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“We are people before we are dancers”

“Alright…” (long pause) “it will be good for his personal development.” Such was the reaction of Cédric Andrieux’s first dance teacher when presented with a 12-year-old Andrieux, at first glance talentless and unsuited for dance. Andrieux’s calm, dry delivery of this line draws a laugh at the beginning of his performance of Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux (On the Boards, Nov. 14-17, 2013). By the end of the evening, after being treated to Andrieux dancing excerpts of work by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and others, it is hard to believe that this could be a true story.

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Cédric Andrieux demonstrates an art model’s pose in the eponymous solo by Jérôme Bel
Photo by Herman Sorgeloos

Cédric Andrieux is the latest of a series of solos by Jérôme Bel in which he uses a dancer telling the story of his or her dancing life as a mechanism to explore the field of dance and its history. In a Q&A after Friday’s show, Andrieux said that Bel is not interested in the person whose life constitutes the solo per se. Rather, he is interested in how that person’s life gives the audience a different way to understand dance, instead of the usual voices of dance critics, historians, choreographers, and so on. Each solo follows a similar pattern: the dancer walks onto an unadorned stage in practice clothes, speaks unaffectedly about his or her life, illustrating stories with dance as appropriate. The stories are the performers’; the tone, pacing, anecdotes selected, length of pauses, moments when sips of water are taken, are where Bel’s masterful crafting is apparent.

Andrieux is an enthralling dancer and performer; his story, though perhaps not that different from what many dancers have experienced, quickly drew in the audience. At 19, graduating from the Paris National Conservatory of Music and Dance, he entered the graduating exam/competition, Le Prix, as an underdog. The audience gasped with excitement when he revealed that he came in first. And when he showed an uncomfortable pose that he had to hold as an art school model—how he supported himself when earning only $600/month as a dancer with Jennifer Muller in New York City—the audience laughed, but also groaned in sympathy.

A great part of his story dealt with his years dancing for Merce Cunningham, 1999-2007. He described how company class started with the same exercises “day after day, week after week, year after year. I think that for Merce this was some sort of zen you-never-experience-the-same-thing-twice thing, but for me, it was just depressing.” He then showed these exercises, narrating when he got bored, which one he sort of liked, which one hurt his hips, etc. The contrast between the beauty of his supple spine and feet, and his grumpiness about having to do these exercises was both funny and fascinating.

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Andrieux performs in Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux

Dancing for Merce was not all depressing though. Andrieux loved how there was no interpretation or storyline imposed on the dancers in Cunningham’s works, leaving him free to respond in the moment, even changing a phrase’s quality or rhythm as he felt the moment move him. He especially felt this freedom when dancing Merce’s role in Suite for 5. As he showed a solo from the piece, there was a beautiful presentness and individuality, along with heart-stopping flickers of Cunningham’s ghost appearing in Andrieux’s dancing. Another highlight was a step-by-step description and enacting of how Cunningham choreographed when he was no longer mobile himself. Watching Andrieux’s process of taking disjointed, awkward, unnatural movements, and develop them into a dance phrase performed with aplomb, gives one an extra appreciation of the enormous talent and skill of Cunningham’s dancers.

Seeking to dance other choreographers’ work before retiring, Andrieux moved to the Lyon Opera Ballet, where he danced Jérôme Bel’s The Show Must Go On, a piece in which a series of pop songs play, and the dancers do what the title of the song says. Andrieux demonstrated with The Police’s “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.” As lights came up on the audience, Andrieux stood at the front of the stage, wearing his own street clothes and shoes, and watched the audience. He scanned along, sometimes smiling or pausing or catching someone’s eye. He explained that he enjoyed this work of Bel so much because in addition to a sense of freedom and responding in the moment, he got to do something he had never done before as a dancer: watch the audience. Additionally, the pedestrian nature of the movement, getting to dance in his own clothes, with no virtuosity required, connected the dancers with the audience: “we are people before we are dancers.”

In a poignant moment, he described how it took working on the solo with Bel to reassess the many times he felt humiliated for not being able to dance perfectly during rehearsals with Cunningham. Even though Cunningham had never seemed bothered by dancers making mistakes or struggling with his near-impossible choreography, Andrieux nevertheless often condemned himself as a failure for every little imperfect moment. But on reflection, he felt that Cunningham was not in pursuit of perfection, but of something far more meaningful: an experience of movement. And then he quietly thanked the audience for their time and exited, ending an evening that was far too short.