The Influence

Maguy Marin’s Beckettian dance work May B has fascinated and moved dancer and choreographer Alice Cummins since she first saw it in 1992. By Kate Holden.

Alice Cummins

May B by Maguy Marin being performed at the Vaison Danses festival in 2008 in France, and Alice Cummins (below).
May B by Maguy Marin being performed at the Vaison Danses festival in 2008 in France, and Alice Cummins (below).
Credit: Jean-Marc Zaorski / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images (above), Johannes Reinhart (below)

Alice Cummins is a dance artist, choreographer, teacher and somatic body practitioner and guide. Working in traditions of philosophy, contemporary performance and social action, she has taught, performed and devised body works during a 30-year career in Australia and abroad. She has worked solo and in collaboration with artists of various disciplines including architecture, visual arts, film and music. Cummins appreciates both choreography and improvisation. She studied with postwar Russian teachers in her native Perth, and worked first in classical ballet in the 1960s before moving on to contemporary New Dance.

She chose to discuss the 1981 dance work May B by French choreographer and dancer Maguy Marin – a success on its debut and since then a canonical part of the French repertoire – in which a chorus of clay-streaked, dishevelled and shabbily costumed performers stomp, groan, shuffle and murmurate to the music of Schubert and Gavin Bryars.

So, Maguy Marin and her iconic piece.

I first saw this work in 1992 in the Perth Festival. I felt quite new in terms of my work and hers was, by then, a decade old. That was her first major work. I’m in a process right now of going through all of my life’s work. How do you choose one work or influence in a long and complex career? I could tell you about the sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, or one conversation with an extraordinary musician: they touch us. I thought, there are performances that have fascinated me, intrigued me, intellectually stimulated me, left me in awe; but the things that really mean something for me leave me speechless. Something about Maguy’s work just kept coming back.

There’s this very distinct memory I have of three couples, men and women, and they do a pas de deux, all doing the same material – though as I watched bits of May B I couldn’t locate this sextet. When I watch the snippets that are available on YouTube I feel it is Maguy’s work. There was this quality of humanity and tenderness, and a quality of touch. Touch is very important to me and to my work. Literally how we touch: of course how we touch is influenced by how we are touched, as a baby, as a child, and it’s also how we touch the earth and allow the earth to touch us. How does the body engage with the world? That’s what interests me.

One distinct thing: even without pointe shoes you get the extended leg and the torsion, but Maguy’s sextet was all enfolded. It was so erotic, in the deepest sense of that word. They were into each other; it wasn’t display, it was softening-into. If you like, life-making art. It wasn’t about display of the body but the meaning of connection.

I’ve never forgotten that. In any work that I’ve done I always hold that somehow. I don’t think we always know when we’re being influenced – it might take decades to see it – but I remember that quality of touch between the couples and how that touch was present in how they were put down to the ground, or lifted into the body, or shifted around in space. That was very moving – radical – for me. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

What have you learnt in this revisiting?

I had no idea of Maguy’s connection with Samuel Beckett. That’s a huge reason why I chose Maguy Marin rather than something else. I’ve been obsessed with him, and been in a Beckett play in the United States, but I’ve never directly used Beckett’s work. But Maguy was voraciously reading Beckett at that time. It was also the year her son was born. I’m always intrigued by that, a woman who’s gestating a child and gestating a major work. Many of those people in May B are apparently characters from Beckett’s writing. She returns to Beckett, and I am fascinated by the writing and the choreography that he sets up. He’s very clear about directions. Maguy uses one sentence from Endgame: “... c’est fini”, and the dancers make guttural sounds. That intrigued me because I like to listen a lot. I live in silence a lot.

You are both a choreographer and a dancer: how do you place yourself in relation to this work?

Just this morning I thought, what I love about Maguy’s work is its intimacy, and my work is intimate. That’s a very powerful connection between the two. I’m interested in that intimacy of humanity; Maguy is as well. Watching the work, that’s what I remember. At the time I thought: I would love to be doing that. I could do that. And the use of gesture and repetition is very familiar to me; it might not be directly from watching Maguy’s work but I’ve used a lot of that. Those wonderful sections where she’s moving diagonally and then shifting who’s leading. The whole notion, as well, that these are very different bodies. They’re padded, often, and they’re streaked with that white clay: they’re not beautiful dancers’ bodies. They’re different bodies, and that was completely intriguing.

And another thing I’ve never forgotten: I saw this in His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth, and the diagonal, to that piece of Gavin Bryars’ recording of a homeless man’s singing, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, it goes on and on – that repetition again – and the first time they come across the stage someone drops off the edge of it. So you’ve broken the fourth wall. That was a startling memory, that the dancers actually came off the stage. Into the audience. If you were in the front row you would be able to touch them. They don’t fall, they’re lifted down very tenderly. My work is like that too, I feel: there’s a lot of tenderness and intimacy.

It’s also philosophical: touch and tenderness and feeling. It’s not often respected. To be vulnerable, I understand, is to be about courage. If we lose our vulnerability, we’re on the way to losing our humanity.

I don’t want to be too earnest, but sometimes work just has to be made. My work is like a river really: I’m keeping this river going underneath. I’m in perhaps the last decade of my life: there’s a kind of gathering and honing things in, contemplating what it is I really need to do now. My work is always about bringing dance to the everyday. That’s what is in that piece: shuffle, shuffle, shuffle; back, back; shuffle, shuffle. But then we watch the precision and we go: Oh! Only a dancer could do that. But the audience sees the everyday gesture, and they could be doing it. It’s not the exotic ballerina: it’s us, all dirty and mangy and bad and gloomy and tender and vicious. She does all of that in the work. Isn’t that beautiful?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as "Alice Cummins".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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