It’s a pretty daring thing to make a piece of machinery – albeit an impressive piece of machinery – the focal point of a dance-theatre performance, but Compagnie 111’s artistic director Aurélien Bory needed only the first few seconds of Sans Objet to arrest the audience’s attention. And although the machine is the only performer on stage for the first 10 or so minutes, it isn’t even seen: it’s covered in a gray, vaguely metallic tarpaulin, which twists and crinkles and rustles as the machine beneath it assumes various shapes. Never before has a tarp proved so inexplicably engaging. Imagining what could possibly be beneath it – just the machine? People? Both? – fascinated me without interruption.

Sans Objet © Aglaé Bory
Sans Objet
© Aglaé Bory

When the tarp was finally pulled off, by performers Olivier Alenda and Olivier Boyer, only the machine lay beneath. But what a fantastic specimen: it was multiply-jointed, with a main appendage that could move in virtually any direction, at any speed, and with any amount of force. Alenda and Boyer’s interactions with the machine were mostly humorous. Packaging up the tarp into a manageable bulk proved deliciously difficult, and it quickly became clear that the apparatus had a mind of its own – it shifted the segmented platform, which forced the performers to constantly re-evaluate their ideas of what was firm ground to stand upon.

The immediate personification of the machine itself was both the most unexpected and most natural development; with a simply tilt of the machine’s “head” – the lit rectangle at the end of the appendage – there was instant seeming emotion emanating from a completely automatic contraption. As the machine took apart the raised stage piecemeal, always attempting to catch the two men off guard, a pleasing relationship of man versus machine developed. Almost unbelievably, the machine was making clear its yearning to be the unequivocal star of the piece.

As the platform became increasingly redefined – the machine removed and repositioned its segmented planks and cubes without a hint of strain or indecision – the performers got a chance to exhibit some pretty innovative, machine-inspired movement. There was a pleasing section, at least ten minutes long, in which the two men simply took turns riding the apparatus in myriad ways. The raised platform also provided the performers with the ability to disappear beneath its ever-moving plank and created crannies. One favorite humorous moment occurred when the machine lifted a large, hollow square from the stage to reveal both men neatly stuffed inside it. As the machine flipped and swiveled the box, Alenda and Boyer compensated appropriately, often crawling over each other in rather undignified but wholly choreographed ways.

Though the actual “dancing” was slim, one could not help but appreciate the smooth symmetry Bory created every time the two men had to react in response to some new shift in the stage or position of the machine. One fantastic section featured only the legs and occasionally the arms of the performers, as they stood behind a rectangle of the stage that had been placed on its side, all the way upstage. With robotic, repetitive movement and nicely-placed musical cues (perhaps the only in the piece), it was easy to enjoy and applaud Alenda and Boyer’s effortlessness in interacting with the apparatus. Circus performer backgrounds certainly came in handy here.

Though the piece clocked in at only an hour and fifteen minutes, with no interruption, it felt appropriately longer; to continue developing some of those sections would’ve caused everything to drag on unnecessarily, I think. There were certainly moments in which I inwardly declared that I’d seen enough of the particular manipulation and interaction, and almost as soon as I had the thought, that section was replaced by another. Bory’s sense of timing is impeccable.

The final section of the piece was my favorite: the tarp appeared once more, this time stretched across the entire downstage, as if it were a space-age curtain. With only a bit of rippling and thoughtful lighting design, I was suddenly mesmerized by the complete beauty of the light as it played upon the undulating metallic. Who knew an ordinary tarpaulin could be so beautiful?

Bory has something amazing here, to be sure. It pleases me to know that his nearly perfect gem of a piece enjoyed a lovely curtain call and a partial standing ovation at BAM.