Xavier Le Roy

November 19, 2015
Xavier Le Roy's 'Temporary Title' at Carriageworks, Sydney.
Xavier Le Roy's 'Temporary Title' at Carriageworks, Sydney.

In 1984 the Tate Gallery in London held an exhibition called Have You Seen Sculpture From the Body? that put apparently abstract sculpture alongside photographs of nude models in motion. I thought of that obscure but innovative show last week when I visited Carriageworks for a rehearsal of Xavier Le Roy’s Temporary Title – an event that uses actual bodies as sculptural material.

One of those artists that defies categorisation, Le Roy found his vocation in an oblique fashion. He trained and worked as a molecular biologist in France before growing disenchanted with the way the field was held hostage by bureaucratic and corporate interests. While many scientists have musical ability – music and mathematics being closely aligned in the brain – Le Roy turned to dance. He has been so successful as a performer and choreographer that his work is sought-after around the world.

Le Roy was one of the featured artists in 13 Rooms, the 29th Kaldor Public Art Project, held at Pier 2/3 in 2013. This was the moment John Kaldor began to register the growing convergence of the visual and performing arts. Having enjoyed a notable success with Marina Abramovic: In Residence, earlier this year, he has been quick to follow up with another performance-based project.

Xavier Le Roy‚ 'Untitled', 2012 (Presented at 13 Rooms)

Xavier Le Roy‚ ‘Untitled’, 2012 (Presented at 13 Rooms)

Dance is the quintessentially physical artform, but Le Roy’s Temporary Title makes audiences reflect deeply on the spectacle they are experiencing. The performance lasts for six hours, during which time viewers are free to come and go as they please. For the 18 performers – 12 of whom will be in action at any one time – they must abandon their human identities and become a pride of lions, or a plant reaching out to the sun.

To achieve this state there are various rules that must be observed, but within this framework there is also considerable freedom. The aim is to become so immersed in the performance that movements become intuitive, almost second nature. I visited a rehearsal at an early stage when Le Roy and his partner, Scarlet Yu, were helping the performers feel their way into the roles. By the time of the first public rehearsal the cast had become more practised and relaxed. Instead of looking out constantly for small triggers and indications, they had begun to move as a group. The individual mind had been subsumed into a pack mind.

French choreographer Xavier Le Roy in rehearsal for his work Temporary Title.

French choreographer Xavier Le Roy in rehearsal for his work Temporary Title.

The other major difference between the two rehearsals was that the performers were completely naked in the second one, as they will be for the three official performances. I’m writing this, of necessity, before any of these sessions have taken place, because if I left it until next week readers would have no chance of attending. This also means I’m unable to comment on Le Roy’s solo piece, Self Unfinished, presented at Carriageworks on 17-19 November.

Xavier Le Roy’s solo piece, 'Self Unfinished' (1998)

Xavier Le Roy’s solo piece, ‘Self Unfinished’ (1998)

Nudity is an issue that always provokes discussion. It will attract some for purely voyeuristic reasons, and alienate more prudish viewers. Regardless of how it is presented, the shock of walking into a room and being confronted with a dozen naked bodies is not be underestimated. It is probably more awkward for the viewer than the performer because one’s first thought is: “I don’t know where to look”. This is ironic, considering that we’ve entered the room for the sole purpose of looking.

In a sense, nothing could be simpler. Being the possessor of a body, I am naturally interested in other bodies. The degree to which this experience is titillating or disturbing is largely a matter of social conditioning.

The crucial point is whether the nudity is essential to the piece, or gratuitous and sensational. For anybody who arrives with an open mind it should quickly become clear that Le Roy has a definite purpose. At the press conference last week one of the performers said she didn’t take the idea of nudity lightly, but had no qualms once she began to understand the ideas behind the work.

Clothing of any kind is a badge of identity, a second skin that puts a performer into a recognisable context. Even a pair of leotards denotes the stage professional. By stripping away everything Le Roy has obliged his collaborators – a mixture of ages, ethnicities and body shapes – to try to understand what it is to be another kind of creature. The performers lie around like lazy felines, before getting up and prowling on all fours, mimicking the slinky motion of the big cats. They paw the ground, tumble over one another, and stare glassily at the audience, looking out for a stray gazelle.

Gradually they draw together into a mound of flesh, heads tucked under torsos and armpits. From out of the mound, arms and legs rise slowly toward the ceiling, groping for the light.

Then it’s back to prowling and reclining, while a handful of performers break off and slink over to talk with members of the audience. Suddenly these figures are no longer just bodies. They have names and personalities, and are eager to discuss different subjects.

The French theorists, Deleuze and Guattari, used the term “becoming-animal” to describe a form of psychic exploration that tested the limits of what it is to be human. They took their inspiration from Antonin Artaud, the renowned French writer, artist and actor who ended his days in an asylum, suffering from schizophrenia.

Le Roy may not be thinking of Artaud or his followers, but I’ve never seen a performance that better elucidates the idea of “becoming-animal”. The silence in which Temporary Title unfolds is an important aspect of the experience, as speech is one of the defining points of humanity. When the performers come over to talk with the audience it is as if they have reassumed human identity, freed from the spell that had transformed them into lions.

Xavier Le Roy’s Temporary Title at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photograph: Xan Wimberley/Kaldor public art projects

Xavier Le Roy’s Temporary Title at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photograph: Xan Wimberley/Kaldor public art projects

These interludes help dispel the impression that the performers are locked into a sadistic ritual like the characters in a Marquis de Sade novel, or Pasolini’s Salo (1975). Rather than imposing an oppressive discipline, Le Roy asks participants to open themselves to a way of communicating through the body, rather than verbally. He wants them to understand there are many different ways of inhabiting one’s own body.

Time – or rather duration – is a significant part of the concept. It takes more than a few minutes to grow accustomed to sharing a space with all those naked bodies, but a process of normalisation gradually occurs. The best comparison might be the life drawing class in which the naked body of the model soon becomes nothing more than a set of pictorial problems to be negotiated.

Yet even in the life class the artist struggles to capture the actual life of the flesh while making marks with pencil or charcoal on a piece of paper. The artist is aware of the model as a particular personality, but this thought is kept in abeyance while the drawing progresses. Robin Wallace Crabbe once tried to cross this barrier in a 2003 exhibition called Conversations: Portraits, which consisted of life drawings and the stories the models told about themselves. Le Roy applies different tactics, switching channels from animal to human and back. At one moment we watch the performance in solemn silence, then suddenly the lion-human is talking to us.

Le Roy has referred to Temporary Title as an exhibition rather than a performance, drawing attention to the sculptural nature of the work. Like the Tate show of 1984, it acts as a radical extension of life modelling. A performer who sits as still as a statue will stir and move, being joined by another and another. Soon the group are roaming around in a circle, then they stop and fragment again.

Is it possible to call this ‘dance’? Le Roy is as much ringmaster as choreographer. He aims to provide an experience that is philosophical as well as physical. I thought of Nietzsche’s lines from Thus Spake Zarathustra, when he writes that the body is “a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.” Approach Le Roy’s work in this spirit, and it’s clear that a simple set of rules can generate infinite possibilities.

Xavier Le Roy: Temporary Title (31st Kaldor Public Art Project)
Carriageworks, 21 & 22 November, noon– 6 pm, free entry

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 21st November, 2015