Locked into a hypnotic, perpetual loop to blaring, banging mechanical sounds, nine women and nine men stride along from upstage to downstage as if they have been sold to some force from which there is no return. In Olivier DuboisTragédie, cyclic parading of vulnerable humans on stage signals a catwalk, but clearly there is no clothing for sale — for there is no clothing, just mere human flesh. Our eyes examine, compare shapes, observe tilted shoulder girdles, tight postures, ranges of skin color, types of hair, shapes of breasts, thighs, and varied gaits. Human flesh is the message. The droning repetition of the cycle of bold, patterned walking reveals that no man or woman can hide anything. Steps in perpetual repetition are momentarily interrupted, a curious welcome breath. Metronome, pattern, and cycle become a maddening meditation representing daily life only to be broken by a momentary gaze over the shoulder to the audience. Regulation of time, clarity in space, each vulnerable human must complete his or her task no matter the cost. Each human enters boldly upstage, struts through the cycle, and disappears, only to reemerge in another lane for another path. The cycle of repetition of paths evolves gradually, with eighteen humans exploring upstage to downstage, left to right, then finally diagonally across, but there is never a moment when mutual human contact might occur. The vulnerable humans operate with clocklike precision.

© François Stemmer
© François Stemmer

Suddenly one shows a slight imperfection, a tiny bout of uncontrolled fidgeting. Another shudders. Another thrashes his arms. Gradually, as special paths shift, eighteen humans reveal a loss of emotional and physical control, yet manage to avoid touching or falling into anyone else’s pathway. The droning sounds in the music by François Caffenne continue to link everyone in time, yet the textures in the soundscape support agitated walking, successive body waves, tics, and contortions akin to mental illness. As perfectionism decays into a blur of falls, contractions, and paranoia, some aim to maintain a semblance of order. Eventually, everyone dives to the floor forming a pile of depleted humans, limbs askew, bodies rolled atop bodies, evoking memories of black and white photos of the Holocaust. The squirming pile of bodies appears in Patrick Riou’s lighting design as an ocean wave rolling and being pulled out to sea.

The humans then reemerge from the darkness to stride from upstage to downstage again, as if reborn, and with renewed vigor. Quickly the mood shifts to individuality within the structures. A man jumps from one lane into someone else’s. A woman cuts sharply behind a man in his lane, circles about and swings in front, never interrupting the pulse of life that creates human gait. Some go to the floor, rise up, and explore levels. In patterned formations on the floor, humans kneeling on all-fours vibrate continuously – alone. Each takes a pose signaling inflagrante delicto, yet no one seems to mind as they continue to take their necessary time. In a tight, communal cluster, dancers perform complex jumping patterns that lead to traveling through the space, eventually vocalizing, shaking, almost as if in a final spasm. Strobe lights capture individuals spread evenly throughout the space while jumping and kicking with elation. The dancers gather, reveal breath and exhaustion, and wind their way upstage through the curtains.

The costume is the skin, the vulnerable, unprotected, human sensory wrapper that serves so well, but is so easy to penetrate. Dubois’ pulsing ritual is obsessive, hypnotic, a piece with ebb and flow that mounts to a wild catharsis, where women and men coalesce, break apart, and fuse again revealing a frangible human society. Tragédie reveals how the mind begins to splinter when humanity is dehumanized by cyclic and oppressive, sensory regulation.

While Tragédie premiered at the Festival d’Avignon in 2012 and has toured widely, this outdoor venue at the Lycée Jacques Decour (programmed as part of the Festival Paris l’Eté), provided a cloistered outdoor space that was well-suited to creating a Dubois-world within the world of the Paris arts community. The dancers in Compagnie Olivier Dubois maintained unrelenting focus and energetic regulation with precise time. The dancers in this show were Benjamin Bertrand, Arnaud Boursain, Marie-Laure Caradec, Sylvain Decloitre, Marianne Descamps, Virginie Garcia, Karine Girard, Carole Gomes, Inés Hernández, Isabelle Kürzi, Sébastien Ledig, Filipe Lourenço, Thierry Micouin, Jorge More Calderon, Loren Palmer, Rafael Pardillo, Sébastien Perrault, and Sandra Savin.