• Chris O'Rourke

Belfast International Arts Festival:The Kingdom of Shades-Signe Blanc/Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini


Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini, choreography by Noé Soulier. Image: Marc-Domage

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If conventions are an agreement between audience and dancer, what happens when the agreement is broken? How do we break free of signification to explore new expressive possibilities? The limits of our language may be the limits of our meaning, but is limiting ballet to its verbs and nouns, minus the grammar of relationship, being a little disingenuous? What of working within a restricted movement lexicon, as older dancers sometimes do, where what we think is being said is not necessarily what's being said?


One of the joys of festivals like Belfast International Arts Festival is the opportunity to engage with works you rarely, if ever, encounter. Particularly works from abroad which often challenge expectations. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, BIAF launches a programme looking at an artist or ensemble in greater depth. The inaugural artist being French choreographer Noé Soulier, Director of the National Contemporary Dance Centre in Angers. Who presents a duo of dance pieces: The Kingdom of Shades - Signe Blanc and Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini. Both exploring the conventions of dance.

Noé Soulier in The Kingdom of Shades - Signe Blanc, choreography by Noé Soulier. Image by Martin-Argyroglo


Beginning with ballet, The Kingdom of Shades - Signe Blanc sees Soulier labouring the obvious. Speaking directly to the audience about ballet's vocabulary, Soulier executes ballet's key movements in alphabetical order followed by a shorter section of preparation steps only. The experience similar to being tossed a dictionary then watching someone constructing sentences using only conjunctions and prepositions. As a deconstructive gesture, it looks far smarter than it is. As does a hurriedly playful dash through ballet mime and a series of signature movements representing famous ballets. Signs and signified tested and reimagined. Tired of pretending it's all natural. Or effortless. Soulier breathing hard between sequences putting paid to that illusion, drawing us away from the artistry to the real world. Into a realism tantamount to glimpsing behind the wizard's curtain. Only to find that freedom from convention is just another illusion. Just another convention.

Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini, choreography by Noé Soulier. Image: Marc-Domage


In a similar vein, Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini explores what we project onto patterns of movement. And on to the body itself. How what looks similar isn't necessarily mirroring its image in the real world. A biography told through a restricted physical lexicon, and a swirl of tattoos, timed at ten minutes shorter than the preceding piece, it feels twenty minutes longer. A glitzy coated piano player accompanies Tavernini who stays grounded for long periods; standing in a pool of light, displaying tattoos, kneeling over a pool of water. Relying expressively on a kind of choreographic semaphore. Recurring patterns, like a gestural, upper body sign language, utilising strained twists of arms and wrists sprinkled with some leg work. Which, in case you think you understand it all, the piano player is there to remind you that you don't. Some modest inkings, no doubt personally rich, looks objectively less impressive, enriched only by knowing their story and context. It's only when Tavernini makes full use of the space and his body's expressiveness that that happens. Like Soulier, Tavernini is a master of technical excellence.


The Kingdom of Shades - Signe Blanc and Portrait of Frédéric Tavernini by Noé Soulier ran at The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival 2022 on October 21st.


For more information, visit Belfast International Arts Festival 2022

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