Paris is a great place to lose things: umbrellas, bearings, love, security, your sense of self… So, standing in the great hall of Palais Garnier on a recent Tuesday night, shooting the breeze, marvelling at our surrounds, wondering if we had time to order and drink a glass of wine before the final bell, M suggested I write about loss.
I have lost many things since arriving in this great city. The list above is no jest. But there is one thing I’d love to add to the roll call, and that’s fear. Fears. Plural. The big ones. The terrors and anxieties that keep you from doing what you want, from being your best self. Failure. Rejection. I guess I always imagined I would grow out of them, eventually, but like heads on the hydra, the parts I defeat seem only to multiply.
We opted for that wine. No fear there. We visited my favourite part of Charles Garnier’s incredible confection – an iron salamander that winds itself around the foot of the great staircase. It’s tucked away, overshadowed in every way by statuesque candelabra. We did an abbreviated tour, of the statues, gold, mirrors, nods to Apollo throughout. In the end, I had to abandon my wine to the bell, only to be told we had a little while to wait because our strapontin seats would be folded down after everyone else was seated. We ducked back out, past the disapproving usher, and I retrieved my glass, between sips craning my neck to appreciate the beautiful mosaic overhead. It would be hard to conceive a more elaborate building than this one, from the thirty-eight kinds of coloured marble, to the great hall modelled on Versailles, to the Chagall ceiling in the auditorium.
So, the performance, Les applaudissments ne se mangent pas (One can’t eat applause), was a challenging, political piece from Toulouse choreographer Maguy Marin, a giant in the world of French contemporary dance. The music by Denis Mariotte, Marin’s frequent collaborator, was experimental and far from melodic, rising and falling with crashes and screams. I loved it. It was sad, physical, it reminded me of the footage of bodies being dragged from Bataclan; it made me think of love, surrender, a work filled with desperate clutching yet weirdly impersonal. I had no idea what the narrative was, or even if a narrative was intended, but it felt so current, so raw.
The bare stage, flanked on three sides with curtains of coloured strips falling from the ceiling, was both Spartan and festive. As dancers emerged onto the stage, they sent a ripple from floor to the roof, giving glimpses of the darkness beyond.
Of her work, Marin has said, “Art must question the world and resist.” According to the program information, which I read after the fact, the piece was created in 2002 and was inspired by Latin American politics. In many ways, I’m with the New York magazine reviewer, who found this backstory superfluous.
However, further reading has since enriched my understanding. It led to the link with Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who wrote that social changes made in Latin America might have met with international approval but did little to alleviate poverty for various countries’ people. In an interview last month, Marin drew parallels with current-day fiscal meddling in Greece and Spain. She also explained that the coloured strips made reference to the plastic curtains that hang in doorways in ordinary homes throughout South America and southern France.
But what does this have to do with fear? For me, the work embodied its polar opposite: courage. This is what I crave. Out with terror, in with bravery. Watching, I could barely imagine the surety it must take to put such work out there, to dare to hatch it in the first place, to bring your company into your vision, to release it into the world. Marin strikes me as a gutsy, driven individual, in other words a highly useful inspiration, in the way I view Björk, PJ Harvey and Peaches, women who are unafraid to listen to themselves and share what they hear with their audience. This is intensely cool. I want that headspace.
The performance was short, and when we emerged into Place de l’Opèra, it was still light.
Now, in Paris, I have my bearings, which only makes continuing to discover the city all the more enjoyable. I’m putting the other pieces of a balanced life into place. I may have lost things, but I’ve found elements, too. Beneath the worries lurk a strengthening core of values and a certainty about the things that are important. And it’s instructive to note that even upsetting losses are not always catastrophic. You can buy a new umbrella. And sometimes you don’t miss what is gone. You find something powerful to put in its place.