Marin county

Maguy Marin drives her audience mad with the Beckett-inspired Umwelt.

GONE WITH THE WIND Dancers come and go in Umwelt.

GONE WITH THE WIND Dancers come and go in Umwelt. Photograph: Ganet

It isn’t every day that a dance almost incites a riot. But during the first performances of Maguy Marin’s Umwelt in Décines, France, in 2004, the scene, according to dance publicist Ellen Jacobs, was terrifying: Amid chants of “Get off the stage!,” an agitated audience member actually jumped onto it. Marin, in a phone interview from Lyon, recalls that she tried to convince him to back down. “I said, ‘Please, you don’t have the right to go onstage—you have to leave,’ ”she explains. “He didn’t want to do it; he wanted to shout and he pushed me. He broke my finger, and I bit him. It was very violent.”

Umwelt, which is part of the Joyce Theater’s current French Collection festival, can be a bit maddening—the choreographer is inspired, as she often is, by the work of Samuel Beckett. “Some people started shouting that it wasn’t dance or ballet,” Marin says. “They said they were upset because they wanted to see ballet. They must have not read exactly the program.” She pauses, adding with a laugh, “Or maybe they know better than me what is dance.”

The structure of Umwelt, named after the German word for “environment” or the “surrounding world,” is simple. In the work, nine dancers enter and exit the stage in between Mylar-covered panels—which look a bit like dressing-room mirrors—arranged horizontally as they perform tasks modeled after typical human behavior. Performers dress, eat an apple or embrace with a passionate kiss; all the while, a wind machine whips their hair and clothing, sending ripples through the Mylar panels. Within this landscape, composer Denis Mariotte places three guitars near the front of the stage; the score is created as a string (connected by spools on opposite sides of the stage) glides over the instruments, emptying one spool and filling the other during the dance’s duration.

“It’s difficult for audiences, because this happens at a deliberate pace,” says Martin Wechsler, the Joyce’s director of programming. “You understand the entire piece in the first five minutes and then you watch it for the next 55 minutes, and it continues and intensifies, and the power comes from the accumulation over time of these everyday activities.”

Marin, who formed her company in 1978, made her U.S. debut at the 1983 American Dance Festival; ever since, her appearances in New York have been fairly frequent (her last season at the Joyce, in 2004, featured Les Applaudissements Ne Se Mangent Pas). In her new work, yet another homage to the minimalist playwright Beckett, she shapes pedestrian moments with a rhythmic force evocative of his style: “He doesn’t use a lot of material,” Marin says. “He takes one thing, and then from there makes a lot of possibilities. Also, he speaks about humanity—the lightness of life, the fragility, the fact that human beings come into the world and then they die.”

For Umwelt, Marin highlights actions that aren’t limited by culture or race; it is more or less movement that people enact all over the world without thinking about it: “We wake up in the morning, we have a day and in that day we do many things—we dress and go to work and go to sleep and this is our cycle,” Marin says. “So we worked on all of that human activity, but it’s never from the beginning to the end. We take the activity in the middle. So you don’t know from where the people are coming and where they go, or when that activity started and where it will finish. There’s no story.”

Marin is working both with the notion of exhaustion—this is part of the Beckett connection—as well as ideas about resistance and change, and that as humans our bodies are affected by the state of world around us. “We are not victims,” she says. “But there is the sensation that we are impotent. Everything is going bad, and there’s a real sensation of sadness; it’s in Europe and in France where you see more and more people in the streets. They don’t have work, and there’s less solidarity. So each is surviving for his own personal life. We don’t share so much.”

Her use of repetition is a tool; in the end, Marin hopes to create a window through which audience members can see details with greater depth. “The dancers are doing some very simple, everyday movement, but it’s like the sea,” she says. “When you see the sea, it looks like one thing, but if you really look at it, you can tell that there are a lot of differences in the waves. It’s always changing, but it’s the same sea. I hope Umwelt is a little like that. One wave is like one wave, but it’s not the same as the other.”

Compagnie Maguy Marin is at the Joyce Theater through Sun, Jun 22.