Russell Maliphant and the Rodin Project

Psychoanalysts have long been fascinated by the concept of creativity and its psychological basis. They have spawned many theories as to the origins of the creative act, from the notion that creativity comes about as a reaction to repressed emotions, difficult circumstances and as the result of primary processes (Freud), to the idea that the creative act links the personal unconscious to the collective conscious (Jung), to theories of self-actualization which view creativity as a higher human need (Maslow). One thing we can all agree on is that the creative process liberates us from the confines of our minds and bodies. It moves us from the one that we are to a universal all; the vision of the one, the artist, speaking to the many, to us. And here is the bonus: it speaks to all of us in our own unique way, moving us toward a personal communion with parts of ourselves heretofore unelaborated but caught out in a moment of aesthetic understanding. This is precisely what Russell Maliphant has done with The Rodin Project – he has captured that act of creation, and re-created it as an aesthetic evocation.

I had the opportunity to see The Rodin Project – Mr. Maliphant’s latest dance composition – performed at the Joyce Theater in New York City this past December. I was moved to my very core by the sensuality of the choreography, the dancers, the music, the lighting and the sets. Each element of this performance was unique and transporting in its own way, and the weaving of each element with the others a creation of sheer beauty. It was arguably the best spectacle I have seen and experienced in many years.

As a psychoanalyst, dancer and sometime sculptor, I have always been partial to the corporeality of emotions and thoughts and to the physicality of our experience and who we are. The idea that we embody our experience and shape our lives much the same way that a sculptor works with stone or clay, shaping it along its contours, faults and veins, and bringing it to life slowly. Some of this is also true for Maliphant, who has been a serious student of sculpture, trained in the Rolfing therapy system, and studied gross anatomy and physiology, bringing all of these elements to his understanding of dance and choreography. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Maliphant talked about his detailed understanding of the human form as feeding the process of creation: allowing him to see what is going on in the structure of the body, and how movement travels sequentially throughout the body. Perhaps this is why I was immediately drawn to The Rodin Project, an evening length oeuvre based on the work of Auguste Rodin, brought to life through Maliphant’s choreographic reverie.

Maliphant began working on The Rodin Project in 2009, following Afterlight, another project inspired by a different medium: Vaslav Nijinsky’s drawings and photographs. It was here that Maliphant began to recreate the movement he perceived on paper into a choreographic process, which is further elaborated in The Rodin Project – his longest to date. The Rodin Project has been described as a landmark for Maliphant: his first to include actual sets (by Es Devlin and Bronia Houseman), an original cello and strings score (by Alexander Zekke) and a blend of dance styles including hip-hop, popping and capoeira. In The Rodin Project, he continues his long time collaboration with lighting designer Michael Hulls, who literally transforms the dancers from living beings to carved stone to fluid color through his luminous interpretation.

Inspired by Auguste Rodin’s watercolors and sculptures, The Rodin Project is divided into two parts and showcases six dancers, three male (Tommy Franzen, Thomasin Gulgec and Dickson Mbi ) three female (Ella Mesma, Carys Staton and Jennifer White). While some specific references are made to Rodin’s The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais, Maliphant prefers to capture the essence of Rodin’s pieces, not their specificity, so that one is left with familiar images that are evoked through the movement of his choreography, the physicality of the dancers, the longing of the cello, the texture of the sets and the quality of illumination. As the curtain rises we are transported to a sculptural set of columns of white fabric, hard as marble until they are touched by the dancers, who wrap themselves in their layers to reveal first a shoulder, then a leg, then an intricate cocoon of movement within sheer layers of fluid voile. Hardness turned soft and gentle then hard again. The dancers are dressed in togas and loincloths. They freeze, twist, lunge, glide, pirouette. They become the artists’ models and muses in front of our very eyes. I could actually feel the interior bodies of the dancers in their sculptural forms, at once hard as stone, then fluid like watercolor, capturing the essence of sculpture in a live moment; capturing our need to embody and enter sculpture in order to bring it to life within us, like crawling into the lap of Rodin’s The Kiss in order to feel its embrace. Stone coming to life through the strength and stretch of the dancers’ muscles, the hardness of their bones, the language of their movement articulating the texture and feel of raw materials birthing beauty and life within us.

In Maliphant’s study of sculpture and, in particular, of Rodin’s work, he has found a soul mate. The choreography of his project follows the same process of creation that Rodin used in his work. There is the circularity inherent in the sculptor’s eye: the need to take in a figure from all sides and angles, to be able to see something different yet part of the whole. This is as true of sculpture as it is of Maliphant’s choreography. Each angle and view tells us something about its subject. There is also the process of assemblage that both Rodin and Maliphant use, moving parts and segments of a body in and out of its unitary whole, playing with the possibilities of new wholes from the same parts. Then there is the way that sculpture can capture emotional intensity, containing and representing it physically, an idea that is always present in Maliphant’s choreographic style: embodied emotions traveling through the corporeality of his dancers to us, the inside moving to the outside and reaching the inside again. A loop of emotional communication captured through physical movement, captured through dance and its stirring of the audience.

Part II of The Rodin Project opens to a darker, harder feeling set which presents us with the density of stone and its resilience to the human touch. The shapes and forms of the dancers give texture to both their movement and the space around them, to the physicality of being and the ethereal quality of air. Here, the tension between body and space is brought to life; the need of the one by the other and vice versa. This reminded me of the way that sculpture cannot simply be hung on a wall or clustered into a corner. It must have room to breathe. Maliphant captures this brilliantly.

The Rodin Project is nothing short of magic – the kind that envelops you in its creative leap and transports you to a sensual land that speaks through its aesthetic while stirring yours. It turns out that the process of creation is really a choreographic process, at least in the eyes of Russell Maliphant. Bravo!

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