A choreographer and a painter joining forces to create an opera, Soapéra, in which the medium is soap bubbles? It was all very unlikely, and I couldn’t imagine what this would be like. I am so happy I surmounted my skepticism of what sounded like one of those camped up, post modernist, not very meticulously sewn tapestries of faux intellectual frivolity. Mathilde Monnier, the choreographer and Dominique Figarella, the painter, created a piece that was as sensuous and subtle as it was dense and imaginative.
As we arrived in our seats in the large theater at the Pompidou Centre, soap bubbles were spewing forth from a huge pipe suspended above the stage, settling into a cloud of soap bubbles of considerable dimensions. As we sat in silence, we began to see something. Though I was initially unsure if I was imagining it, the cloud of soap bubbles began to change shape ever so slowly and slightly. The first half had begun. It was a mesmerizing image as the four dancers very slowly crawled underneath the soap, moving as if they were on the moon, slowly, at the same pace as the soap bubbles. They made shapes with the soap, standing up, lifting an arm, and the soap would obediently rise up, as a mass, to a height double that of the standing human figure. Who knew this is how excessive amounts of soap bubbles would behave? Accompanying this entrancing vision was a soundtrack, eerily like heavy breathing, as though the astronauts wading across this previously undiscovered planet whose surface is covered in soap were breathing artificially.
As we watched in total silence, the manipulations, distortions and elongations of the soap bubbles, the moment came when everyone in the audience began to cough. Again, who would have thought that soap detergent gives off fumes that could make the entire audience in the Pompidou’s huge theater cough uncontrollably? And so our coughing took over as the soundtrack, noises generated by soap bubbles.
And then, in what I understood to be the second part of Soapéra, the bubbles disintegrated. Without soap, the dancers were left on a black felt-laid stage with a white square in the middle. This square then became their medium. They picked it up, slammed it against the wall (above), rested it on their outstretched legs, and then when the soap had all disappeared, they danced on the white square, writhed on it, crawled underneath and around it.
Because much is made of the fact that Monnier the choreographer comes together with Figarella the painter to create a new medium on this strange planet of Soapéra, I was compelled to imagine the dialogue between dance and painting as I watched the piece. In the first half, the soap was the paint, flowing, viscous, being pushed around the canvas by the dancers as unseen brushes, molding their movements to become one with the medium. In the second half, the merging is complete: they take off their grey protective hooded jackets, to become four brushes: golden, green, yellow and white, their tops colored as though their upper bodies have been dipped each in a different colored can of paint. And as brushes, they danced on their white canvas. The dancing and movement was as agitated, energetic and disconnected in the second half as it was minimal, fluid and gracious in the first. And so the unpredictability of paint, the sensuousness of working it across a canvas in a search to discover its infinite forms of behavior, its endless possibilities, is perhaps just like the exploration of another planet; strange, unknown and a constant negotiation with the unknown, the not yet colonized.
Often today, contemporary dance performances are uneven, a single dancer being so much better than all the others such that an imbalance and a kind of inertia result on the stage. However, the last thing I must say about Soapéra, and one of the qualities that make it so captivating is the equality of the four dancers. Each was very different in his and her particular personalities, but their level of exertion, the assimilation of their movements with the body as energy source and their physical relationship with each other was, in all four dancers, exceptional.