“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Shakespeare – Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
Opening in darkness with a song, Maguy Marin’s May B touches on the essence of human existence. Sitting in the darkened theatre hall, alone and together, surrounded by beauty that cannot be seen: a male voice singing Schubert. As a dim light fills the stage, white figures may be discerned standing there.
There is a stark contrast between the refined grace of the song and the figures onstage. Clad in loose, white clothes that might be undergarments or nightclothes, faces and hair covered with white chalk or clay, they are set apart, archetypal almost sexless creatures, whom we regard from afar. Marked by the white-face of a clown, in hobo rags, they shuffle on the stage, raising clouds of dust. A deep groan emerges from the very center of their being, an expression of great effort and desire. So much of the power of this work is derived from that distance between desire and its fulfillment, the tension between the extreme physicality of experience and the terrible yearning for the ephemeral.
There is a meticulous attention to gesture and rhythm, whether the movement is large, or the delicate entrapment of a dust mote between fingers. The language of everyday gesture – scratching the neck, a nonchalant slight shake of the hand, along with the strange gnawing of a thumb, or a couple dancing thumb to thumb – illuminate these characters as they discover themselves and one another. There is a sense of wonder and discovery balanced against seemingly endless repetition. We are always here, only here in this body, there is no elsewhere.
In the final part of May B, the odd creatures, those vagabond clowns in white have disappeared, replaced by people in street clothes bearing suitcases. For an Israeli audience, the image might recall Hanoch Levin’s Suitcase Packers, and we know where those travelers were bound. Marin’s work is peopled by those who exist upon the stage, with Gavin Bryer’s song Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in the background, even when they attempt to leave, climbing down and walking out the door – they are fated to return.
Maguy Marin first premiered May B in 1981, and this work is as relevant, powerful and provocative today as it was then. One might come to this work knowing that it was inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett (recognizing Hamm and Clove, Pozzo and Lucky who make an homage appearance), or one might come to this work without preparation, and through it come to know a certain sensibility, a way of observing and understanding the human that is perhaps shared by Marin and Beckett. Knowing and not knowing, moving and not moving, wanting and not wanting – this ‘quintessence of dust’ that breathes and struggles with every breath.
Maguy Marin’s May B was performed in Tel Aviv Dance 2014 as part of Suzanne Dellal’s 25th anniversary celebration.