreographer Jerome Bel elicits so naturally and poignantly in Veronique Doisneau (both the name of the performer and the name of the performance). In his piece, seen in a film version at Baryshnikov Arts Center on Sunday, Mr. Bel literally gives voice to an artist whose primary job has been to be beautiful and quiet, not drawing attention to herself.
Ms. Doisneau discusses her life as a ballet dancer, part of that group of women who, although fully adult, are still called mesdemoiselles backstage at the Paris Opera. She shares information about her salary, her children. She reveals a mature, regular person going about her work. In a soft aside, she wonders if she wasn’t talented enough to become a star.
She speaks about Giselle and begins to dance. In a moment that is simultaneously public and intensely private, she gently hums music to accompany her own dancing. She evokes all of the little girls who perform, by themselves, in living rooms and bedrooms across the world.
Veronique Doisneau alternates between fact and fully embodied fantasy. The piece, and the woman, present the contradiction that is dance performance. In the hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet, Ms. Doisneau is a Sujet, a mid-level status in which she can perform corps de ballet roles as well as soloist ones. In Mr. Bel's performance she becomes the literal subject as well as a powerful narrator. And she makes clear the ways in which she is expected to be an object.
In the understated and powerful climax of Veronique Doisneau, Ms. Doisneau performs a corps de ballet role from Swan Lake, alone. She stands still in choreographed poses while perhaps the most famous and gorgeous music in ballet dances around her. Audience members who know the ballet can imagine what the principal ballerinas would be doing while Ms. Doisneau stands on the side, filling in the picture.
And yet she doesn’t just fill in the picture. In this context, her role becomes an exquisite-- and still --solo. Ms. Doisneau inhabits her poses with the breath and life of a master performer. She exhibits the depth of presence that transforms spectacle (interestingly, the French word for show) into something more metaphysical.
Ms. Doisneau’s ability to fully inhabit her body within an imaginary world is both child-like and also the most profound kind of adult activity. She finds a way to deeply engage, even in the midst of disappointment and just-missed dreams.
Mr. Bel has, once again, created a precise and moving performance that turns around and questions its own nature. He looks at, and critiques, the very particular world of dance. But he also gives his work the space to move into the most tender, and broad, and complex corners of human experience.