"I've seen his butt, mom!" said the little girl. She was one of a gaggle of children crowded around the male dancer as he writhed on the floor, sealed inside a black latex bag. He'd just flipped onto his stomach, and his body was perfectly outlined in vacuum-sealed plastic. The dancer moved tensely and deliberately, at one point rising into a headstand, tightly confined and breathing through a small tube. The audience formed a close circle surrounding him, the kids venturing nearer than anyone else dared. The girl waved her hand inches from his face, as if checking whether or not he could see through the bag. He couldn't.
"We are completely blinded by the latex," says the dancer, François Chaignaud, "so our perception of the outside and of the crowd only comes from hearing, even though the auditory sense is also lowered by the pressure on the ears." The dance was Sylphides, which he and his creative partner Cecilia Bengolea were performing at Dia:Beacon, a stunning large-scale contemporary art venue in the Hudson Valley. Joining the Paris-based choreographers were dancers Erika Miyauchi and Alex Mugler.
Chaignaud and Bengolea have choreographed and performed together for 12 years, and the duo has created a style marked by eclecticism, melding ballet and modern dance with club styles and international forms. And, appropriately enough for artists who first met engaging in advocacy for sex workers' rights, their pieces have also embraced sexuality as another site for dancerly exploration of the body. One of their early works culminated in the reveal that they'd been dancing while being penetrated by dildos. Comparatively, the show commissioned by Dia:Beacon was immensely tame.
Their residency featured two weekends of performances in the museum's industrial-style basement, a space already occupied by light artist Dan Flavin's 1973 untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection). The sculpture is a fence constructed of neon green fluorescent tube lights which bisects the massive gallery and absorbs everything the light touches—floors and walls, visitors, and in this case, dancers—into part of the work itself. By performing in this space, Chaignaud and Bengolea were essentially dancing inside of a sculpture.
Chaignaud and Bengolea navigated this fence in their performances, dancing Sylphides on one side of it, and the show's second piece, Dub Love, on the other. Francois was not alone in being ziplocked during Sylphides; each of the three other dancers were similarly encased. Some bags were fully inflated, turning the dancers into giant, sentient black balloons, while others were deflated and clung tightly to their bodies. There was no distinct stage, and the crowd soon discovered we could navigate freely, turning our backs to some dancers while drawing near to investigate others. It was an intimate introduction to the performers: their faces obscured, we got to know them by examining the undulating outlines of their bodies, without a stage between us.
"The proximity gives us the sense of our own strength and vulnerability," Chaignaud tells Creators. "When inside the latex bag, I feel totally excluded from the ordinary being, and that exclusion gives some kind of power… but it also leaves us fragile and vulnerable."
In Dub Love, Bengolea, Chaignaud, and company mix diverse forms—ballet, modern, African, club, and dancehall—while dancing to dub music mixed live. The dancers all have different training backgrounds, and these disparities are evident. Chaignaud is clearly conservatory born, and is able to execute feats of impressive strength and control. At the opening of the piece, he crouches en pointe, knees bent at right angles and spread wide, for long, perfectly controlled moments of tight, hyper-articulated movement. But the work's playful spirit helps compensate for discrepancies in ability—here a demi-plié meets a dab, perfect turnouts meet less-than-perfect but energetically attempted twerking.
This high-low mix is nothing new. Why does it always seem to be ballet meets dancehall, never tap meets two-step, or modern meets Jersey-Shore style fist bumping? Chaignaud and Bengolea are trying to dance across borders of races, location, and class, but I can't help but wonder if rather than shattering these boundaries they might instead be propping up false dichotomies. Despite this lack of perfect originality, the work is undeniably pleasing. During one interlude, each dancer gets on the mic in turn, some singing, some rapping over the music while another member of the company dances a solo. "Twirl, twirl, twirl, twirl," Mugler rhythmically implored Chaignaud, who, rose en pointe and obliged.
For more information about Francois Chaignaud and Cecilia Bengolea, click here.