Dance Review: French choreographer Pierre Rigal impresses U.S. audience with “Asphalte”

When most Atlanta residents hear the words “popping and locking,” “krump” and “breakdance” they might think of MTV or Underground Atlanta, a popular haven for street performers. Most probably do not think of France. Yet, on Sunday night when French company Compagnie Dernière Minute performed Pierre Rigal’s innovative work “Asphalte” many preconceptions were shattered.

Infusing the sharp mechanics of hip-hop with contemporary thematic elements and an artistic light show, “Asphalte” was performed at the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University. Presented by France-Atlanta 2011, the company made their U.S. Debut to a full house.

Rigal, the choreographer of “Asphalte” along with many other works, never danced prior to 2002 and pulls upon his previous life experiences for inspiration. He was once a trained athlete and filmmaker, explaining his grounded movement quality and his interest in multimedia integration.  It was around the time he was busy studying mathematics and economics in Barcelona that he first met contemporary choreographers Heddy Maalem and Bernardo Montet.

Now, after performing with choreographer Gilles Jobin, Rigal leads his own five-member company and is celebrated for his work exploring the relationship between movement and technology. His diverse background helps him to avoid some of the stereotypes of hip-hop (such as the “macho, tough persona.”)

“Asphalte” is a true multimedia creation that seeks to incorporate poetry and “the absurdity of post-modern existence.” Combining themes of desire, jealousy, war, love and revolution, the work is a quest reflecting human existence. Square, glowing boxes become a central element to the plot as the dancers fight over ownership and possession of the light.

The first scene opens with the only female dancer of the company, Camille Regneault, discovering one of these square light boxes. She immediately hides it under her hoodie, wanting to protect it from others. But apparently she does not hide it soon enough as a gang of four male dancers join her and begin to dramatically try to steal it. Staged a bit theatrically, Regneault runs from the men until they catch her and toss her around. Moments of hurried movement are slowed as dancers suddenly run slow motion.

As the stage is lite in red the five dancers move to the screen (which acts as a crucial sixth dancer in the piece) and position themselves as if they are being frisked by law enforcement. Their heads are dropped and their rears stick-out as their feet are shoulder-length apart. Timidly they begin to move their hands across the screen while keeping their feet planted. As amphibian’s gluey palms adhere to leaves and bark, their hands are heavily attached to the screen.

When the tall, muscular Yoann Nirennold spreads his long-limbs out across the screen the other dancers slink across the screen offstage. A solo commences that is filled with detailed isolations of Nirennold’s hands and arms. Spidery finger movements portray a power that seems to fascinate and take hold of him. When the other dancers rejoin him a poignant image of Nirrennold’s face being drowned in a sea of spidery hands leaves a haunting presence. As an oppressing force, the hands seem to symbolize the tyranny humanity faces when their integrity and resolve succumbs to evil.

Perhaps attempting to provide humor in the midst of such thematic intensity, the next scene includes dancer Hervé Kanda with a walkie-talkie playing a hip-hop version of “Simon says.” With muffled exaggerations he scants and grunts at dancers till he seems to inflate them up like balloons. While they bounce around on their toes with chests lifted high and checks puffed out Kanda begins to shoot them one by one. This gives the image that he is popping balloons. Although comical, it alludes to a darker world of war and meaningless catastrophe.

The most memorable scenes of “Asphalte” were later in the work. It appeared that as the movement progressed the creative complexities heightened. At one point the stage is dark and silhouettes of freakishly tall and short characters are identified with light boxes attached to their clothing. Unsure who is who and which “freak” is really doing what, a hilarious and yet captivating ambiguity unfolds. Halfway through their crawl and saunters across the stage the audience realizes one of the midget figures is walking on their hands. 

Ending the show with a bright white light flashing and dancers being caught mid-air in progressing jumps and movement was almost too much to visually handle. Similar to a strobe light slowed down it was exhausting for audience’s eyes to keep up. It was an assault on the senses. The last flashing image was of the dancers collapsing on the ground, and at that point everyone was thankful for relief from the pounding, unrelenting light.

Reflecting back on the entirety of the work, it all began with a solo light display by Frédéric Stoll that seems to foreshadow the choreographic progression of “Asphalte.” The first image audiences saw were orbiting lights cast in hazy, evolving colors. Initially they revolved in a slow promenade across the screen, but soon their color progressions hastened to a building tempo. The lights began to pulse and change sizes in a sporadic array until at last everything went dark. One red circle then blinked in the top left corner, reminiscent of a pedestrian stop signal.

This solo lighting display mapped the speed and emotion for the piece’s choreography. Such framework and intentionality is always a pleasure for the viewer to stumble upon. “Asphalte” definitely brought the best of hip-hop to fruition.