If Los Angeles Festival audiences find Mathilde Monnier and Jean-Francois Duroure's "Duet" spontaneous and refreshingly naive at the Japan America Theatre on Sept. 12, it may be because that dance was their first attempt at collaboration--and choreography.
In 1984, the two French dancers went to New York City to study for a year at the Merce Cunningham studio. He was 19 and she was 22. In their shared apartment in the Village, they created the first section of "Duet."
"It's a lot about our relationship--tragic and funny at the same time," Monnier says with a laugh. She is a charming gamine with a temporary hair color that could best be described as "wildly orange."
"It's very complicated, always between fighting and loving," she says, glancing at her collaborator for confirmation. He smiles.
Jean-Francois Duroure's head is shaved completely bald, and one of the two earrings he sports in his left ear is a miniature hatchet.
"A man and woman working together create a lot of tension," he says. "It was impossible to stand back and look at it. We didn't even have a mirror where we worked. We watched each other."
They're both wearing ersatz leopard-skin shoes. All in all, they'd make more sense on an American street corner than in the middle-class Paris neighborhood where they rehearse when they are not traveling.
Both choreographers seem a bit amused and overwhelmed by their fast rise in the French--and international--dance world and they're almost self-deprecating when they talk about their work.
"Duet," which they will dance together, is divided into two 25-minute sections. The first, "Pudique Acide," with music by Kurt Weill, was an immediate success when they showed it to their dancer friends in New York.
The response convinced them to continue working together, but other commitments postponed the collaboration. Duroure returned to Pina Bausch's company in Germany while Monnier remained in New York for a while, then went back to France.
Eventually, they found themselves teaching together in Copenhagen, where they created the work's second section, "Extasis," with music by Weill and by Bernard Hermann, who composed scores for Alfred Hitchcock's films.
While the two choreographers don't live together any longer--they jokingly describe themselves as "just good friends"--their personal and working relationships are clearly, inexorably intertwined.
"We like to play and that's how the work comes," Duroure says. "We don't take what we do so seriously."
And what happens when they don't agree on something? "We fight until we do agree," Monnier answers with a shrug. "We fight a lot and sometimes it's good for the piece."
"But sometimes not," Duroure says.
Although neither of them had choreographed before "Duet," they had both worked with choreographers who let them develop their own movement within pieces. And they had danced together for two seasons with Viola Farber's company at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine d'Angers in France.
Suddenly, with only "Duet" under their belts, they found themselves winners of the French government's national choreography prize. That was followed by a commission from the Lyon Opera Ballet ("Mama Sunday Monday or Always" also to be performed at the Festival), their own small company and another commission for a company work, "Mort de Rire," which will have its Los Angeles premiere Sunday.
While "Duet" was an immediate success with audiences, "Mort de Rire" might not be so accessible, they both concede.
"Everyone loved 'Duet.' It was almost too easy," Monnier says. "It's very seductive for the public. There's lots of dancing. It's funny and beautiful."
"But 'Mort De Rire' is something more special," Duroure says. "It's more violent and dramatic."
"More difficult," she says.
This new piece for six dancers is 90 minutes long and is set to popular music from Russia and Eastern Europe. Its creators are engagingly evasive when asked to describe it, only revealing that it is a combination of dance and theater with a dramatic progression rather than an actual narrative.
"It's a succession of scenes. And it may be strange and difficult to understand for the first half. But then at the end, you'll understand the whole piece," Duroure says.
The Los Angeles Festival is just one stop on a year's tour for their mixed-nationality company. The group has just finished touring most of Europe, and from here it's off to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, then to New York, and then to India.
And after India?
"I don't remember," Monnier says with a sigh.
After all, their success, and their company, is so new that these two "good friends" are still trying to get their bearings. But one thing they're sure of: They will continue their collaboration.
"What we like is being together," Duroure says.