Danielle Gabou is in residence at the Théâtre National de Chaillot this week with Transe, a multi-faceted, ambiguous, and thought-provoking production. Julien Ficely’s choreography, for solo female dancer, draws inspiration from Jean Rouch’s 1956 film Mammy Water, and extracts of the documentary itself form the backdrop for this performance. The use of film on stage is not original – many contemporary artists choosing this media as a vehicle for dialogue – but the singularity of Mammy Water arguably allows Danielle Gabou to deliver an intriguing performance.

Transe © Jean-Yves Camus
Transe
© Jean-Yves Camus

Gabou appears in the dark, carrying a fishing net, held tightly against her chest. The object seems odd at first; not so much because of its misplacement on a Parisian stage, but because she makes most of the opening about the fishing net, rather than about her. This self-effacement is a recurrent theme in her dance, and she often chooses to fade away, allowing the film to take centre stage instead. Her humility clearly sets the tone of the piece, and, if it is deliberate, is powerful enough that I twice “forgot” her, and focused most of my attention on the action on screen.

Filmed in Ghana, Rouch’s documentary follows fishermen in a seaside village, whose life, work, and thus existence, are cadenced by the perpetual tide of the sea. Viewed together, the action on film gives the dancer a rhythm to follow. Her movement is sometimes calm, gentle and reflective, sometimes fearful, tormented... anxious even. She is seen paddling through the space, using large sweeping arm movements as if smoothly sailing, and contrastingly she reverts to short, staccato motions, similar to those of the fishermen when the sea gets rough.

The accompanying track, compiled by sound artist Marco Martini, has its own distinct voice; a rhythmically challenging one that Gabou relies upon to frame her dance. Martini’s soundtrack combines languishing melodies, whispers, steps, and, unsurprisingly, a recurring flow, reminiscent of the sea. The sea is omnipresent: on screen, in Gabou’s dance, and in Martini’s music. It is unclear whether the barely audible speech and the sound of the paddle knocking against the boat belong to Jean Rouch’s film or Martini’s soundtrack, and I wonder whether these additions were really necessary. The vibrating music so clearly carried the dancing, that the chaotic echo accompanying the otherwise flowing track was at times overpowering. Was it there, perhaps, to support another dimension to Danielle Gabou’s performance? Any interpretation of her solo is subjective.

Mammy Water, I learn, is the divinity of the sea. She protects, but can also destroy. The villagers religiously observe immolations, processions and other rituals. Simultaneously, Gabou’s own spiritual subjection is transparent in many of her movement patterns, and in them she seems to find sorrow, contentment and peace. Contrastingly, at times she also lets out her vulnerability. The strength with which she gradually lets go of controlled choreography, allowing anger to overtake her, both physically and emotionally, is mesmerizing. She is so honest in that build-up; almost beast-like. Her state of trance is raw, and, watching her, you feel the same wave tensing up inside. Is she still Danielle Gabou, the dancer, or an embodiment of Mammy Water?

The artist says that “the Woman has always been at the centre” of her creations, and that she uses her art to better express “the difficulty of being a woman in our contemporary societies”. I can see that in her, and this particular aspect of her dancing brings me back to the fishing net. At no point in her rendition of the film does she use it to demonstrate its actual use. Symbolically, it is a fishing net. But the choreography tells us something else. The way she holds it close to her chest, reminded me of the way a mother holds a child: protectively, lovingly. She also puts it on her back, and hunches over, as if the net had become a heavy weight on her shoulders. It is then, in a moment of stillness, folded up and balanced on her head, and the image of women carrying a bucket of water in Africa is beautifully presented to us.

Perhaps the most touching moment of her dance around the prop is towards the end of the piece, when she curls up in a ball on the floor and covers herself with the torn-up net. As to why she needs that protective layer, towards the end of the piece, we might each understand differently. I personally found her sorrow deeply moving, and all the more beautiful for its fragility, contrasted so clearly with the strength of her earlier trance.