Cie Focus and Cie Chaliwaté’s ‘Dimanche’ magically transforms Brooklyn Academy of Music

Sandrine Heyraud, Julie Tenret and Sicaire Durieux in 'Dimanche'. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Sandrine Heyraud, Julie Tenret and Sicaire Durieux in 'Dimanche'. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY.
May 3, 2023.

Dimanche, a collaborative production of Cie Focus and Cie Chaliwaté, transforms Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)’s Fishman Space into a thawing ice cap, a modest living room –– sweltering and tempestuous by turns –– and most remarkably a vivid underwater fallout (made possible by Zoé Tenret’s phantasmagoric scenography and Guillaume Toussaint Fromentin’s genius lighting design) replete with incredibly realistic fish snacking on floating toast, a fluorescent ticking alarm clock, and a smack of jellyfish expertly articulated by the actors’ hands. Written, directed, and performed by Julie Tenret, Sicaire Durieux, and Sandrine Heyraud, the show’s use of experimental clowning, low-fi effects, puppetry, and film converge to create a cohesive and satisfying work of physical theater that traverses the contemporary climate crisis.

The show opens with a frosty man in a winter coat sitting stock still at a white table clothed in fir trees, miniature houses, and blue light. A second actor materializes behind the table, driving a toy van over the snowscape and the man’s body. Before we know it, the original actor “drives” the transfigured table alongside his two counterparts, Paul Simon booming from the car radio; he holds the wheel while one passenger operates the windshield wipers and another holds up the light and air freshener. They bounce the bumps in the road, occasionally varying the size and rhythm of their jounce to indicate a pothole or hump, while carrying out classic little car tasks like eating, drinking, and switching seats with one another. Rather than relying on overdone pantomime, the scene’s humor lies in its relatability. These “car rides” –– along with the show’s filmed reporting sequences and obtrusive natural disasters –– serve as anchor points throughout the piece.

The music muffles as the windows roll up (the perfectly timed soundscore by Brice Cannavo melts seamlessly into the equal parts absurd and poignant world of Dimanche), and the three get out clumsily with film equipment. Their impotent attempts at reporting on the arctic setting they’ve arrived in are soon interrupted by the ice cracking beneath their feet. When the cameraman aims down, his feet suddenly appear on the projector with real ice beneath them and he falls into the water. The juxtaposition of the suspension of disbelief required by the set and the real footage (credited to Tristan Galand) strikes the audience as funny, a humor quickly displaced by the somber tone of the next scene; a lifelike polar bear puppet emerges from what initially appeared to be a big snow pile, its cub peeping out between its legs. We see none of the polar bear’s implied ferocity, and are instead confronted by its tender maternity. The windswept soundscape and realistic movement of the puppets (created by Waw ! Studios / Joachim Jannin et Jean-Raymond Brassinne and excellently manipulated by the performers) evoke the unique sublimity that only nature seems able to offer. Then the iceberg cracks, the cub floats away, and the mama bear roars us into a blackout.

The curtains open on a living room filled with electric fans, the scene connected with what came before by way of a news report about the death of the videographer playing on an old school TV. A life-sized puppet of an old woman (controlled by an actor with an arm through one sleeve and the other manipulating its head by grabbing its hair) stutters down via a malfunctioning stair lift. She hobbles over to an armchair, puts her feet (her feet and the actor’s are one and the same) in an ice bucket, and starts listening to an opera record via over-ear headphones. Meanwhile, foofaraw ensues at the kitchen table. Cereal grains and teabags blow in the gust of a fan and the room begins to melt from the heat; the coat rack sags, the husband’s chair bends backward and the table warps, but the actors accept this as mere inconvenience, offering each other cheeky gestures of approval from the ludicrous positions the rubbery furniture puts them in. Even the vinyl record turns flaccid.

Additional scenes centered around maternal, naturalistic puppets regularly intersect this human narrative, the worlds of animals and humans colliding most dramatically when the contorted, storm-sloshed body of a large bird bursts through the window in a fit of feathers, bringing the high winds of the storm in with it. Upon confirming the bird dead, the somber couple (whose mannerisms and simplicity are quite endearing) carries it offstage, the husband reentering seconds later in high spirits with a Thanksgiving turkey style platter. In these apocalyptic conditions, can we blame him? The wife blows in wearing a sparkly red dress, and when she pours the wine it blows past the glass and onto the man’s face. While this blustery charade certainly has its place in the show, it lasts longer than necessary and feels a bit on the nose, especially after similar scenarios in Charlie Chaplin’s film, Gold Rush, as well as Gabriela Carrizo’s dance theater piece, The Missing Door. That the characters apparently don’t think to move their dinner table out from in front of the shattered window and into the shelter of the rest of the house might allude to humanity’s stubborn obliviousness to take seemingly simple steps toward averting the climate crisis.

When a tsunami (achieved via projection) thrust us underwater, even time turns liquid so that we are caught off guard when the final reporter paddles in. (And surprised that she’s still alive.) Her camera is tied to the front of her boat and she fishes household objects from the water. A low battery message pops up, the camera beeps, and darkness swallows the theater.

Despite its secular content, between the show’s title (which means Sunday in French), its triadic structure, and its apocalyptic prognostication, my mind couldn’t help but wander toward Christianity. Is this the day of rest we’ve earned for ourselves after all our hard work destroying the planet?

It’s also worth noting that Dimanche is the title of a 1960 work by French artist Yves Klein. An early example of conceptual art that took the form of a one-day newspaper designed as an alternative to the regular Sunday paper, it included Klein’s manifesto, Theatre du Vide (Theater of the Void) and his famous photo, Leap Into The Void.

By Charly Santagado of Dance Informa.

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