Complex Experiences | Clear Structure

Ideas, visions and techniques of Noé Soulier

Text: Pieter T’Jonck

The work of the French choreographer Noé Soulier investigates the approaches that allow the most complete experience of the body in movement, not only as a dancer, but also as a spectator. Soulier developed this research in surprisingly refined compositions for both small and large companies. However, as a philosopher who graduated from the Sorbonne he also formulates these ideas sharply in texts that often go against platitudes about dance art. Before the world premiere of “The Waves”, Pieter T’Jonck is looking into Soulier’s previous works, discussing and analysing essential ideas and techniques that are also reflected in his new piece.

In “Corps de Ballet” (2014), a choreography for 16 dancers, Soulier unravels classical ballet in a quasi-didactic way. In the first part, for example, the dancers perform all the familiar steps of the ballet, starting with ‘arabesque’, in alphabetic  order. It turns out that these passes have a lot more variants than one thinks, some of them personal. Each variant is the incarnation of an ideal type that in itself never appears. Soulier provides ample evidence for this idea here. The second part of “Corps de Ballet” puts the viewer even more on the wrong footing. The dancers take a few steps, make a turn or lift the arms in combinations which hardly offer an identifiable, clear figure. Or rather, every time you think you see what’s coming up, the dancers interrupt their élan in order to suddenly go in a different direction or move another part of the body. Visually, this continually cuts up the flow of the dance, often in quick succession. It’s apparently a challenge for the dancers. This makes the performance exciting as well as demanding to watch: no matter how familiar the image looks, it’s hard to grasp what you actually see. However, there is a simple explanation for this: every ballet position calls for transitional passes or a run-up. These passes are much less codified, and usually attract less attention: our gaze tends to jump from one ‘readable’ figure to another and forgets the transitions. Here, Soulier has created a dance that consists only of such transitional steps, cutting out pirouettes and arabesques. 

This way Soulier challenges the mechanics and systematics of ballet by omitting the ‘obvious’ parts and retaining only auxiliary structures. This also stimulates both viewers and dancers to think actively. And that’s what makes this work so interesting: this tactic of omitting information in order to arouse the imagination will be a constant device in his work. 

Following William Forsythe’s trail

In his solo, “Mouvement sur mouvement” (2013), Soulier closely imitated all William Forsythe’s movements in his video “Lectures from Improvisation Technologies” (1994 and 1999). Soulier was fascinated by the way in which Forsythe conveys his ideas with hands and feet in the video. Not only does he show the movements he speaks about, but he also adds many ‘extra’ gestures to strengthen his argument. They are ‘movements about movement’, and as such related to the transitional movements from the second part of “Corps de Ballet”. Here too they become a choreography in themselves. In his own solo, Soulier links Forsythe’s movements to his own text, a collection of seemingly loose but sharp reflections on what dance means and does to us.

These ‘movements about movement’ arise spontaneously, without calculation. In his text, Soulier mentions how this is true for most dancing. A classically trained dancer, for example, spontaneously performs an arabesque. S*he is probably not even able to give a conclusive definition of it. S*he learns the concept inductively, by imitating teachers and perfecting the figure on their instruction. Soulier goes on to say that this spontaneity is also characteristic of thinking. We learn by doing, whether it’s dancing or thinking. We don’t learn these activities by ourselves. We always do so with the guidance of or in dialogue with others. The ‘doing’ and the ‘sharing’ or ‘showing’ are inseparably connected.

This is one of the conclusions the piece arrives at, but before that we see a performance of dazzling virtuosity. It’s difficult enough to imitate Forsythe down to the smallest detail, let alone to cross this movement score with a text that doesn’t fit the movements. In Forsythe’s original film the actions obviously support the words, and vice versa: together they form a single argument. Here, on the other hand, the connection between movement and word is lost. The logic of the movement and the logic of the words evolve separately from one another and must also be followed separately.

Through a certain practice you try to become, in the eyes of others, a different and better version of yourself.

That’s why you always watch and listen with a double focus. Sometimes the text is at odds with the movements. Lying almost completely still on the floor, Soulier explains how Trisha Brown doesn’t define her movements in a geometrical way (as in ballet) but bases them on the mechanical forces acting on the body. Later when talking about the ‘tasks’ with which Yvonne Rainer or Simone Forti define choreography, his movements seem more or less reflective of how that works. However, in both cases the dual focus changes your perception of both movements and words. 

It requires a great deal of concentration from both the dancers and the viewers, but Soulier almost makes us forget this because of his relaxed tone of voice. His thoughts bubble up to the rhythm of Forsythe’s movements, in order to ‘do’ or ‘change’ something in the communication with the viewer. Dancing, Soulier notes, is a way to work on yourself. Through a certain practice you try to become, in the eyes of others, a different and better version of yourself. You become a ballet dancer by actively shaping your body. In this sense dancing is very similar to philosophy as the ancient Greeks saw it: a self-technology practiced in conversation with others. As a student-dancer you stand eye to eye with teachers. As a performer you stand eye to eye with your audience. This does something to the dance and the dancer, but also to the teacher or the spectator.

Attention focus


In “Actions, mouvements, gestes”, the book Noé Soulier published in 2016 with CN D, Paris, he further develops his observations from “Mouvement sur mouvement” and “Corps de Ballet” into a coherent theoretical proposal about looking at and understanding dance. For dance, as an art form, doesn’t focus on knowledge or on an immaterial content as conceptual art does, but is essentially focused on generating experiences. This doesn’t mean that a conceptual approach to dance would be impossible. After all, by focusing the attention in specific ways, choreographic concepts can provide a richer experience of dance. This observation also applies to the viewers. Soulier notes that the work of a choreographer consists of developing dance concepts that already take spectators’ experience into account. 

The performance “Faits et gestes” (2016) is a further reflection on ideas about movement formulated in this book. “Faits et gestes” is an untranslatable play on words. It stands for something like ‘Life and Works of’. The movement material is the result of actions orientated towards a practical goal (‘buts pratiques’). In ballet these are often used to give a certain quality to a movement. The term ‘frappé’, for instance, doesn’t of course indicate that a dancer should hit something (‘frapper’ means ‘to hit’), but rather that the quality of movement that we associate with the word ‘beating’ should resonate in his or her action. The ‘goal’ of the action is thus absent; only the intensity remains. 

“Faits et gestes” extends this principle. Soulier puts it this way: “The dancers focus on the multiple ways in which gestures can suggest movements: preparing for a movement to come, aiming for absent targets, indicating, pointing, selecting or transferring aspects of other movements. These movements are not self-sufficient; they refer to something beyond themselves. Even when what they are referring to is unknown, the fact that they call for something else remains present. It is these various ways of calling for through movement that are unfolded on stage.” 

In this work, however, the movement material is precisely defined; it is the order and the timing for each dancer that can vary. This leads to combinations of high complexity. Nevertheless, there’s no messiness involved, because all choreographic modules are sharply drawn and precisely combined. This combination of complex experiences and structural clarity is what makes Noé Soulier’s work intriguing. 

Noé Soulier | The Waves

30.8.–1.9., 21:00 | HAU2
World Premiere