by Maggie Foyer

The Menil Collection in Houston was, in some ways, an unlikely setting for the premiere of Carolyn Carlson’s Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko), but it also made perfect sense. Just a stone’s throw away is the Rothko Chapel where 14 of the painter’s later works hang, monumental in size, painted in hues of dark purple, maroon and black, and overwhelming in their depth of emotion.

Carlson is a choreographer and philosopher or, in her words, “a poet in space and time.” The idea for this solo was conceived when she was commissioned by the Pompidou Centre in Paris to write about a painter. She chose Mark Rothko. Words became movement, and Dialogue with Rothko was born. It is a very personal solo for Carlson and has previously only been danced by the choreographer herself. However, Nancy Henderek, artistic director of the Dance Salad Festival and a champion of Carlson’s work, suggested that the Paris Opera Ballet’s Marie-Agnès Gillot dance a shortened version of the work for her 2017 festival last April. So it happened that in the austere white space of the Menil gallery, without the benefit of stage lighting or set and only a few props, Gillot, accompanied by composer and cellist Jean-Paul Dessy, created one of those dance moments that remain seared on the memory.

Marie-Agnès Gillot in Carolyn Carlson’s Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko) | Photo: Amitava Sarkar

A few days later, on the festival’s opening night, Gillot performed the same version in the more traditional setting of the Wortham Center with the benefit of stage lighting, and the equally potent power and presence she had generated in the small gallery space. The music composed and played live by Dessy was a major part of the impact, the austere unembellished notes of the cello setting the tone and occasionally giving way to recorded spoken words and electronic sounds of high emotion.

Rothko, a painter of the New York School, was an idealist who never lost his belief in the absolute freedom of expression. He wrote his philosophy in oil on canvas, concealing as much as he revealed, and Gillot, weaving shapes with her body and writing calligraphic messages in the air, added the choreographed layers.

Designer Chrystel Zingiro’s costume, a severe black dress that reached to the floor and covered bright red trousers, had similar complexity, with uneven length and pockets that serve as levers to lift the skirt into new shapes. A workmanlike painter’s apron daubed with smudges of paint was tied around her waist, a length of canvas becoming angel wings while utilitarian rubber gloves, a pair in blue and, later, a single red glove, brought other accents to the conversation. Carlson is minimal in her use of props, but each was an essential element.

Gillot’s tall, angular shape dominated the space, and Carlson’s choreography makes full use of her unique physicality. Her long arms make Gillot an eminently suitable choice for this solo that focuses so strongly on arms and hands. Anétoile of the Paris Opera, she has every technical skill required, but here she was pure expression. It shone through in the intensity of her dark eyes and eloquent hands.

Her professional relationship with Carlson goes back to 1997 when the choreographer created Signes for the Paris Opera Ballet with Gillot, then a sujet, as one of the women. It was after dancing the lead role in 2004 that Gillot was promoted to the rank of étoile, the first time in the history of the Paris Opera that this honour was granted for a performance in a contemporary work.

Marie-Agnès Gillot in Carolyn Carlson’s Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko)
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Among classical dancers, Gillot is rare in her affinity with a more modern style of movement. When we spoke, she described the freedom she experienced in her early dance classes in Normandy before her formal training at the Paris Opera. While she relished her training at the school, she said frankly that it was twice as hard for those who were seen to have talent. On graduating into the Paris Opera Ballet, she was immediately selected for contemporary works, though her repertoire includes the title role in classics such as Swan Lake and Mats Ek’s Giselle.

Gillot is forthright about the value of contemporary dance. “Contemporary is more concrete. In classical, the choreographers are all dead, so you are working with ghosts, but in contemporary you are in front of the creator. This is the big difference,” she says. “When I worked with Béjart, Pina or Carolyn, they knew the image they wanted to see. In classical, all we have is the impression of some apostle. It is always second-hand and, for Petipa, it comes from a dozen hands — so we don’t know.”

Gillot is passionate about the debt she owes Carlson. “With Carolyn, I learned to improvise. You know how difficult it is for classical dancers to forget all the technical codes. I have in my body 20 years of trying to be perfect. Then you meet a woman like this and it’s like, ‘OK … forget everything you learned.’”

She relates how the atmosphere in the rehearsal room had an almost spiritual quality. “Carolyn taught me that when you do a movement it’s there, it’s done and it’s for eternity. She always comes in with something … an idea for a costume, a colour or a movement, and we start from this. For me it seems to come from nowhere, but not for her,” Gillot says.

The curation of the solo for Dance Salad Festival was more than just teaching the steps; rather it became a creative process. “From my improvisation many things changed. I would improvise, and Carolyn would shape the movement how she liked.”

Carlson has created around 10 solos in her distinguished career. They are long — over an hour each — and in performance she shares her solitude, finding both depth and focus. Gillot describes how important it was for her, in performing Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko), to find that focused moment. “I try to visualise the piece in my head, like a journey I will make. The best I can do for the public is to be in the right moment.”

The simplicity of the work presented many challenges. “At the first entrance, I look toward the table and I have to see Rothko. Many times I think I see him, but Carolyn says, ‘No, you don’t see him. OK, start again.’ It seems easy, but it’s not. Also, you have to wait before you feel, not be too quick and pretend you understand. You have to wait to receive and only then can you give back what you have found.”

Although she was born in the United States and began her professional career in the New York-based AlwinNikolais Company, Carlson built her career in Europe, predominantly in France and Italy where she has been a key player in developing contemporary dance. She was instrumental in the GRTOP, the Paris Opera Ballet’s Groupe de RecherchesThéâtrales, and at Teatro La Fenice. She was artistic director of the dance section of the Venice Biennale from 1999 to 2002 and, in 2006, was rewarded with the first-ever Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement given to a choreographer by this illustrious organization.

Carolyn Carlson in her solo Dialogue with Rothko Photo: Laurent Paillier

Carlson is unusual in that her choreography often germinates from her writing. In preparation for the award-winning Dialogue with Rothko, she wrote a series of poems including one titled, What is the Sound of Black on Red? When Marie-Agnès Gillot started to work on the solo, Carlson gave her these poems and two pieces of writing from John Berger: Ways of Seeing, a seminal work published in 1972 that changed how we look at art, and his essay, “Why Look at Animals?”.

“She gave me these to help to approach the solo; she educates you at the same time as she introduces you to the choreography,” Gillot says.

Colour is another source of inspiration, notably in Signes, where Olivier Debré’s huge canvases form a backdrop and his vivid colours illuminate both stage and costumes. In Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko), the hues are more sombre. Gillot says, “I used to listen to Carolyn speaking about the colours. She said, black is the spirit of eternity. For me that was very strange and something different. I never thought of black as eternity.”

Gillot is reaching the end of her time at the Paris Opera; this season will be her last. She spoke of how she had built her knowledge of dance. The material she learns from each new work is another step on the way. “What I learn in contemporary I may use in classical. Once you touch on something new, you cannot discard it. My dance comes from many observations and much knowledge.” This knowledge will not be lost as Gillot is making her mark as a choreographer, including Sous apparence, which was staged at the Palais Garnier in 2012. She has taken on the artistic direction of Orsolina28, a dance centre in Italy’s beautiful Monferrato countryside where she can express her motto, “Dance for me is freedom.”

When Gillot takes her final bow on the Paris Opera stage, she said she would like it to include Black Over Red and also something by Bausch. “I am lucky to have worked with two women of genius, Pina Bausch and Carolyn Carlson. I want to close this chapter of my life with the two women who raised me to another level because of their art.”

DI FALL 2017

Featured photo of Marie-Agnès Gillot and Jean-Paul Dessy in Carolyn Carlson’s Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko) | Photo: Amitava Sarkar