PARIS — "I work like a sculptor when I work with naked people," says Maguy Marin, discussing her evening-length epic "Babel, Babel," which her company will bring to the Los Angeles Festival on Thursday and Friday at the Raleigh Studios., followed by "May B" on Saturday and Sunday. In "Babel, Babel," which is set to Mahler, to popular music from the '60s (including "Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini") and to Spanish songs, Marin's company of 12 dancers does indeed appear naked a good deal of the time.
"For me, they're not showing off their bodies," Marin says. "The dancers are naked with the fragility of the fact that they are naked. They have nothing to hide."
"Some people think their nakedness is provocative, but I don't think so."
What Marin does seem to find provocative is tackling big themes and interpreting them in her own unorthodox theatrical style.
"Babel, Babel" and "May B" (an austere work inspired by Samuel Beckett's plays) are each almost an hour and a half long. "I don't like short, 10-minute pieces," Marin says, backstage at the Paris Opera, waiting for the performance of a new work she has created for France's most famous ballet company. "I like the public to come into the theater and get involved."
Marin, a small and very intense woman, was born in Toulouse to Spanish immigrant parents. She trained in ballet and danced with the Strasbourg Ballet and Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century.
She founded Compagnie Maguy Marin in 1978, and it has been based in the Paris suburb of Creteil--where Marin is resident choreographer--since 1981. Creteil, along with the French government, contributes some financial support, although most of the company's income comes from performances: more than 100 a year.
The 36-year-old choreographer was named Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et Lettres last year in France. Her dancers hail from all over the world--only three are French--and share classical ballet training as a base. Today, they continue in ballet, along with an eclectic mixture of Limon, Flamenco and circus technique, plus whatever else their energetic director happens to be interested in.
"We do a ballet barre and then get up on the trapeze," Marin says. "But no matter what, we do that barre first, so that they won't lose their technique."
In "Babel, Babel," which premiered in 1982, the dancers even sing--as does Marin, who doesn't dance much any more.
"The piece is about building a city, trying to get to God, and to become stronger than God. Then God decides they are being too pretentious and so he disperses them with different languages.
"I used the biblical story only as a base for my fantasies," Marin says. "The city they build is a family campground, near the seaside. The decor is a floor of grass with mountains and sky. And four or five big tents.
"The movement is, if I must name a technique, more Limon than anything else. But visually, it's a sculptural work, or a painting. There's a lot of Hieronymus Bosch in it, but it wasn't conscious. I didn't have the idea to work from Bosch, but when it was done, I felt that it was very near his work."
Similarly, in "May B," which Marin created in 1981, Beckett's work served only as an inspiration for her. She did not attempt to make a direct, literal interpretation in dance. Beckett's themes are clearly there in this bleak, often uncomfortable work, but the dancers don't, for instance, represent actual characters from Beckett.
"It's like they're inside of a womb, a micro-society, and they don't like each other, but they have to live together, as we have to live together," Marin says. "They have to deal with each other, they can't be independent. And it's like that from the beginning until the end."
Marin glances at her wristwatch. It's time for the Paris Opera Ballet's performance of her work. Marin, although admittedly very ill at ease working with other companies, has choreographed for the Paris Opera and the Lyon Opera Ballet, which presented her "Cendrillon" earlier in the festival.
The experience sometimes even makes her physically sick, she reveals. "I do it to improve myself. I have my company for nine years now, so I work with others because I wonder how I will create with different dancers, different material." She pauses and shakes her head. "It's very difficult and draining."
Still, all of her work, no matter what company she's creating on, has almost nothing in common with American modern dance.
"I was not influenced by it," she says. "And French dance is different because it's more theatrical. Here the theatrical tradition is very strong. The Romantic ballet. The Comedie Francaise. Moliere. Emotion for me is very important."