A story of duets and duality

Meeting the performers of the new production of Faun

By Elsa Vinet 05 February 2019

© Julien Benhamou / OnP

Juliette Hilaire and Marc Moreau in "Faun"

A story of duets and duality
First performed in 2009 by Daisy Phillips and James O’Hara as part of the festivities marking the centenary of the Ballets Russes, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun entered the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire in September 2017. The duet—a concentration of artistic and technical virtuosity—is now back on the bill at the Palais Garnier as part of a programme celebrating contemporary dance. Juliette Hilaire and Marc Moreau share their impressions on the complexity of the pas de deux and their joy at having the opportunity to dance it again.   

Juliette Hilaire dans Faun
Juliette Hilaire dans Faun © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Juliette Hilaire

“Marc and I danced Faun for the first time in September 2017, at the opening Gala for the new season. We then had the chance to dance it again on a tour to Novosibirsk last July, and this revival in February will be the first in a long series of performances. The piece required a considerable amount of work on our part because it is extremely difficult technically and the two dancers—James O’Hara and Daisy Phillips—who premiered the piece in London in 2009—have extraordinary physical abilities. We had already been introduced to the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with Boléro and Iolanta / Nutcracker, but this pas de deux is more acrobatic. It requires a high degree of flexibility which gives the movements that strange aspect, but it also involves arm work and floor work which we’re not in the habit of doing so intensively. Because of our “classical DNA” we tend towards lightness and elevation. Of course, we also tackle works by contemporary choreographers, such as Mats Ek for example, where there are a lot of grand pliés; but for Faun, the work was even more extreme in terms of floor contact and flexibility. It was also about forging a genuine partnership. I think that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui wanted to use two bodies. The male dancer carries more but a lot of things are done as a couple and it’s interesting to explore. As a female dancer, you aren’t expected to carry, or even hold fast using the weight of the other dancer, acting as a counterbalance. It was an endeavour that was as interesting as it was complicated, but Daisy and James were there to lead us both through the entire learning process.

Once all the difficult aspects have been mastered the pas de deux is a joy to dance. It creates a relationship with the Faun and with Marc, the likes of which I’d never experienced until now. It’s not a human to human arrangement, nor a prince-princess one as is the case in many classical ballets. It’s not even a man-woman relationship. In contemporary dance, you often find that notion of a couple; in this case, it’s a couple, without actually being one. You don’t really know exactly what it is, but you definitely sense a strong interaction. The feelings are there without being entirely comprehensible. It’s very subtle. There’s tenderness, incomprehension and fear as well. You don’t exactly know what territory you’re in. It’s somewhere between human and animal with that projection of the forest in the background. I think it’s a different vision of Faun than those we’ve seen before, be it the one by Nijinsky or Robbins. It creates a relationship of great sensitivity with the other dancer. You have to put your trust in him and as a result coordination becomes very important. The Faun and the Nymph are two different energies at the beginning, but they draw closer to one another as the ballet progresses. From the outset, the Faun’s solo has something extremely animal about it, whereas the Nymph’s is marked by another choreographic language: the movements are more restrained and the postures more architectural, although this does not preclude sometimes extreme positions. I don’t know whether it’s more human, but it’s certainly more vegetal. The legs stretch out like roots, the hands like branches and the costume itself can suggest the knots of a tree with that mass of material in the centre of the chest. You can clearly see the difference from the first encounter: the Faun, half-man, half-animal, is much closer to the ground, you would almost feel the hairs which cover his body, whereas the Nymph remains standing straight as if on watch.

The different energies are also conveyed by the musical breaks: Nitin Shawney’s first intervention corresponds with the first appearance of the Nymph and, in musical terms, clearly establishes the character’s femininity. That part conveys something light and luminous. At the second musical break, the Faun and the Nymph have already danced together so this is a moment of duality within the pas de deux. After their mutual discovery, while they are still tinged with incomprehension and curiosity, they are not yet in osmosis and there’s a moment when the two forces, the two characters clash a little. The musical addition of Nitin Shawney introduces a certain roughness. I don’t know if we can go so far as to talk of combativeness, but there is something of a confrontation, before it returns to the ever so light, ever so beautiful music of Debussy, in a much calmer dance. Perhaps they had to go through all of that to be truly in phase with one another.

The piece is not long but it’s a gem and Aurélie Dupont showed great confidence in us by giving us the chance to perform the roles and at an event as important as a Gala, even though we weren’t soloists.”    

Marc Moreau dans Faun
Marc Moreau dans Faun © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Marc Moreau

“Dancing the role of the Faun was a project that had been close to my heart for several years. I discovered the pas de deux at its world premiere, in 2009. It was a revelation and this ballet has always remained in the back of my mind. Everything seemed so organic, so easy… I finally realised later that it was the hardest ballet I’ve ever had to perform in terms of the physical and psychological investment. And yet, I’d had the chance to touch on a lot of different styles and repertoires. When we started working on Faun with Juliette, we were already in the process of learning Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Boléro so, we were immersed in his choreographic language, even if Faun pushes the body movements even further, to the threshold of contortion and gymnastics. As we learned the choreography, it proved to be extremely complex, and it required a personal investment and an awareness of the body that went beyond what we were used to doing.

Tackling this duet for the third time allows you to go deeper into it, and that is what is so fantastic about this technique, because there are several stages: first, you learn the choreography, then you absorb it, and then you feel out the relationship with the other dancer… You can always evolve, you can always go further, try new things and take new risks. That’s where the challenge lies for this series of performances: to try to be as organic as possible and take as few shortcuts as possible. To go back to the very essence of Faun. It was a real challenge, but we were both propelled by a mad desire to perfect the duet.

The main difficulty performing the role of the Faun lies in its implied animality. There’s something primal, in the sense that the movements look easy and organic. There’s no fixed or pre-defined position and in the end, that’s the hardest thing to manage: to be in complete control of one’s physical abilities, to be able to let go and to do so in a way that seems completely instinctive, to control something that seems uncontrolled. But if you really let go, you fall. You have to be in constant control to achieve that release, and therein lies the paradox. So, you need to experiment find ways and test the limits. Ultimately, the Faun is all about limits—in one’s own body and in terms of the relationship with the other dancer. Juliette and I need to constantly be on the same wavelength if we don’t want it to become a boxing match. I filmed many of the rehearsals to be able to watch and understand things from the perspective of an onlooker. When the rehearsals first began, we were so eager to do well that we didn’t listen to each other enough. You need to know your partner’s role by heart to be able to anticipate and react to the merest imbalance. It’s the same kind of duet work that you find in dance in general, yet with Faun it’s much more intense. We each came with our own automatic reflexes and preconceived images, and we had to rethink everything to be able to build something together. At no time does one take precedence over the other.

The music too is a real driving force. It carries us along. It is so perfectly in harmony that you get the impression the music was composed for the choreography. The consonance between what happens on stage and in the body is perfect and that makes the ballet particularly pleasant to dance: you realise that the slightest note, the slightest intention is choreographed and has a meaning. Nitin Shawney’s musical breaks take us into a different world which brings depth to Debussy’s score. With James and Daisy, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, succeeded in creating a powerful performance which is both gentle and subtle. And that’s why it works as well as it does. In my view, it is a perfectly constructed piece in which the music accompanies the story narrated by the pas de deux: the Faun’s awakening, the arrival of that creature in the forest, the sudden discovery that he is not alone, the curiosity that such a discovery arouses, and the attraction which follows. Initially it’s like a friendship which transforms into something extremely physical leading to the discovery of the other’s body, all the way to orgasm—to employ the term used by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui… And then we end on that final pause, with each one looking away and life goes on. I’m really delighted to be performing this duet again and to have the opportunity to add more depth to the work.”    

Marc Moreau et Juliette Hilaire en répétition, Palais Garnier, 2019
Marc Moreau et Juliette Hilaire en répétition, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Ann Ray / OnP

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