Bringing Back Andy De Groat, One Step at a Time
By Claudine Colozzi
The recently formed CCINP – andy de groat has made it its mission to bring back the work of choreographer Andy De Groat, a bright name of postmodern dance who died in 2019. Guided by eight of De Groat’s former dancers, students from the Nantes Conservatory recently learned his landmark 1977 piece Red Notes, set to be performed at the French playhouse MC93.
Walking, turning, jumping, making a new performance space your own… On May 4, seventeen students from the Nantes Conservatory were busy exploring the stage of the Théâtre Graslin. Two days later, these young dancers were scheduled to perform Red Notes by Andy De Groat, a choreographer most of them had never heard of just a few months before. Viviane Serry, the former head of the Nantes Conservatory and president of the CCINP – andy de groat, decided to bring together these young dancers, aged 16 to 19, and professional dancers who performed the piece when De Groat was still alive.
De Groat, who died in January 2019, was a pioneer figure of American postmodern dance. After working with Bob Wilson, he founded his own company in New York City in 1973 and came to France in 1982, where he worked for the rest of his career. Four months after he passed, former dancers of his created the CCINP – the “International Choreographic Center From Nowhere,” a reference to Andy De Groat’s artistic nomadism. These dancers, who worked with the choreographer at various stages of his career, wanted to “promote, spread, and teach his work so it would live on in the minds of the audience.” They created a research group and worked with the archives the choreographer bequeathed to the CN D, which is currently home to a large-scale exhibition dedicated to De Groat’s legacy.
The CCINP’s mission is in line with initiatives like the Carnets Bagouet, launched after the death, in 1992, of the French choreographer Dominique Bagouet. In contemporary dance, a choreographer’s legacy is often carried on by their former dancers, and therefore depends on the willingness of individual performers to undertake this work. The dance works of Andy De Groat's contemporaries have been so unevenly preserved that in order to help address that issue, the CCINP intends to “come up with materials and pedagogical tools designed to help preserve repertory works.”
Since De Groat's death, Fan Dance, a short piece created in 1978, has been revived and passed on to new generations of professional and non-professional dancers. Red Notes, which was created a year earlier and gave its name to De Groat's company, is the first full-length piece the artistic laboratory of the CCINP has brought back. “We picked this piece because we focused on the American years of De Groat’s career,” says Martin Barré, who met the choreographer in 2002, when Red Notes was performed at the Rouen Opera, and became a frequent collaborator. “Plus this piece has been enormously influential for a lot of us, for various reasons,” he adds.
When it was launched in 2020, this project led the group to dig through the physical archives, to watch video recordings of the performances staged during De Groat's early “American period,” and to record and compile the memories of people who worked with him – a “living archive.” “The conversations we had with American dancers who were there when the piece was first performed are a precious testimony for us,” says Stéphanie Bargues, who is also involved in the revival. The research team combined several versions of Red Notes: the original one, created with Fine Arts students in Halifax, and subsequent versions developed with eight dancers from De Groat’s American company, along with the two latest revivals, which brought together professional and non-professional dancers at the Rouen Opera and at Odyssud in Blagnac in 2002.
The students of the Nantes Conservatory were introduced to De Groat’s work by two of his former dancers. “We explained to them that in reviving this piece, they were actively taking part in the preservation and transmission of a choreographic legacy,” Barré says. “We stressed the fact that we were really looking forward to hearing what they had to say about it.” They learned the piece in sequences, without any rigid guidelines, just like De Groat proceeded with his dancers, according to Barré: “The piece takes shape progressively, which allows it to unfold without too much psychology projected into it.” They never used video recordings to learn the piece. “It wasn’t easy with that generation, who has always lived with tech and screens, but it was important for us to rely on their imagination. And anyway, there is no available recording of the piece!”, Bargues says with a smile.
Teaching young professionals was a real challenge for the CCINP. The counts are what makes Red Notes so original: following a score by Philip Glass, the dancers are tasked with delivering very demanding choreography, which is fixed in some aspects yet leaves room for individual interpretation. Bargues and Barré, along with six other former dancers of De Groat's, will be performing in the piece, but they initially refrained from showing the younger artists anything, Bargues says: “We tried to get them to see the difference between the moments when we were explaining the piece to them and those when we were performing alongside them.”
Red Notes alternates between scripted sequences and others that relied more on improvisation, when each performer can give free rein to their interpretation, while staying present and listening to the rest of the group.
De Groat left precise directions for this work, but there is also room for individual physical qualities to emerge. Red Notes alternates between scripted sequences – like the WALKS, the easily identifiable walks that recur four times in the piece – and others that relied more on improvisation, when each performer can give free rein to their interpretation, while staying present and listening to the rest of the group. Beyond the piece, Bargues and Barré would like De Groat’s trust in his dancers to come across for this younger generation.
What next? Several projects are being discussed within the CCINP, among them the revival of another work from the “American period” and a production in the United States. In France, Andy De Groat's artistic life is currently included in the Art Dance Program, an optional part of the high school curriculum – a positive sign for the future of a repertory that has inspired many artists.