May B: No question about it – this is a dance classic

Dublin Dance Festival: Maguy Marin’s contemporary work still dazzles after 40 years

MAY B

O'Reilly Theatre, Dublin
★★★★★
There aren't too many contemporary-dance classics, but after 40 years of performances in more than 40 countries, Maguy Marin's May B deserves that title.

Four decades is plenty of time for fashions to change in aesthetics and presentation. Cutting edge can be blunted over time to butter-knife mediocrity. Add to this the unchanging nature of contemporary dance. Plays, operas and ballets can be updated and reimagined, gaining a new life by modernising the setting. Contemporary dance works are only rarely altered, so must be futureproofed from day one if they are to become classics.

May B, inspired by Samuel Beckett’s writings, features a white-powdered segment of humanity, physically awkward, mumbling incoherently and staggering around the stage in a state of endless wandering. Like Beckett, Marin is revelling in the absurd.

Of various physical sizes and shapes, the 10 performers in this Compagnie Maguy Marin production at Dublin Dance Festival's Winter Edition highlight the richness of difference while sharing a sense of humanity, not just between themselves but with the audience. Individually they ooze vulnerable loneliness, but they frequently join together in unison dances, driven by a gentle common pulse, like a shared heartbeat.

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They are outsiders. Before the lights come up on stage we listen to Schubert’s Der Leiermann in the dark, with its depiction of a hurdy-gurdy player ignored by all yet stoically spinning the handle of his instrument. This sense of futility – the Beckettian “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” – is central to the 90-minute piece.

Throughout her career Marin has experimented with form to force audiences to reflect on their values. The stage doesn't provide an escape from life but is a harsh mirror in which we must question ourselves. May B doesn't contain the razor-sharp rhetoric of later works, and perhaps its success – and longevity – don't rely on any eureka moments of understanding. Instead it creates a visceral connection, just as Brendan Behan felt about Beckett: "I don't know what his plays are about, but I know I enjoy them. I do not know what a swim in the ocean is about, but ... I enjoy the water flowing over me."

Run concluded