I attended the opening night of Le Nid (The Nest) on the same April day that I fulfilled my last “duty day” at my daughter’s preschool. Maybe that’s why neither the enormous pile of stuffed animals onstage nor the life-sized teddy bears occupying a few scattered seats in the audience seemed to faze me. As the latest production from France’s Compagnie Pernette unfolded at Montreal’s Studio de l’Agora de la Danse, the theatrical and choreographic antics performed by Nathalie Pernette and her dancers (Arnaud Cabias, Isabelle Celer, Laurent Falguieras and Sébastien Laurent) seemed awfully close to home.
Pernette gives us the dance equivalent of the un-empathetic, sometimes violent mindset of early childhood. Take one moment in the show, when four dancers partner oversized teddies, which they swing around and kick with a toddler’s impunity. On the one hand, these “partners” are handled as if they were people; on the other, as if mere playthings.
There is a sense of toddlers’ parallel play in duos where both dancers perform the same movement (sometimes with a slight variation) on parallel trajectories. Yet they seem to have little awareness of one another even when actually dancing together, their bodies touching. For the most part, each dancer exists in a world of his or her own, where the external is as much a part of the self as their own bodies.
This lack of definitive boundaries is evident from the very beginning of the piece. Bathed in red light, the mountain of plush toys pulsates, breathing like some kind of amorphous organism; slowly, one by one, bodies emerge, slithering out from underneath. The womb as nest is being evoked here, with that same creepy familiarity that permeates the movie Alien.
Pernette, though, isn’t satisfied with complete formlessness. Unstructured and undulating movement is punctuated with occasional angularity. To a stop-motion rhythm, feet flex, hands and arms stiffen, and heads jerk with a strange insectlike alertness.
So far, our animal natures have only been implied, but in the second half of the piece, Pernette fleshes out her point explicitly. At the show’s climax, a man dons a chicken head and walks in the posture of an Egyptian god; soon others are wearing animal heads also. Two of them slowly, almost imperceptibly, make their way into the audience on the outer aisles. Only loud bangs and more stuffed animals falling from the ceiling send the two back on the stage where they belong, preventing them from crawling into some poor spectator’s lap.
The discomfort of breaching the “fourth wall” between the audience and these half-human/half-animal performers is both funny and frightening—just as our dreams often are. Le Nid is a whimsical nightmare. Pernette captures with dramatic clarity what preschoolers show us on a daily basis: the line between the rational and irrational is very thin indeed.
As Pernette herself puts it,
Ni homme, ni animal
Ni mécanique, ni organique
Ni jour, ni nuit
Ni masse, ni individu….
Une humanité déboussolée?
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. Read her examination of the career of the great twentieth-century choreographer George Balanchine (“How to Follow Mr. B?”) in Issue 9, on newsstands now. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.