Xavier Le Roy’s work gained recognition in contemporary, international dance circles after he finished a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology — which may explain the rigor and experimental focus of the work. His Retrospective, a three-month installation at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City (2014), emerged as a loop of discrete personal narratives textured by traces of his and each individual dancer’s past endeavors. – G.G.
La Francofolle: You said about Retrospective that Le Roy “…pulled it off.” How do you mean? One dancer, in fact, pulled off a sweatshirt during his dance-talk, then wriggled back into it. Could that be a reference to ambivalence about his revelations?
Gregory Grube: Le Roy turned on its head the notion of a culminating look at an oeuvre, he turned it — upside down and inside out — as one of the performers sang to us. This allusion to Diana Ross demonstrates how many plot twists the provocative Retrospective can produce. Sherwood Chen, the dancer who sang a snippet of the disco hit, also spoke eloquently about his own work on Min Tanaka’s farm, studying with Anna Halprin on September 11, 2001, and about the breakup that caused his departure from the U.S. to study court dance in Java.
Chen also showed us contemporary Senegalese choreographers’ work, and the piece by Le Roy with the sweatshirt, Self-Unfinished, where the dancer’s body is transformed into something animal or alien by simply taking a garment and using it strangely. Through this interplay, form becomes about otherness, unfixing the sign to catalytically release some locked up energy. In the end, Chen’s monologue risks hardly being a retrospective at all, but a global performance collage that each viewer is invited to frame on their own.
Ff: In France, “le rétro” is in. But what’s French about this Le Roy dance direction?
Gregory Grube: In the US, the ballet tradition and modern dance traditions were the dominant poles that provided ground for a revolt in the post-modern era. In France, propensities for philosophical debate and political insurrection, combined with knowledge of our artistic coups in the 1960s, perhaps opened an avenue for making performances that manage to be both idiosyncratic and poignant conceptually, deconstructing how dance can and should be made. In fact, these developments in dance arrived belatedly: appropriation and fluidity of identity have been de rigueur in other arts for years. Jerome Bel’s work in general, and his 2004 intervention in the hierarchy of The Paris Opera Ballet in particular, are key to understanding LeRoy’s piece. In fact, it’s hard to not see Bel as a kind of phantom partner to this undertaking. Both choreographers deterritorialize and recenter the field of dance by expanding the performer’s potential to create a unique cultural moment.
For you, what was most effective about the performance?
Gregory Grube: The freedom to examine whoever we wanted, however we wanted, for as long as we wanted, was one of the show’s greatest strengths. The dancers seemed devoutly intent on reaching out to every person in attendance, on making eye contact and prompting some form of interplay with each of us.
In addition, when dancer Will Rawls asked two audience members to reenact a passage of Marina Abramovic’s seminal work Imponderablia, I recognized the potential for each performer to question the implications of authorship. To see a performer sample pieces from their professional past, where they acted as hired proxies, helped expose the inequality typical of that relationship.
Is it paradoxical in the context of this piece, that you felt Le Roy was less than approachable as he stood in the gallery, cell phone in hand?
Gregory Grube: He did spend a great deal of time interacting with his phone and chatting with audience members who knew him — he certainly was not playing the traditional host. In the dark gallery with the dummies, he sat among them, modeling their deceptive inertia.
They seemed to possess some uncanny life force — you couldn’t help but feel them breathe, moving subtly. The work challenged our perceptions, teasing our senses through the barely visible sackcloth-wrapped golems.
Was it clear from the choreography who or what the audience is supposed to look at?
Gregory Grube: In the other Retrospective galleries, each dancer had a rule-based set of tasks, depending on their place in the sequence. We were drawn into this hive-like activity: we were part of a machine constantly producing some new perspective, some new frisson (shiver). That’s part of the confusion, you don’t know what the rules are, at least at first.
Did we find out what the choreographer’s rules were?
Gregory Grube: We came close! I think the gallery with the dummies served as a kind of parable. First, you need time for your eyes to adjust. My attention wasn’t drawn to the dummies until Le Roy sat with them, as one of them. Then suddenly you notice another dummy and then another. The ambient conditions take time to comprehend. None of the three dance galleries offers the visitor a blink moment. The show in each gallery in its own way challenges the viewer’s snap judgment or first response.
Le Roy’s Retrospective will be tough for viewers to forget because it is so earnest in its proposal to insist on the dancer’s agency, and to sound so many historical notes. The work is a labyrinth, like knowledge itself, exquisitely dizzying. Retrospective challenges common notions about what a look-back entails. Honoring the archtypal storytelling charm, Le Roy celebrates and personifies danser sa vie. Inasmuch as this is a work that can’t ever be viewed in its entirety, one thing is certain: the initial visit inevitably serves as your invitation to return.
Retrospective first was realized in 2012 at the Tapiès Foundation, Barcelona, and was presented in 2014 at Centre Pompidou, Paris (2014). The work also has traveled to Musée de la danse, Rennes, France (2012); Interação e Conectividade VII, Salvador, Brazil (2013); Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany (2013) and Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro (2013). Presented in NYC as part of the FIAF Crossing the Line 2014 fall festival, at MoMA PS1.