The Choreography of Whimsy
Philippe Decoufle's 'Tricodex' Comes to the Kennedy Center
By Valerie Gladstone
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 6, 2004; Page C02
Browsing in a bookstore several years ago, the popular French choreographer Philippe Decoufle came upon a copy of "Codex Seraphinianus," a fanciful encyclopedia published in 1981 by the Italian visual artist and naturalist Luigi Serafini. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he says, describing his instant infatuation with the author's mythic universe, a wild place populated with peculiar animals, imaginary plants, insects, mathematical equations, hairstyles, playing cards, flying machines and labyrinths. "It was so crazy. I had to transform it into dance."
If anyone could choreograph a dance based on such a bizarre assemblage, it would be the witty and whimsical Decoufle, a tall, lanky man with a mischievous sense of humor. As intrigued by film, circuses, acrobatics, video, music and cartoons as by dance, he brought all his interests to bear in creating "Codex" and "Decodex" for his Compagnie DCA in 1987 and 1995, respectively.
"I did them to amuse my children," he says. "I like creating entertainments. I'm as much a showman as a choreographer."
Thursday through Saturday the Lyon Opera Ballet presents his "Tricodex," the culmination of his highly praised trilogy inspired by the Serafini opus, as part of the Kennedy Center Festival of France.
"I waited 15 years for Philippe to have time to make a work for us," says Yorgos Loukos, artistic director of the Lyon Opera Ballet, which performed Maguy Marin's "Cinderella" at the Kennedy Center in 2002. "The dancers responded completely to his special artistic world."
The evening-length work features 30 dancers, 150 strikingly original costumes and video projections, with music by contemporary composers Sebastien Libolt and Hugues de Courson, decor by Jean Rabasse (who designed the recent Bernardo Bertolucci film "The Dreamers") and set design by Pierre-Jean Verbraeken.
" 'Tricodex' doesn't tell a story," says Decoufle. "I'd call it a visual spectacle. It's full of all kinds of divertissements. There are some dances for vegetables, another for the sea. And there's lots of flying, including a man riding a bicycle suspended from the ceiling and bungee jumping."
"What imagination, what humor, what invention, what beauty," raved Rene Sirvin in Le Figaro after the premiere of "Tricodex" in Lyon late in March.
Usually Decoufle, who is France's most successful choreographer, takes a year to make a dance for his small, Paris-based company. But he only had three months at the Lyon Opera Ballet.
"I began by holding a workshop," he says, "so I could see how the dancers responded to my ideas. It was amazing how quickly they took to my movement. I think it's because they dance such a varied repertory, from classical ballet to Trisha Brown, Stephen Petronio and Bill T. Jones. They know how to dive into a choreographer's psyche, and entirely forget everything they know as ballet dancers."
Acclaimed for the changes he has brought to Lyon over the past 14 years through nurturing modern dance choreographers, Loukos says, "That's how they are trained. We challenge our dancers, and they are better for their experience in a wide variety of techniques. We want people like Philippe to come back."
Decoufle's unpredictable and idiosyncratic style grew out of his early experiences, and a passion for experimentation and film. As a child, he traveled extensively with his family, living and attending school in Morocco and Lebanon. When they returned to Paris in his teens, he began studying design, secretly hoping to be a cartoonist. "I still use that jerky kind of cartoonlike movement in my work," says the 43-year-old choreographer, whose style is more often characterized by lyrical passages of fluid movement punctuated with outbursts of awkwardness. Enchanted by the theatrical world depicted in the 1945 film "Les Enfants du Paradis," he also learned pantomime, taking as his heroes Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati.
"By luck," Decoufle recalls, "I was 18 when the modern dance explosion began in the '80s. If not, I would probably have joined the circus."
He studied with the American choreographer Alwin Nikolais, a pioneer in the use of multimedia effects who ingeniously used colors, lighting and sound as integral parts of his abstract dances. He also came under the influence of Merce Cunningham through a film made by the director Charles Atlas. He chose Atlas to shoot his video "Jump" in 1984.
"My desire to do film choreography," he says, "was inspired by musical comedy. The best dancers I have ever seen were the Nicholas Brothers, especially in 'Stormy Weather.' They possess an essential quality which I look for in dance: exaltation."
After "Jump," he alternated producing films and live performances for several years, culminating in "Abracadabra," a film incorporating a year of his cinematographic ideas. Shot from overhead, it captures dancers' movements through infrared sensors, as Decoufle explores different ways of looking at the human body.
In "Shazam!," a hit in London and New York in 1999, Decoufle united film and dance. In that work, he explained, the audiences watches films of dances, "and simultaneously we demonstrate onstage the techniques used in filming them. I have always had this wish to demystify, to reveal the artifice behind a sleight-of-hand. In breaking down the procedure into its different phases, one puts various interpretations at the spectators' disposal."
To support himself early in his career, Decoufle created television commercials and choreographed music videos, most famously New Order's "True Faith." His star soared internationally with his sensational ceremonial parades for the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, in 1992 and the 50th Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
"It's good for me to work outside the dance world occasionally," he says, "and push myself to create shows that will appeal to people who know nothing about dance. That's how I came to love dance, by finding it in the most unexpected places."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company