Backwards, forwards

Estelle Spoto

Le Focus / Vif, 2016

Whether it's a solo against a simple white background or a piece with five dancers involving imposing mobile scenery and video, Michèle Noiret ceaselessly deepens her research into a new stage language. A meeting with an artist who is always searching.

Life sometimes throws up strange coincidences. It’s Tuesday 27 September 2016 at the Théâtre National de Chaillot. In the windowed great hall, which offers a panoramic view of the Eiffel Tower, spectators crowd around the entrance to the Maurice Béjart auditorium, nestled under the Trocadero steps, to attend the premiere of Palimpseste Solo/Duo (1): a piece by the Brussels choreographer Michèle Noiret to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is precisely at Maurice Bejart’s school, Mudra, that the young dancer, who as yet had no thought of becoming a choreographer, made the acquaintance of the German composer. A decisive meeting. She was 16. Michèle Noiret collaborated with Stockhausen for fifteen years, performing as a soloist on the greatest stages, from La Scala to Covent Garden. “Stockhausen was very demanding of his performers,” she remembers. ”He pushed us beyond what we felt was possible. When one goes through this type of experience one gains control, which gives one more freedom of interpretation, of invention. One is no longer in the demonstration but in the incarnation of a thought, a presence, an interior life.” A lesson for one’s life as an artist.

Palimpseste Solo/Duo is the prolongation of a solo first performed in 1997 to Stockhausen’s Tierkreis for clarinet and piano, twelve melodies, each of which is associated with a sign of the zodiac. In it, against an entirely white background, Michèle Noiret, initially alone, then as part of a duo with David Drouard, unfolds choreographic phrases, the first time to a “coloured silence”, backed by the barely perceptible tinkling of a music box, then in dialogue with Tierkreis. This Palimpseste is a play on memory, the dancer’s and the spectators’, through these two points of view that follow one another on the same subject. And that which, at the outset, perhaps seems virtually random actually shows itself to be perfectly controlled.

Like the monkish copyists who erased to start again, without ever completely effacing the previous writing on their parchment, Michèle Noiret each time starts again from nothing, while retaining all her earlier experiences. “To keep the piece alive, I have left a space for experimentation in each performance,” she says.

”When something works, I do not systematically take it up again, that would be boring... Ceaselessly reinventing oneself is what also adds adrenaline and spice to the piece.”

New technologies
In 1982 Michèle Noiret left for New York to learn about the techniques used by Trisha Brown, who she describes as “one of the most creative artists when it comes to devising techniques of choreographic composition. She has been an inspiration to many of today’s contemporary choreographers. These are especially techniques that cause structures to arise that one has not foreseen or even imagined. My dance is not abstract, I want it to be incarnate and full of emotion, it is made in strata, successive layers one on top of the other. Choreography is a highly personal language, there is what one says and how one says it. These aspects are part of something bigger, which I would call the stage representation, where there is a relationship between sound, light and stage design. That last one is a real partner, it enriches my language, due to its constraints, by reinventing the rectangular space that is the stage.”

Within these stage designs, very early on Michèle Noiret worked with the image and interactive digital tools. “It began in 1997 with the engineer composer Todor Todoroff, at a time when computers were ten times slower and had virtually no memory,” she says. In the first performances we used contact mikes attached to the body or the set and connected with cables. Wireless was not really affordable. My dance developed along with those technologies.”

Radioscopies, “stage short film” from 2015, and Hors-champ (2), “stage long film” from 2013, are fabulous examples of these new forms devised by Michèle Noiret, in which she mixes dance, theatre, images and new technologies. The movements of the performers are superimposed on filmed sequences projected onto a screen above the stage or on a moving set, with transparent spaces of curtains or stores. Sets that can be rolled up and unrolled or even flipped completely to place the spectator on the other side of the mirror. There is some Lewis Carroll in the alchemy of dreams orchestrated by Michèle Noiret. There is also some David Lynch, Orson Welles and Luis Buñuel. By playing on the disconnect between the image captured live on stage by a sometimes visible camera operator and recorded sequences, between what happens on stage and what happens behind, Michèle Noiret sows confusion, blurs the picture.

“I’ve always been fascinated by a phrase danced backwards, I am almost hypnotised,” she says about her strange movements in which her body appears to be triggered by a rewind button able to overcome the law of gravity. “I love to make use of this principle in choreography, as in Chambre blanche (Prix de la critique in 2006, Ed.), in which several sequences of movement were learned backwards.”

Like a day
At the beginning of Radioscopies, the voice of Belgian writer Conrad Detrez is heard on the soundtrack stating that “behind things, there is something else”, an excerpt from Jacques Chancel’s radio show, which gives its name to the piece. “Conrad Detrez remembers standing in a field when he was little with his grandfather, who let go off his hand,” says Michèle Noiret. At that moment he saw a myriad of coloured petals blowing away, like a hallucination. He uses this example to illustrate his words on the supernatural: “there was a secret of the world, a secret of things that needed to be extracted”. In all the states of being, and not only in the supernatural, there are things, feelings, intuitions, in-betweens that cannot be expressed in words. That is probably why dance, which is non-verbal, is my first language.”

By multiplying the points of view through video, Michèle Noiret shows the front and back at the same time, the façade and what is buried away. Sometimes with a political scope, as in Hors-champ, where, from a bedroom, a living room and an interview room, situations are called to mind connected with a past of dictatorship, like in Chile, where, after the fall of Pinochet, former torturers and former prisoners have been brought to rub shoulders in daily life. But Hors-champ delivers these things in a fragmented way, without one knowing with certainty what is real and what is fantasy. “I love to get people thinking, not to give everything away immediately,” the choreographer explains. When it comes to theatre, the spectator often feels the need to understand everything cerebrally. He is rather used to a linear story, told from A to Z. But if one thinks for a moment how a day unfurls, one notes that it is a succession of moments that often have no connection with each other. No one wonders where the logic is. What I’m interested in understanding in this work in which I mix theatre, dance, film and the fine arts is the relation to life, transposing to the stage this type of natural construction of life that escapes us. In what I call “stage long or short films” the unusual construction of the dream and the fragmented metaphors for reality are a main theme. This gets the spectator’s imagination working. Furthermore, I think encouraging people to imagine is more essential than ever today to move the world forward. For the survival of our society we must throw off the yoke of habit.”

Michèle Noiret then takes us into a nook in her studio, located a few steps from Simonis station in Molenbeek. There is a sink there, close to a window, a brick wall painted white and a door to a small room. We recognise the sink from Radioscopies, the one with the obsessive dripping, where she finds an insect pierced by a pin. At this moment we gauge the choreographer's capacity to transcend the banal, to explode her interior world on reality. She states again with enthusiasm that her “passion remains intact”, “because there are so many domains to explore, new things to devise, people to meet. Creating is my life and it is an eternal apprenticeship, one has to remain curious and take on whatever presents itself.”