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IMPRESSIONS: Rachid Ouramdane and Chaillot’s Théâtre National de la Danse in "Corps Extrêmes" at BAM

IMPRESSIONS: Rachid Ouramdane and Chaillot’s Théâtre National de la Danse in "Corps Extrêmes" at BAM
Robert Johnson

By Robert Johnson
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Published on November 6, 2023
"Corps Extrêmes." Photo by Stephanie Berger

Conception and choreography: Rachid Ouramdane

Music: Jean-Baptiste Julien

Video: Jean-Camille Goinard

Lighting/Technical Management: Stéphane Graillot

Costumes: Camille Panin

Stage Management: Sylvain Giraudeau

Sound and Monitor: Laurent Lechenault

Translation: Camille Assaf

Tour management: Juliette Bones

With: Joël Azou, Airelle Caen, Tamila De Naeyer, Camille Doumas, Löric Fouchereau, Peter Freeman, Nathan Paulin, Maxime Seghers, Seppe Van Looveren, Owen Winship

Production: Chaillot—Théâtre National de la Danse

With the support of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels

Squeamish viewers who cover their eyes in terror during the opening scene of Corps Extrêmes at BAM may still find themselves peeking through their fingers. The sight of a man courting death on a highwire exerts an irresistible fascination.

Rachid Ouramdane, the choreographer of Corps Extrêmes, which debuted at the Howard Gilman Opera House on October 27 as part of the Next Wave season and the Dance Reflections series sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels, does not shilly-shally making us wait for the show’s dramatic climax. Corps Extrêmes opens with an IMAX-style video by Jean-Camille Goimard, so exciting that our nerves are still jangling an hour later. This video introduces us to Nathan Paulin, the celebrated French highliner, as he proceeds cautiously but stubbornly to cross the overlong distance between two cliffs in the Vercors Massif, near Grenoble. Fresh breezes blow, and a tiny river threads its way through the valley below him, as Paulin’s bare toes advance, little by little, along a pink ribbon only an inch in width. That inch (and a safety harness, phew!) is all that stands between him and the abyss.

a man on a hire wire balances high above a company of dancers standing on a rock wall and on the stage floor. One dancer jumps high in the air under the tightrope walker.
Corps Extrêmes. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Watching him, our palms sweat and we scarcely breath. Paulin seems unconcerned, however, as he teeters along, bouncing in the wind. He stops to sit awhile, and stretches out on his back appearing to nap in midair. He hangs from the wire by one hand, the monkey, and does everything but eat a croissant. In a voiceover, Paulin confesses to moments of fear (hah!), and to experiencing hallucinations. He describes highlining as a meditative experience that focuses and clears his thoughts. A yoga mat might serve him just as well, but never mind.

When Paulin appears in the flesh, repeating his stunts on a wire above the stage, the effect is anti-climactic. His brains could still splatter across the floor, but there is no wind inside, no river. It’s time for Ouramdane to bring out the nine acrobats from Chaillot’s Théâtre National de la Danse, who duly appear above a rock-climbing wall at rear, and gradually lower themselves to the ground. The major part of Corps Extrêmes concerns itself with their antics on and off the wall---amazing feats of teamwork, balance, and timing, as bodies are catapulted through the air and caught without a slip or quaver. At one point, Airelle Caen goes flying, and lands in a standing position on the upturned palms of a man in a human tower. Sometimes, the acrobats pretend to rescue each other from tight spots. Yet the cast performs with absolute serenity, reflecting the meditative concentration these sports require. A body tossed upward onto a ledge protruding from the wall appears to have the same effortless trajectory as a body falling from the ledge. It seems impossible, as if Ouramdane had cancelled gravity.

a dancer held aloft  by her feet reaches to a man hanging upside down from his knees on a tightrope abover her ...other cast mates look on
Corps Extrêmes. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Paradoxically, the dangers of the live performance stir us less than those we watch on video, so Ouramdane has included another film. In this one, Nina Caprez clambers up a vertiginous wall of rock in the Alps, her fingers clinging to narrow chinks and cracks in the cliff-face. We pray the camera won’t look down, but the camera is pitiless, and as the cliff-face falls away into emptiness our innards perform a daring stunt of their own. Just in case anyone thinks this is easy, we also hear Caen describe a nasty accident, moving in stages from a moment of intuition, through aerial confusion, to the bone-crunching yet strangely dissociated sensation of impact. Ouch.

in front of a large white climbing wall two dancers lie on their sides as if asleep. A central couple, a man on his back with his legs lifted above him supports a woman, lying on her side, on his feet.
Corps Extrêmes. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Only once the show is over, and our hearts and stomachs have returned to their customary places, can we think about what all this means. First, there is the audacity of celebrating uncommon bravery at a time when propaganda has left some people still afraid to shop for groceries in person. Bravo! We still have heroes. Next, there is the marvel of the human body, that delicate yet surprisingly tough instrument that takes stupendous risks and places itself in the sky using nothing but a rope and some hardware. Most of all, however, there is the human mind, which defies reason in its pursuit of a higher state of consciousness, conquering both itself and its environment. Someday, when Paulin becomes an Ascended Master, he will no longer need the wire.

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