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The Arthropologist

Hot dance bods bring a tragedy to life: Dominic Walsh finds his wow in Camille Claudel

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Hana Sakai Photo by Traci Matlock
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Kathryn Walsh Thomas and Domenico Luciano Photo by Lynn Lane
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Libbie Masterson, Seine, Isle, from the series NUIT, 2009/12,  gelatin silver print, toned Courtesy of the artist
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Libbie Masterson, Eygaliéres, France, from the series NUIT, 2009/12, chromegenic print Courtesy of the artist
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Auguste Rodin, Walking Man, 1905, cast in 1962, bronze Photo by Rocky Kneten Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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News_Nancy_Camielle Claudel_May 2012_Kathryn Walsh Thomas_Domenico Luciano
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I lost myself in Libbie Masterson's latest batch of photographs — NUIT: The French Landscape at Night, at Wade Wilson Gallery — during her FotoFest show. The dreamy landscapes possessed an air of mystery, as if a pair of lovers had just left the scene.

There was a sense of longing in the photos, along with a rarefied theatricality. Surely, there was a story in these elegant images.

Half joking, I told Masterson, "The only thing these photos are missing are a few sleek Dominic Walsh dancers." Masterson had collaborated with Walsh on The Mozart Trilogy, so it wasn't such an odd comment.

"Actually, I'm working with Dominic again, on his Camille Claudel ballet," Masterson told me.

Here's where the mystery thickens. Masterson was photographing the very region of France where Claudel lived and worked before Walsh asked her to work with him. 

Dominic Walsh Dance Theater premieres Camille Claudel Thursday through Saturday at  the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Rounding out the program is Mats Eks' Pas de Dans, Matthew Bourne's "White Swan" pas de deux from his mostly all-male Swan Lake, Walsh's witty The Itch and an encore performance of his Dying Swan with former Houston Ballet principal Krissy Richmond.

Claudel was a sculptor, most known for being Auguste Rodin's muse, dedicated assistant and lover. She left Rodin after two decades, exhibiting her own work, until she was committed to an asylum in 1913.

The 1988 film, Clamille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, depicted her tragic tale.

Here's where the mystery thickens. Masterson was photographing the very region of France where Claudel lived and worked before Walsh asked her to work with him. Things got stranger still, when he brought in poet Addie Tsai as the dramaturg, unaware that she too, had a Claudel connection. Tsai, who collaborated with Walsh in Frankenstein, had written a series of poems inspired by Claudel's life.

None of them think these coincidences are remotely strange. The fact that art moves in mysterious ways is a given.  

Sitting down with the creative team, it's clear that they are all working toward the same goal, to tell a story, through movement and visuals, that has not been told. Their collaborative style is one of listening, mutual respect and the freedom to bounce ideas off one another. Their effortless communication reminded me that I was in the company of true collaborators.

Walsh, Masterson and Tsai all agree that Claudel's legend had been reduced to one of madness, and not her contribution to sculpture. Claudel destroyed most of her work, which didn't help matters much. It's Tsai's job to keep Walsh on track with the facts.

It's not that he intends a History Channel approach, but he is aiming to be true to her story. 

A Double Obsession?

Masterson and Tsai can relate to the idea of a female artist not getting her due, something that still happens in the art world. The subject is also a ripe one for Walsh, who has always been interested in Rodin's work. His signature ballet, Flames of Eros, that launched his career and won a prestigious Choo-San Goh Award for choreography, was inspired by Rodin's sculptures.

Now, he sits at the front of his studio with a book of Claudel's works and life, crafting a dance in air as she did in stone. Walsh choreographs with a sculptural hand to begin with, so his ventures into this realm feel natural. His curvy lines do seem to shape space.

Dancing the role of Claudel is the exquisite Japanese ballerina Hana Sakai, with the statuesque Domenico Luciano as Rodin. Luciano also designed the costumes. With her chiseled features and his chiseled bod, they make a handsome couple.

Walsh plays to their strengths in his sensuous, flowing gestures. The two pas de deux I watched pretty much said it all. One occurs in the beginning of their relationship, where they are both discovering their mutual appreciation for form, space and stone. Masterson's fabric set piece doubles as a stone in mid-formation and a pedestal.

Walsh captures the kind of blind trust that Claudel gave Rodin and his obsession with the young, talented artist. The second pas de deux takes us to a much darker place, where the fibers of their relationship have unraveled. It presages her eventual spin into madness. 

The haunting music of Erik Satie and original music by Kinley Lange bring us into the French atmosphere. Claudel was influenced by the nearby rock and earth formations, which deeply informed her work. Now, the rounded contours of Walsh's choreography offer a second more liquid landscape. 

We may never know exactly what Claudel added to Rodin's work, or how she influenced his later work, but in Walsh's new ballet we will be transported to a distant French landscape to dream in stone and movement what might have happened. I thought about that while strolling past Rodin's Walking Man in the MFAH's Cullen Sculpture Garden.

For Walsh, the experience has been deep and profound.

"I'm loving the style of composition that drifts between a clear narrative and abstract dreams, interwoven," he says. "Hana and Domenico give virtuoso interpretations. Physically, they master the essence and spirit of classicism, then shift to raw and grounded work with unbelievable proficiency and familiarity.

"I think it will have that Romeo & Juliet wow factor."

Enter Dominic Walsh's creative process for Camille Claudel

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