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Vertical Road

Every human dreams of flying at some point. We watch the birds and imagine ourselves soaring above the landscape. The feeling is intense, thrilling. And for some, the longing for freedom and weightlessness translates into other activities: jumping out of airplanes, paragliding, scuba diving, rock climbing.

Performance

Rachide Ouramdane: “Corps Extrêmes”

Place

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, October 28, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Rachide Ouramdane's “Corps Extrêmes.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

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Artists too have explored this impulse:  In Trisha Brown’s 1971 “Walking Down the Side of a Building,” a person wearing a harness dangled horizontally and “walked” from the top of a building down to the street. Elizabeth Streb has taken the idea various steps further in works that send dancer-acrobats soaring from trampolines and down to the earth from high walls. A lot of people, it seems, dream of feeling what Philippe Petit felt as he walked across the tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974.

I’ve never shared that desire, but people who do say that that at those moments, suspended in the air or on a sheer rockface or deep underwater, what they feel is peace and freedom. And that in that peace there is a kind of beauty. This is the principle behind Rachid Ouramdane’s new show “Corps Extrêmes,” which has just come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Van Cleef & Arpels’s new dance festival, Dance Reflections.

The festival is heavy on French dancemakers; Ouramdane, a French-Algerian choreographer, is the director of the Chaillot-Théâtre National de la Danse in Paris. In this piece, he features a group of dancer-acrobats as well as a tightrope walker, or highliner. Not just any highliner, but Nathan Paulin, who holds records for traversing vast expanses, including the plain around the Mont Saint-Michel, on a slack line. In the show, we see him first in a film, walking, sitting, even lying down on a tightrope strung across a steep ravine. In another film we see the climber Nina Caprez attached to a sheer rockface, her fingers hanging onto tiny crevices in the rock. These beautifully-shot films (by Jean-Camille Goimard) give you a sense of vertigo, a vortex in the pit of your stomach. The audience titters nervously.

Rachide Ouramdane's “Corps Extrêmes.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Then the performers enter. Paulin glides peacefully on from the wings, on a wire that traverses the stage. The others appear above a wall and begin to climb down, elegantly, gracefully, silently, as Jean-Baptiste Julien’s electronic sound-score envelops them, and us, in pleasantly un-aggressive waves of sound. For the next hour, the ten dancers fill the air with their quiet, seemingly weightless movements, as Paulin watches, sometimes with a leg or arm dangling from the line.

They climb onto each other’s shoulders, forming totems composed of three bodies, fully extended; then they slide back down, seemingly without effort. They step from one totem to another. Without fear, the totems tilt and break apart. The dancers know they will be caught, and they raise or toss each other up high into the air, their bodies tracing graceful arcs. They climb up onto the wall and dive off of it, attempting to reach Paulin on his wire, each time getting just a little closer but never quite arriving.

The images and patterns suggest images from nature and beyond—birds, of course, but also angels or even spirits rising and descending to earth. The dancers’ cyclical movements begin to settle into rhythms that quieten the mind and suggest a kind of meditation. The peacefulness of the dancer’s ascent and descent leads the mind to plays tricks—maybe the rules of gravity really have been suspended. We don’t see the effects of weight or effort.

Rachide Ouramdane's “Corps Extrêmes.” Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Every so often, there is a shift: instead of climbing, the dancers toss each other into the air, or instead of diving, they balance against each other’s bodies. A solo is accompanied by a voiceover, describing a bad fall. The woman explains how she once lost all sense of direction and was unable to tell whether she was moving upward or downward. The story reminds me of Simone Biles’ account of suffering a case of the “twisties,” a dangerous state of perception where one doesn’t know where one’s body lies in space, or in what direction it is moving.

In the show, the voiceover speaks of submitting to nature, but there is something else at play as well. Through practice, repetition, control, skill and trust, these gymnasts, dancers, and tightrope walkers have actually learned to harness nature’s forces: gravity, momentum, balance, friction, motion. They stretch the body’s limits further than we think possible. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, at least for a certain amount of time. The show lasts 60 minutes, and that’s about right. Just as our sense of wonder begins to fade, with a final swoop across the stage, the dancers disappear once again, behind the wall.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of “The Boy from Kyiv” about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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