The last strains of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies" had been played ... or so the Pittsburgh Dance Council audience thought. The members of Compagnie Marie Chouinard took multiple bows at the Byham Theater and the audience started to leave.
Then a dancer returned to the stage. A red sponge ball sat atop her nose and she obviously wasn't done. Although some had made one of those patented quick exits to get to the car, most of the audience turned around, puzzled, and sheepishly made their way back to their seats.
It was a brilliant moment in PDC history and exactly what we would expect of opening night for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, which was given a splendiferous start by the Montreal-based choreographer.
Prior to that startling episode, Ms. Chouinard had created a rich and varied portrait of the French composer, widely acknowledged as a noted precursor of both minimalism and Theatre of the Absurd.
There were haunting vestiges of recorded music as a woman took to the stage, performed a split, and then sat at the piano. As she began to play -- "Gymnopedies" requires little technique -- other dancers began to emerge from a cocoon-like fabric, their fingers wiggling above their heads.
They were nude, indeed stripping everything down to the bare minimum, so a la Satie, and slowly walking in pairs through a slit in the back curtain. The duet was the jumping off point and there were several erotic and visually arresting examples along the way, but Satie, both the man and his music, served as the conduit for it all.
While the music had a gentle ambience about it, there were jogging clusters and sweeping movements superimposed over the waltz-like structures. We should have known something was afoot when those clown noses made an early appearance in the piece, alluding to Satie's singular wit.
Given his passion for the purity of art, I doubt that this visionary French artist would have approved of the commercialization of his work in such diverse avenues as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Star Trek: The Next Generation and assorted video games.
But I think he would have loved the way Ms. Chouinard turned his aesthetic on its head, producing a complex and skillfully layered portrait of the man himself without losing the beauty and simplicity of his artistic aesthetic.
After the audience snafu, Ms. Chouinard plunged into stunning absurdities of her own, with more ribald sexual play (often under the cocoon fabric), pointe shoes taken from an earlier duet and worn on the hands and occasional "fake" bows (to the delight of the audience, who didn't know what to think at that point).
Yet it was still about the essences (so Satie) taken to their own brand of finely tuned excess (so Chouinard).
That was perfectly balanced by Henri Michaux' book, "Mouvements," 64-pages of India-ink drawings, a 15-page poem and an afterword, and where Ms. Chouinard was drawn to stick-like figures pregnant with possibilities.
Yes, we saw and heard them -- abstract phrases, growling creatures, twittering insects, et. al. -- rendered with a mind-exploding imagination by Ms. Chouinard. With the dancers clad in black on a white background (although this would switch) and the book itself projected on a screen, this was a thoroughly engaging parade of possibilities exceeded.
With everything reduced to such inspired essentials, the evening rose to the highest form of art, propelled by a choreographer operating at her creative peak, where we could truly expect the unexpected.