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Wings of the Dove

Ola Maciejewska’s “Bombyx Mori” is the second hour-long work in the “Dance Reflections” festival I’ve seen so far. Is this a new trend in European dance, I wonder? An hour is just long enough to develop one idea, with a little padding at either end. Both “Corps Extrêmes,” by Rachid Ouramdane, and “Bombyx Mori” seem to follow a similar model: an exploration of a single theme structured as a series of études, plus an introduction and finale.

Performance

Ola Maciejewska’s: “Bombyx Mori”

Place

French Institute Alliance Françasie, New York, NY, November 2, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Jean Lesca in Ola Maciejewska’s “Bombyx Mori.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

In the case of “Bombyx Mori,” the subject—the suggestive effects of fabric, movement, and light—also has a history. Maciejewska overtly draws upon and makes reference to the experiments of the American dance experimentalist (and mentor to Isadora Duncan) Loïe Fuller. Fuller’s “Serpentine Dances” mesmerized audiences in Paris and beyond during the years of the Fin de Siècle. She enfolded herself in silk fabric, which she fluttered and swooshed with the help of sticks concealed beneath its voluminous folds. The ever-moving, ever-morphing shapes she created were augmented with colored lights and smoke. It all added up to something almost magical, spooky, from another world. It was animation before animation. 

Fuller attracted famous artists like Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec, the latter of whom painted her.  The Lumière brother filmed her, for which we can be grateful. She is a fascinating figure from a time when Symbolism and spiritualism were rife and film and electric light were in their infancy. And yet, in some ways Fuller was also a one-trick pony. There is only so much you can do with fabric and lights, a limitation “Bombyx Mori” also comes up against. (Though Maciejewska doesn’t seem to think so–she has been making works inspired by Fuller since 2013.) We live in a far more prosaic time than Fuller’s, in which it is not so easy to mesmerize audiences. 

 

Jean Lesca, Leah Marjevic, and Macie Sado in Ola Maciejewska’s “Bombyx Mori.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

As the piece begins, three performers—Jean Lesca, Leah Marjevic, and Macie Sado—enter the stage, dropping piles of black fabric on the ground. For a long time, in silence, they arrange the fabric, folding and refolding. Then, also slowly, they crawl beneath it. Finally, they rise up, engulfed in black fabric (costumes are by Valentine Sole), and stand, facing the audience with blank expressions, looking like monks or the figure of death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This is the introduction.

Then the variations begin. They walk, their hems skimming the floor, turn slowly, kneel, and stand. We hear sounds, quiet vocalizations, captured by the microphones that hang above the stage. And then, like Fuller before them, they begin to move their arms, extended by sticks, in repetitive arcs and figure eights, up above their heads, out to their sides, down, and back up again, like conductors in front of an orchestra. In response to their movements, the fabric whooshes and billows, creating beautiful, ever-changing shapes: curls, waves, lines, volumes and hollows. The three performers cover their faces, rendering themselves anonymous and abstract. The microphones capture the sound of the whooshing fabric, creating a rhythm. 

Jean Lesca in Ola Maciejewska’s “Bombyx Mori.” Photograph by Samia Pendleton

More variations. After moving in unison, the three figures begin to vary their rhythms, so that the phrases become a counterpoint of two-beat phrases against three-beat phrases, or three beats against one. Then they accentuate different beats. They vary the patterns of the arms, creating different shapes. One crouches, becoming a gnome-like figure. Another stands still, with arms out like an angel of resurrection by the eighteenth-century English poet-painter-printmaker William Blake. Another stands still with one arm extended upward—now he becomes the Grim Reaper.  At other moments the three dancers resemble birds, squid, water, and, yes, moths, like the silk moth called the bombyx mori, which the piece is named.

The lights dim, so that the figures become even more abstracted—black stains against a gray backdrop. They hop and run. For a moment I’m reminded of the moving shapes created by the Swiss surrealist theater group Mummenschanz. Though this dance seems deeply serious, almost ceremonial, the memory introduces a touch of absurdity to the proceedings. And then, as in a grand finale in a fireworks display, the three launch into a final serpentine dance, their black cowls moving faster and faster, the sound becoming louder and louder, until it seems their arms might unscrew themselves from their bodies and fly away.

At the moment when it seems this cannot go on for a minute longer, it ends. There is just enough variety to sustain interest for an hour. But “Bombyx Mori” is more like a study for a piece than the piece itself. With her “Serpentine Dances,” Fuller was breaking new ground. We can be grateful to Maciejewska for giving modern audiences a taste of her magic, but still, it seems to me, there should be more. 

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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