Stage

The mind games of choreographer Philippe Decoufle

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Choreographer Philippe Decoufle describes his new circus-inspired show, “Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” (“New Short Pieces”), as a “sort of visual and physical mind game.”

That’s not surprising as the 56-year-old Frenchman has fused dance with dizzying aerial choreography, sly acrobatics and the clever use of video footage to mirror (or subvert) the physical movements on his stage throughout his career. This time, however, Decoufle whittles down his trademark creativity into a selection of five short works.

“I usually create shows as disparate pieces that gradually come together like a puzzle,” Decoufle tells The Japan Times. “This time I wanted to keep separate my individual ideas in order to develop each one as much as possible and to create something deeper in a concentrated form.”

Decoufle hopes “Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” will be his Compagnie DCA’s third triumphant trip to Japan within the space of two years: “Contact,” a multimedia extravaganza that found inspiration in sources as diverse as Pina Bausch, Broadway musicals and the literary masterpiece “Faust,” was here in October 2016; and “My Name is Shingo,” a musical adaptation of Kazuo Umezu’s popular manga and a cross-cultural collaboration with Japanese artists and composers, hit the stage in January 2017.

Even if they haven’t caught these previous shows, dance fans will likely still be aware of Decoufle’s work. He won the prestigious Prix Bagnolet for choreography when he was just 21, wowed international audiences at the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, and continues to showcase his versatile imagination by choreographing for diverse types of productions, including for Cirque du Soleil (most recently, 2016’s “Paramour”).

“Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” features five concentrated works and an aerial interlude. Each piece offers up its own eclectic range of dance — from an invigorating opening that melds acrobatics, live music and dance, to the metaphorical and transformative struggle of a single dancer against a gaping hole that opens on stage. In one piece, exotic, colorful costumes explore the relationship between color and movement. In another, the dancers wear simple unadorned costumes.

The music used in each piece also varies from contemporary to classical, each complementing the stretch of imagination at play.

“In the opening, the music is composed by the artists, so it is a mix of piano, voice and flute; another work features original music from Pierre Le Bourgeois, a longtime collaborator,” Decoufle says. “The finale uses a composition from (Japanese musician) Shugo Tokumaru, who I worked with for ‘My Name is Shingo.’ I even bought music off the street in Omotesando the last time we were here that I incorporated into the production. Two of our performers are excellent singers so we try to use live music as much as possible.”

It’s no wonder Decoufle enjoys combining different art forms with a wide range of music: He originally trained as a mime before turning to modern dance, and relishes the theatricality the stage offers. From adding physical humor as a transition between dance steps or video feed to infuse an element of illusion to what the audience sees, the choreographer constantly looks for ways to ramp up the entertainment.

“For many years, I have experimented with live video to multiply the dancers, to alter the relationships between space and time,” Decoufle says about the “mind game” he referred to earlier. When the audience’s attention is divided between the dancers on the stage and those same dancers performing on video footage in the background, the result is often a feeling of “distortion and visual confusion” as the live dancers subvert the moves of their video counterparts, disrupting the synchronicity onstage for a sense of otherworldly illusion.

The shortest piece in “Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” is a poetically thrilling interlude that features a female aerialist who defies gravity: “I love staging aerial pieces; it is the closest to flying we can come, and acts as a bridge to the finale,” Decoufle says.

The finale serves as an homage to Japan, which Decoufle has visited more than 30 times for various projects and productions.

“At first I simply thought of creating a work around travel, since so much of my life involves touring with the company, constantly moving, my relationship with planes and airports and waiting,” he says. “I wanted to do something funny within that modern experience. When we did our last tour in Japan, however, I became inspired to include a specific place of travel and asked my dancers to bring back various souvenirs.”

DCA then worked in the studio with those souvenirs and photos to create a piece that evoked the idea of Japan.

“I hope it will be taken as an homage to this culture, which is amazingly complicated, and one I can never fully understand,” he says.

Although he choreographs for other companies, Decoufle says he shares a special synchronicity with the dancers and musicians of DCA.

“All of the pieces were developed with specific dancers in mind,” he says, adding that his art is also dedicated to them. “I imagine the show as I am doing my casting. For example, two dancers have a similar silhouette, and I thus envisioned a duet where their movements mirror each other, like twins. As we do more and more shows together, I know more fully their abilities and limits and that informs my choreography.”

“Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” opens in Saitama this weekend before traveling to Fukuoka and Shiga prefectures. Decoufle hopes that he can share his production with as many people in the country as possible.

“Our productions are always more like poetry; this kind of dance is not a story or complicated narrative to follow,” he says. “It’s easy to travel with it as it speaks to your feelings. It’s quite open and free, and we look forward to another successful tour.”

“Nouvelles Pieces Courtes” will be staged June 29 (7 p.m. start), June 30 and July 1 (3 p.m. starts) at Saitama Arts Theater. The performance will be in French and Japanese with partial Japanese subtitles. English-subtitle devices are available via prior reservation at dance@saf.or.jp. For more information, visit www.saf.or.jp. The show then moves to Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center on July 7 and 8 (2:30 p.m. starts; q-geki.jp) and Biwako Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Shiga, on July 14 and 15 (3 p.m. starts; www.biwako-hall.or.jp).