Obituary: Dominique Bagouet

Dominique Bagouet, dancer and choreographer, born Angouleme 9 July 1951, died Montpellier 9 December 1992.

AT 41, his body looked so frail, so ethereal, one wondered how he could perform such prodigies of technique in contemporary dance. The sensitive, triangular face with its big dark eyes and huge smile was still that of a boy. When he danced, he hardly appeared to belong to this world. Yet that grace, refined musicality and acrobatic daring depended upon a frame of steel, a musculature infinitely flexible yet with a power to overcome all difficulties, all failures.

Dominique Bagouet had been obsessed by the dance since early childhood, when his parents took him to Barcelona and he saw his first flamenco performance, at the age of five. He was always dancing, dancing for anyone who would watch, for even then he was conscious of the necessity to project his feelings to an audience. He admitted that he was a great show-off when he danced at family parties, but that proves he was born with an instinctive theatricality, an immense desire to please, a longing to entertain and bring happiness to others.

Yet his personality was a shy, retiring one. It needed courage to show himself in public and to perform. His genius for the dance demanded his utter subjection to the display of his beautifully proportioned, elegant silhouette, obedience to strict technique and complete dedication to the success of the contemporary dance company he eventually formed.

He was born in the provinces, in Angouleme, and he had to escape from that rural setting to make his way in a much different world. He went to Cannes to become the favourite pupil of Rosella Hightower, who in her own inimitable way developed the restless adolescent's strange talent in rigorous classical ballet disiciplines linked to musical appreciation studies. His first passion was for baroque music and dance. But at the age of 17 his wild, Shelleyan spirit felt it could no longer accept what he began to perceive as the stifling constraints of pure classical ballet.

He began a life of travel and apprenticeship to various masters, and to the new forms of emerging contemporary dance. For a while he was a member of Felix Blaska's company in Paris, then moved to Brussels and the revelation of Maurice Bejart's supreme mastery of dance and choreography at the Theatre de la Monnaie. But he felt that Bejart, with whom he always remained on friendly terms, was not exploiting his peculiar genius to the full. So he returned to Paris and joined the great Carolyn Carlson who taught him techniques he adopted as second nature, learnt from Alwin Nikolais. From Peter Goss he absorbed the classical freedom of Jose Limon, combined with all the personal passion of native Spanish and South American virtuosi, all in a contemporary dance framework.

In 1976 he won the Concours de Bagnolet with his first great success, Chanson de Nuit. The delicacy and sweetness of his character were exhibited with an almost painful clarity that sprang from a pure, poetic imagination. He danced like a lost child who is afraid of the dark yet explores it with trembling eagerness and brave defiance. He had begun a career which was to lead him from a very private form of dancing to an even more private form of choreography.

His increasingly diaphanous appearance betrayed a man whose soul had been flayed alive by contact with a cruder and more intolerant world, and with the unceasing demands of the empire of the dance. But he was able to conceal his pain in work shot through by unexpected flashes of humour and self-mockery, by the sheer physical seduction of his mime and movements. He composed Ribbatz, Ribbatz to folk music taken from native sources in Auvergne, a tribute to his own rural beginnings. It was followed by Suite pour violes to the music of Couperin. Yet he always felt dissatisfied with his progress: he declared that he felt he could not keep up with the speed of his ambitions as a choreographer. Then, with Voyage organise (1977) and Grand Corridor (1980) his reputation as a great contemporary choreographer was finally established.

In 1980 he set up the Centre Choreographique Languedoc- Roussillon at Montpellier, where he began producing outstanding artistic successes like Insaisies (1982), in which he began to tame his exuberant theatricality with a more severe, almost geometrical disposition of dancers in space, yet allowing his dancers an almost baroquely decorative expression in arms and hands. His Deserts d'amour, a title sadly evocative of his private life, revealed new facets of his choreographic skills and proclaimed him a leading innovator in the poetry of gesture, leading him later to work with Trisha Brown. A great step forward in his art began when the Paris Opera commissioned his Fantasia Semplice (1985), a work which dancers found increasingly difficult to perform with its physical demands and its unusual gestural ornamentations. In his F. Stein, Bagouet created for himself a heart-breaking solo to the savage guitar accompaniment of Sven Lava, a final theatrical self-exposure of infinite ingenuity that explored his problems of identity and his ever-present sense of being apart from the world of everyday life.

He had been hoping to found a school for dancers and choreographers, but it was not to be. He began to feel rejected by Montpellier, though its celebrated Festival de Danse produced several of his new works, like Strange Days to the song by the Doors (1990). So Schnell was filled with images of sport and athletics of a curiously dreamlike kind, and Necesito (1991) was danced to music by a Spanish rock band.

In everything he did at this period, one sensed the laceration of his spirit, his growing despair. In November of this year he had presented his So Schnell at the Paris Opera, where a French contemporary dance company was invited for the very first time. Dominique Bagouet was unable to be there to savour this triumph of his art, and the ovations for his company.

Aids continues to take a terrible toll of dancers. The fine Japanese artist of the contemporary dance, Hideyuki Yano, was the first to leave us in the mid-1980s. He was followed by Jacques Garnier, Philippe Trassera, Lari Leong, Jorge Donn in France alone. Dominique Bagouet, always reserved, discreet, gentle, tormented, was paid tribute by his own company, at present on tour, and by several showings of his works on French television. When one understood the pain and suffering that lay behind all those exquisite gestures and delicate movements, performed with sensitive but defiant panache such as only he would muster in his lonely battle with his art and with himself, those memorial programmes took on an even deeper poignancy, and left the spectator in tears.

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