Groupe Emile Dubois

July 15, 2009

Groupe Emile Dubois
Ted Shawn Theatre

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Becket, MA
July 15–19, 2009

Reviewed by French Clements


Beatrice Warrand in
Des gens qui dansent. Photo by Karli Cadel, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow. 


The evening-length Des gens qui dansent (People Who Dance) resists simple interpretation. Its unambiguous moments stand out like still frames in an otherwise blurry film. But even blurs can be strangely, frustratingly, compelling.


The 2006 work is an extended response to its opening, when 10 characters question and discuss why they dance. Offstage, many here—actors, musicians, others—are not professional dancers: a bearded professor-type in a skull cap and Birkenstocks, a leggy bombshell, and a remarkably tall man in a dark suit. Additional everyday-looking cast members include the piece’s choreographer, Jean-Claude Gallotta, longtime director of Grenoble’s National Choreographic Center. Program notes suggest that the performers’ costumes may or may not be their own clothing. Reality and artifice merge further whenever Gallotta wanders the stage as a supremely unhelpful moderator, gesturing with the braggadocio of Jay-Z while muttering and rapping in French into a microphone. Annoying, sure, but was it sincere? A bamboozle? Both?

Watching these people dance felt vaguely exploitative at first. Their flashy, earnestly presentational steps both rejected virtuosity and made an attempt at it. However much things improved, the opening promised little. To bass-heavy music by the French jam-band Strigall, the group shuffled through a hopelessly dated-looking sequence, glaring straight ahead, spirit-fingers splayed outward. Then came a passage so full of flailing yet so devoid of energy that laughter seemed an appropriate response. The spirit-shuffle reappeared during the dance’s conclusion. By then, though, it felt poignant, like a mockery of the self-consciousness that amateur dancers often show—an affirmation of the mundane.

Between the beginning and the end, the characters abandoned their awkward fumbling, and, in duos, trios, and quartets, showed how movement is a fine way to express what words can’t say. Eventually, virtuosity appeared natural. Some finished their steps on a dime, with polish and graciousness. They talked and sang too, building up charm—several times, the pudgy professor and his guy friend engaged in a rousing Italian love song. Later, the two showed a droll little routine, which concluded in their spoken epigram: “The difference/between a duet/and the two of us/is not/exactly clear.” Some sections were tender, others biting and remorseful; several upheld gender stereotypes. Many finished in touching tableaux with crisp lighting.


Midway through, a large screen showed an affecting film of author Henry Miller on his deathbed, spitting out disjointed sentences like, “I accuse the creator of making the world as it is,” and, “I am alive to the end.” That phrase returned to haunt the work’s conclusion, when again the performers shuffled around the stage. Though little in Gallotta’s picture had come into focus, these were dancers without doubt.