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Review: Vegetal; Theatre de la Ville, Paris

It was a short career, but a glorious one: Jean-Michel Basquiat made sure of that.
There is no direct English translation that I can think of for Vegetal, the title of this collaboration between the British artist Andy Goldsworthy and the Ballet Atlantique's resident choreographer Regine Chopinot (already famous in France for her previous work with Jean Paul Gaultier). When they first began working together, Goldsworthy soon found that he had to ask Chopinot to stop using the literal English translation in their discussions: for him, the word "vegetable" carried almost the opposite connotations to what seemed intended in French.

Perhaps the best translation would be Dylan Thomas's "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" - or Andrew Marvell's use of the word in its old sense in "To His Coy Mistress":

My vegetable love should grow

Vaster than empires and more


In the 17th century, "vegetable" meant "growing", "endlessly changing", "self-renewing", "fecund". Vegetal is all of that. In the beautiful book / programme which Goldsworthy has designed to accompany the piece, the five parts of the dance are entitled simply "Earth", "Seed", "Root", "Branch" and "Leaf".

As the show opens, the stage is covered in fine red earth. The 13 dancers wear blue boiler-suits, soon stained red by much contact with the earth. Goldsworthy says: "I have worked with red earth in many places. It flows around the earth as a vein. It is red because of its iron content, which is why our blood is also red. The red in our blood is related to breath, to respiration, which is what we share with plants. In 1994, I made dust- throws in California. I called these works Breath of Earth. They had a quality of breath on a cold day, and California is a place where you can feel the earth breathing - often violently."

One way of describing this extraordinary dance might be simply to use the word "work". Talking before the show, Goldsworthy spoke of how comfortable he had felt all along with dance as a natural extension of his work in sculpture (he is elegantly and perhaps ironically described by the French as a "plasticien"). Dancers and sculptors both spar with gravity. Goldsworthy remarked that he had often thought how like dance any piece of work is - building a dry-stone wall, constructing one of his famous cairns, or flinging sticks into the air. Every piece of work has its own rhythms, its energy rising and falling like sap. Hammering, sawing, bricklaying, digging, the dance of the robots that make cars on production lines, even the deft dancing of our fingers as we do up our shoelaces. We have only to think of the origins of the blues to remember that work, rhythm, song and dance are one.

The sculpture of Andy Goldsworthy, deliberately ephemeral by nature, has always been essentially dramatic. Just looking at his megalithic spires of balanced pebbles, fragile columns of poised energy, makes you think of tightrope walkers or dancers. These are not "ever-fixed marks" but subject to the ebb and flow of tides, to gravity. They exert the same magnetic attraction as maypoles or henges, so strongly suggestive that, in their wild surroundings, it is not difficult to imagine invisible dryads dancing around them, or dwelling inside them.

So Vegetal, like the rest of Goldsworthy's work, is strongly centred. As it opens in primeval gloom, three dancers are centred around a circle of stones; two hours later, when it ends, 12 dancers are contained in a necklace of woven withies, built branch by branch before us on stage, while the 13th, Chopinot herself, circles them in a dance so slow that her movement is as undetectable as that of the hands on Big Ben, or the sun's arc across the sky.

Watching the dancers at work carrying countless branches on to the stage, building a kind of wooden lobster-pot, then transmuting it into a rippling series of widening circles, had the same fascination as watching ants carrying eggs about, or Salgado's miners swarming up ladders in their open-cast mine.

I would always have described Goldsworthy's work as dramatic - from the fragility of the most delicate chestnut leaf-box to the grandeur of the ice-sculptures at the North Pole - but here, in Vegetal, that drama is made manifest. We see the work being made and unmade, rising and falling, before our eyes - and, by actually witnessing the work, we too take part in it. Instead of seeing a fait accompli, we experience a process.

Goldsworthy says: "My work is a way of releasing an energy that is there. Regine releases movement. Appearing as if an external force is making the movement - somehow over-riding the mind of the dancer, it takes control. That is, for me, the essence of movement."

As with Theatre de Complicite, whom in some ways this gifted and lyrical company resemble, the experience is at once satisfying and unnerving. Unnerved some of the audience clearly were, to the point of standing up and saying so. But far more were on the edge of their seats from pure joy as, in the most sophisticated city in the world, a modern Rite of Spring unfolded on a stage covered in red earth and strewn with leaves.


The author is a founder director of Common Ground