Agnès Varda’s 1962 New Wave masterpiece Cléo from 5 to 7 has gotten a dramatic reinterpretation from Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, stage directors and founders of New York’s Big Dance Theater. Comme Toujours Here I Stand—which premiered in April in Lyon and opens tonight at New York’s Kitchen theater—takes Varda’s own experiment, a real-time story of a young model-singer who wanders Paris while waiting for the results of a biopsy, and turns it into a multimedia confrontation with the cinema, combining drama, dance, video, and rapidly moving walls and sets to reproduce the unique properties of film. Parson and Lazar often work with translation from other media—Japanese novels, Kaspar Hauser’s diaries, Nixon’s Oval Office tapes. Here, they gave themselves the added challenge of starting with the screenplay and not watching the film before they set out to mount the production (with Varda’s blessing), so that they would have to grapple with how to convey purely cinematic devices like close-ups and jump cuts. As she was getting ready for the opening night, Parson (also Big Dance Theater’s choreographer) spoke with us about the project. —Michael Koresky
So how did you come to choose Cléo from 5 to 7, a film you hadn’t seen?
We had commissions from two French institutions, just by some weird chance [New York’s French Institute/Alliance Française and Les Subsistances in Lyon], and so we thought, Let’s do something French. We considered using French music or adapting a French novella (we had done that once with Flaubert), but for us probably the most exciting thing about French culture was French film, and especially the French New Wave. So I read a lot of screenplays from that period. I was like Zero Mostel in The Producers; I just read script after script. All those I kept reading had the same subject matter and I just wasn’t interested: I thought, No, no, I can’t do a piece about a young woman coming of age sexually! And then I read Cléo. I loved the intimacy of it. The way she uses real time and breaks things up into timed segments really spoke to the choreographer in me. I decided not to see the movie because I knew from the French New Wave films I had seen how incredibly powerful the visual element is, and I thought I would be vacuumed up by it, and there would be no room for me or my imagination.
Can you describe Comme Toujours to us a little?
We got really inspired by the city of Lyon. While there are certainly lots of references to the 1960s, both musically and in some of the looks and clothes, it’s not a period piece. We use a lot of video imagery we shot in Lyon, so it takes place in 2008, when we filmed it. And because I love all the stairs in Lyon, which is a really old city on hills, we have a staircase that moves. We also tried to have these rolling wall panels, with which we tried to solve how to change scenes instantaneously, like you can in movies. On each panel is a series of wallpapers, and the wallpapers develop over time, so the pattern changes. Sometimes the wallpapers are videotape, so they’re moving.
As for dance, it’s not dance at all but a really tightly, precisely choreographed staging. There’s only one dance in the middle. There are little sections where we’ll play with how film can rewind or how directors do multiple takes to shoot something, sticking in movements to emphasize the repetition. So you’ll see little bits of movement, but for the most part it looks more like a play.
That one dance is taken from Band of Outsiders, right?
Yes, the dance in the café. I thought of the script itself as a found object, a shard, and I wanted to have another shard of movement from the period. I’m always looking for places to put dances. It starts with the Band of Outsiders movement and then moves into a completely different world and then goes back to it. We developed it into a ten-minute dance.
When you finally saw Cléo, what did you think?
To tell you the truth, I got really ill! I had been working on it for a long time, and when I sat down to watch it, I was pretty much done. I had about a week left in France before we opened, and I thought, It’s time to see it. So I popped it in and started watching it, and I was so overwhelmed by how brilliant it was that I threw up. It was a very physical experience.
After ten minutes I turned it off, but then the next day I watched it and learned something that I put in the production at the last minute. I couldn’t tell from the script that she’s like a flaneur as she walks through the city. And this sense of a walking meditation, and the sense of her seeing the world and people seeing her, and Varda seeing people and people seeing Varda, was so powerful that I ended up adding this motif. It’s really simple, but the piece needed it. It sets her outside of her world for the first time.
(Comme Toujours Here I Stand opens tonight and runs through October 10, at the Kitchen.)