Last year Serge Bennathan, artistic director of Les Productions Figlio, had a cancer scare. The episode prompted him to reflect back upon his life and, in particular, his long career in dance. That reflection initially took the form of text and in Bennathan's latest creation, Monsieur Auburtin, that form remains dominant. The work, which runs at The Dance Centre through this Saturday in a co-presentation with the Chutzpah! Festival, sees Bennathan seated at a laptop computer reading his first-person script; he is accompanied by Bertrand Chénier on electric guitar and piano. Two female dancers, Erin Drumheller (who also plays violin) and the ubiquitous Kim Stevenson, are also part of the piece--though to what precise ends remains somewhat unclear to me.
After thanking us for coming and apologizing unnecessarily for his French accent, Bennathan launches us into his narrative, taking us back to 1963; it's the height of the Cold War and little Serge's father, a military man in France, wants his son to take up the flute--or, more precisely, as Bennathan notes with disdain, what in English we would call the recorder. The choice of instrument is less important than that the activity of studying and practising it will occupy time, keeping Serge--who has a penchant for getting into trouble (including, a little later, stealing motorcycles and selling their parts)--off the streets. But Serge rebels, announcing one day that he no longer wants to study the recorder. To his surprise, his father acquiesces to this desire. However, Serge is not off the hook, for eventually the day comes when his father asks him what he will do instead. Thinking quickly, Serge remembers that he has a friend a few floors up in his building who studies ballet; he has no idea what "ballet" is, but nevertheless blurts out that he wants to study it.
And so begins Bennathan's apprenticeship in dance, as he enrols in an introductory ballet class taught by the M. Auburtin of the title. The arc of that apprenticeship during Bennathan's years in France, before he emigrated to Canada, gives the piece its narrative structure, which is mostly built around a series of signal encounters with ballet legends, all set against the backdrop of Bennathan's youthful arrogance and apparently willful squandering of the opportunities he is being given and the skills he is being taught. Thus, for example, M. Auburtin introduces him, via a series of photographs, to the commanding presence of Nijinsky, upon whose flexed ankle, poised to launch the dancer into flight in a still from L'après-midi d'une faune, Bennathan becomes obsessed. Later, having moved to Paris as a teenager to study, Bennathan becomes a devotee of another sexually charismatic male ballet star, in this case Rudolf Nureyev, who was then in charge of the Paris Opéra Ballet. Bennathan recounts an hilarious anecdote about stealing a pair of Nureyev's tights, which he then promptly shows us. But such youthful escapades came at the expense of the discipline demanded by his disappointed Cuban ballet master, who slaps Bennathan at one point for arriving at the theatre fifteen minutes before curtain.
Finally, the last section of Bennathan's narrative is devoted to his time dancing for Roland Petit, who in the early 1970s was starting up a new ballet company in Marseille and looking for dancers. At an audition in Paris packed with more than 200 male dancers, Bennathan makes it to the last 10 (based in part on his strengths in jumping), only to have his hopes dashed when he is not one of the final four chosen. However, remaining at the barre dazed and confused, his disappointed immobility is eventually rewarded when Petit suddenly looks up from his conversation with the chosen and motions him over to join them. Bennathan's is launched on his career, one that will eventually take him from the apartment block in Marseille he shares with a posse of motherly prostitutes to points all around the world, including a tour of Canada, where he gets his first taste of Vancouver. Oh yes, and during his time with Petit, Bennathan will also spend a week taking more or less private class with one Mischa Baryshnikov. However transformative this event is, witnessing Pina Bausch's Cafe Müller for the first time is even more mind-blowing for Bennathan, an experience that will force him to question his years of classical training and that will eventually launch him on the path of contemporary dance.
One cannot help but be charmed by the recounting of such moments. Bennathan is a gifted and compelling storyteller, applying his choreographic skills with rhythm and pacing to shape an autobiographical fable that, like the best story ballets (including Bennathan's favourite Giselle), seems at once magical and inevitable. Chénier's musical accompaniment aids immeasurably to this end, providing tempo but also crucially creating atmosphere, including dramatic suspense. The dancing, however, I found more difficult to integrate into the overall concept of the piece. At times Drumheller and Stevenson, who are both very talented movers, appeared to be illustrating what Bennathan was describing, and at other times deliberately burlesquing it. Whatever the case, mostly I just wished there was more movement--full stop. For long stretches the dancers remain stationary on the stage, and only rarely--in the few moments he gets up from his chair to move up- or downstage to read from a sheaf of printed pages, do they interact with Bennathan directly. This is in contrast to an earlier excerpt from the work-in-progress that I saw at EDAM last fall. Then Bennathan was standing throughout, and the female dancers (Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell) interacted with him--and each other--much more physically, at various points encircling him like the Wilis from Giselle.
I realize that the piece has become something much different in its present incarnation. But as Bennathan--who after last night's performance was presented by Howard Jang with the Canada Council's Jacqueline Lemieux Prize for dance--has distinguished himself in this country as such an adept choreographer for women, I was hoping to see more of this artistry in action. Perhaps that will become the second half of the story of Bennathan's life in dance--which, happily for us, is still unfolding.