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The wind beneath her body

Jun 02. 2017
The Non Nova Compamy stages
The Non Nova Compamy stages "Vortex" in Bangkok next week. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault
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By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to The Nation

French performance artist Phia Menard returns with two works, one of them guaranteed to please the very young

In February 2011, even before it officially opened, Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts was facing special challenge – the first professional stage production there required the temperature to be around 18 degrees Celsius. The technical team left the air-conditioning on overnight and the Bangkok audience, clad in jackets, was, thanks to La Fete, introduced to Phia Menard and Compagnie Non Nova through their work “PPP”, which featured more than 200 ice balls above the stage. 

Critics have been comparing “Vortex” to “PPP” for its theme of transformation and the ingenious blend of juggling and object theatre. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault

Now they’re back with two works, not with ice this time but wind – “L’apres-midi d’un foehn” and “Vortex”. And if the former’s name sounds familiar, it’s because “L’apres-midi d’un foehn Version I” was shown at TK Park two years ago.

Menard explains the differences, “Both performances have common points of course, but they are two different experiences, two different stories. ‘L’apr่s-midi d’un foehn’ has characters that are not in ‘L’apr่s-midi d’un foehn Version I’. The former is an aerial ballet, the latter a performance installation.”

Explaining the special characteristics of her company and their works, Menard says: “The Non Nova team is a heterogeneous entity made up of people of different ages, backgrounds and genders, all united in a passionate desire to make the audience experience moments they didn’t expect.

“I write out of necessity. I need to share my view of the complexity of our lives. I have chosen a multidisciplinary form of theatre to express myself because this best serves my vision of our society’s hybridisation.”

In “PPP”, which had its Asia premiere six years ago in Bangkok, ice becomes a symbol for transformation. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault

She notes that “PPP” marked the start of the company’s new direction. “It stemmed from a desire to go deeper into the subject of transformation as an axis of reflection, using physical matter and the elements. Questioning the audience on their own transformation through their perception and understanding of the elements is also a driving force in my work.”

 This new phase of work is called “ICE”, “Injonglabilite Complementaire des Elements” or “Complementary Unjugglability of the Elements”. 

“It’s an artistic project which uses research to explore our relationship with ice, water, vapour and air. The basis of the project is the possibility of apprehending a certain collective imagination of transformation, using something that is not actually manipulable, or at least, is not considered to be,” she explains

This is not limited to live performances, but can also extend to art installations. 

Ordinary plastic bags and electric fans, and much of the artist’s creativity of course, will spark your kids’ imagination. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault

 For the works she now calls “Pieces of Wind”, Menard says she became inspired while working on a commissioned piece on the theme of “movement” for the Natural History Museum of Nantes in October 2008. 

“I had the idea of exploring the element air and its tremendous potential on our imaginative world.

“Wandering through the museum alone in the middle of the night, I spent hours and hours trying to work out what it was that troubled me in this space, surrounded by wild, inanimate mammals. In the end I realised that is was the absence of any air current which made things feel so strange.

“So I installed a series of silent ventilators in the evolution gallery. Listening to the sound of rustling fur I became aware that the gallery is actually a place that exhibits death. The museum suddenly became a graveyard into which I decided to reintroduce life in an unexpected form. A pink plastic bag, ballasted very slightly, began to circulate from frozen animal to frozen animal, like an odd, unexpected visitor! This gave me the urge to create a piece of 

 choreography for transfigured plastic bags.”

When it was staged at the London International Mime Festival, The Observer’s dance critic Luke Jennings wrote: “‘L’apres-midi d’un foehn’ is astounding in its simplicity.

“Cecile Briand [the solo performer] sits outside an inward-facing circle of electric fans, cutting and taping flim

 sy plastic bags – the supermarket giveaway sort – into roughly human shapes. Then the fans whirr into life, and the music starts to play,” he continued.

Ordinary plastic bags and electric fans, and much of the artist’s creativity of course, will spark your kids’ imagination. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault

“Caught in the rising currents, the first bag inflates and, with luxuriant slowness, rises from the floor and begins a series of delicate revolutions. It’s joined by another and another, the fans turn faster and faster, and the bag-figures begin to rise from the floor, until the air is full of them, drifting, whirling and soaring. 

 “As a spectacle it’s both enchanting and musically appropriate. Debussy’s score was inspired by Mallarme’s poem ‘L’Apr่s-midi d’un faune’, while the Foehn is the warm, dry wind that blows inland from the Mediterranean. Much of the pleasure is reflexive. Watching ourselves being transported by plastic bags. Seeing just how easily these despised byproducts of consumer culture can be invested with a choreography of freedom and joy,” he added. 

“L’apres-midi d’un foehn”, which is highly recommended for children older than four, is often performed in repertory with another work, “Vortex”, targeting more mature audiences.

“Adults enjoy ‘L’apr่s-midi d’un foehn’ very much: there is no age limit,” Menard says. ‘Vortex’ is not suitable for young children, but teenagers can watch it. As it questions identity issues, teenagers are often very interested and intrigued by the show.”

The Non Nova Compamy stages "Vortex" in Bangkok next week. Photo/Jean-Luc Beaujault

Jennings also described Menard’s performance in “Vortex”. “From within her man's suit she pulls metre after metre of lightweight plastic sleeving, which is whirled by the fans into a coiling, ectoplasmic cloud above her head. Layer after layer of body stocking is torn off, more and more sleeving drawn from various orifices. At one stage Menard is kneeling on all fours, drawing the plastic from herself like glistening afterbirth. As a statement of feminist abjection it appears opportunistic: a lightweight effect spun into a heavyweight concept.” 

And Menard is enthusiastic about returning to Bangkok. “It’s the third time that our company is invited by the French Embassy, and each time it’s a real pleasure to perform for the Thai audience, so we’re each time very happy to come.

“Please let yourself be carried away!”


- As part of “French Highlights # 1”, “L’apres-midi d’un foehn” is being staged from Wednesday to Friday at 2pm, and on Saturday at 2pm and 4.30pm. Tickets are Bt300 (Bt150 for students).

- “Vortex” is from Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm, followed by a Q&A with Phia Menard. Tickets are Bt600 (Bt300 for students). Book at, or call (094) 931 3434.

- Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts is on Henri Dunant Road, a 10-minute walk from BTS Siam Exit 6. Discounted parking available in the same building.

- More details (in French and English) can be found at and, or the “Drama Arts Chula” Facebook page.

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