Alain Platel, Sophie Fiennes and Everyone's a Critic

The Dance Films Association presents same all over the country, and every January allies itself with the Film Society of Lincoln Center to sponsor the invaluable Dance on Camera series in New York. I haven't seen anywhere near all of this year's offerings (yet), but I have seen a sequence of dance shorts in which two Moves stood out -- the Australian company Chunky Move for its delightful Dance Like Your Old Man, in which six women do same, and Richard Move's Bardo, built on a solo he choreographed for Katherine Crockett as part of a Sept. 11 memorial trio commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company, which blends eerie Surrealistic imagery with Crockett's iconic torso.

But what I want of focus on here is Sophie Fiennes's VSPRS Show and Tell, a 72-minute documentary she made for the European cultural television channel Arte about the Flemish choreographer Alain Platel's dance VSPRS.

Everyone's a critic. Even the most abstract art work is commenting critically on something -- a tradition, a counterweight to a form that implies a narrative. When a work is specifically about another work, then it is criticism for sure. So is a musical interpretation of a score. (Maybe every critic is an artist, too, or at least the better ones are, in that an eloquently written review can aspire to artistry.)

Fiennes is an English documentary film maker with a fascinating resume. She is also the sister of the actors Ralph and Joseph. She had already done one Platel film, about an apparently remarkable dance/installation he did for Michael Morris's ArtAngel series in London. So clearly Platel trusted and liked her and assumed she would convey his disturbing VSPRS to a wider television audience.

Critics are never "right." Each one has a point of view which may conform to that of the artist and may conform to that of another critic, but not necessarily. So my take on VSPRS, while sharply different from Fiennes's, is not being trumpeted here as superior to hers (even if mine is illumined by the light of divine inspiration).

The 90-minute dance is set to a jazzy arrangement of Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Virgine (1610), or Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, i. e., Mary. In German it's called the Marienvesper. In one of the film's conversations, Platel recalls an incident when he was a 17-year-old student in a religious middle American household. Someone was ill, and the family undertook a group prayer in which everyone held hands. Platel was not a believer, but he had a mystical experience in which he became ecstatically convinced that Mary was about to walk through a door left partly open, with bright light streaming into the dark room from beyond. He didn't say what he felt when she didn't show up (assuming she didn't), but he did say that a) the experience of almost-epiphany made a profound impact on his life and b) he had forgotten about it until that moment. Sort of hard to reconcile those two, but...

VSPRS is difficult to watch. Ten dancers perform in front of a curious raised set piece on which 10 musicans play. For most of the time the dancers stagger and twitch and shake and mouth bizarre verbiage. It's intense and grating.

In his younger years Platel treated people with various physical and mental disorders, and that's what fascinated Fiennes in the short three weeks between her receiving the assigment and shooting the film. This grotesqueness is what she thinks the piece is about. She reinforces her theory by including footage old and new of disturbed people, including children, shaking and hopping and contorting themselves. The dancers were in some sense inspired by all that. Towards the end there is a kind of freakout ("ecstasy," they call it), in which everyone rolls about spasmodically, mastubating, to Monteverdi's Magnificat. One woman in the question-and-answer session afterwards thought it was exploitative. Maybe, but more from Fiennes than Platel.

Where Fiennes and I part ways is that the set, which is covered in white material that Fiennes never explicitly identifies as underwear, starts glowing from within. Painfully, the dancers struggle toward the top, forming a kind of chain of fools, some dropping back to earth, others helping them up again, upwards and onwards.

For me, the religious implications of all this are clear. It's music about the Virgin Mary. Platel had a transformative experience about her as a youth. All the twitching and grimacing is like a Boschian depiction of hell, or hell on earth. But at the end, Platel seems to imply, mankind tries to transcend his bestiality.

In the question and answer session, I asked Fiennes why she had jettisoned that aspect of Platel's work. It just didn't interest me that much, she said at first, adding that she was confined to two camera positions in each of seven live performances and never got good footage of the upwards struggle. She also said, though, that after a few performances she had enough from the front and experimented shooting from the rear. Meaning she could have shot up top, too. She chose not to, so her first response to me -- that she made a critical decision to ignore that part of the piece -- holds the truest.

For me, the contrast between agony and ecstasy, or at least the aspiration for ecstasy, is what VSPRS is about. I know nothing of Platel's spiritual beliefs, but now he's working on a new piece called Pitie set to a similarly jazzed version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (not the whole thing, I trust). So there's something about the spiritual that is currently compelling his attention. To ignore that, for a documentarian, seems willful. Fiennes made a powerful film, but one very different from what I critically perceive to have been Platel's intention.

January 10, 2009 1:58 PM | | Comments (1)


Your piece appears based on the assumption that the primary mode of engaging with a work is to decipher the absolute intention of the author. I don’t believe in a single, fixed intention, particularly when talking about an ensemble dance piece. I am interested in the multiple ways a work is experienced and I aim to be as attentive as possible to the subtleties of the subjects I document.

I have certainly not ‘ignored the aspect of upwards struggle’ in the piece, which the final moments of the film clearly display as the dancers climb the mountain. What I did not include was a sequence which occurred in the middle the original stage work, in which the dancers appear as a group of climbers following a pathway up the mountain, they slide playfully down a part of the mountain, one stands on top and calls out – his voice miming an echo. (The back lighting of the set does not occur in this sequence, only at the end of the piece). In the film, this middle sequence is transposed into a documentary riverside sequence, where the dancers on their day off are jumping from a real rock into the water below and emerging – along with other swimmers. The echo calls are heard over this imagery and we are taken back into the performance. Alain Platel suggested shooting the dancers on their day off, and I found a way to incorporate this into the film.

I find nothing grotesque in VSPRS. You make this assumption. The archive footage I incorporated in the film is not reinforcing any ‘theory’ I have, it is the actual research material that the dancers looked at with Platel as part of their working process. This is made quite clear in the film, and it was explicit in the Q and A which you attended.

Sophie Fiennes


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