CN D Magazine

#6 june 24

Dancing With Death, to Bring It Back to Life?

Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes

We learned a lot at our own funeral by Daina Ashbee © Yvonne Chew

This spring and summer, festival programs across France are full of choreographic works that focus on a seemingly tragic subject: funerals. CN D Magazine examines what is driving so many dance artists right now to explore our social rituals around dying.

Which mortuary practices could truly match the immeasurable richness of the lives they are intended to celebrate? This illuminating question led dancer and choreographer Solène Weinachter down the path of what she prefers to call “rituals of passage,” rather than funerary rites. If, for other artists, the impulse for several recent shows performed in France seems to have been   the passing of loved ones or more existential questions about death, some choreographers at the end of this theatre season – as Rosita Boisseau noted in a May 2024 article for Le Monde – are venturing into the depths of mourning. Angelin Preljocaj took on the canonical form of the requiem, Magda Kachouche orchestrated an intimate ceremony for her father in La rose de Jéricho, and Daina Ashbee explored a more metaphorical dimension, bordering on trance, in We learn a lot at our own funeral. Is this mere coincidence, or a sign that we are living in troubled times?

The artists I interviewed deny having been inspired by the morbidity of our era, marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, the multiplication of armed conflicts and the mass extinction of many species. It seems instead that the very particular way in which funeral rituals combine the intensely intimate with the highly social that inspired these works. “Funerals condense all the religious, political, and cultural rules that govern societies and bodies,” explains Ali Chahrour. A few years ago, he revisited Shiite funeral liturgies in a trilogy – Fatmeh, Leïla se meurt and May He Rise and Smell the Fragrance – presented at the Avignon Festival. “Paradoxically,” adds the Beirut-born choreographer, “the emotional intensity and proximity of death makes it possible, and excusable, to transgress taboos: a mother can suddenly remove her veil and start dancing; men, constantly exhorted to be strong and solid, can exteriorize their sensitivity, their fragility... and cry.”

Leïla se meurt by Ali Chahrour © Gilbert Hage

The Lebanese artist has always considered ceremonies in the Shiite tradition (one of the two main currents of Islam) as performances in themselves. He loves the aesthetic richness, the melodies and voices, the sounds and rhythms, the laments, the power of bodies moving alone or in unison. Though Chahrour’s trilogy is research-based, it’s not documentary art, but rather an exploration of the emotional power that makes it possible, he says, to open “a door to freedom of expression.” This is precisely what is lacking in today’s Western funeral arrangements, Solène Weinachter might add. “When the big day comes, we’re so incapable of connecting with our malaise that we do everything on the surface,” says the Scotland-based French choreographer. Pushing this idea to an extreme, her solo After All opens with a funeral that’s so incredibly botched that it turns into clownish comedy.

Death, Weinachter says, “has become so taboo that everything is rushed and delegated to specialized companies,” though things haven’t always been this way. In her search for new rituals for our time, the choreographer discovered mortuary practices that she says were “forgotten on the doorstep of our generation.” Through the Scottish charity Pushing up the Daisies, she learned that the nation’s laws allow for the bodies of the deceased to be prepared for burial or cremation at home. With craftswomen, she discovered that sewing one’s own shroud could bring emotional relief and acceptance of death. She also has been taught that bagpipes had taken over from mourners, who were gradually being driven out of funerals. Today, these traditionally female skills have largely been taken over by professional funeral services – a highly lucrative market. But where and when they are still practiced, these concrete gestures help to demystify death by integrating it into everyday life.

AFTER ALL by Solene Weinachter © Genevieve Reeves

In this respect, the work of Canadian artist Daina Ashbee pushes the envelope even further, exploring the notion of our own impending expiration. “If we could witness our own demise, wouldn’t we learn a lot about ourselves?,” she asks in the piece she is preparing with B-Boy Momoko “Momo” Shimada for the Montpellier Danse festival. The question may not be as abstract as it seems. Do we not, at different stages of life, have to mourn the loss of certain versions of ourselves? Rather than a final descent into the unknown, doesn't the process of dying begin at birth?

Weinachter is convinced that no longer preventing ourselves from experiencing the “intense grief that allows us to go even deeper into joy and gratitude” has the potential to become “an extremely powerful transformative force.” In the quest to live with loss and the many faces of death, dance is a precious tool for her. “It allows us to stay in our bodies when we no longer want to be there, to come out of them in ecstasy, to explore other states,” she explains. “It unites people and, potentially, opens up spaces for healing.” Weinachter’s perspective opens up the possibility for dance to be considered, as Ashbee has always sensed, as “an act of transcendence, a ritual in itself.”

Aïnhoa Jean-Calmettes is a journalist specializing in cultural and opinion pieces. She was the editor in chief of Mouvement magazine from 2014 to 2023, and she still directs its “Leaving the 20th century” and “After Nature” sections. She continues her investigations on the connections between contemporary creation and the humanities by writing critical pieces, analytical articles and investigations in the art world. She works with several cultural institutions and often chairs panels and meetings.

We learn a lot at our own funeral 
Choreography: Daina Ashbee
World premiere June 3 to 5 during the Montpellier Danse festival

Choreography: Angelin Preljocaj
July 4 to 6 during the Montpellier Danse festival
July 12 in Opéra de Vichy

La rose de Jéricho
Choreography: Magda Kachouche
October 16 and 17 in the Subs, Lyon
November 14 and 15 in Théâtre Antigone, Courtrai during the NEXT Festival
December 6 in Théâtre du Beauvaisis, Beauvais

Choreography: Solène Weinachter
Learn more