Compagnie Maguy Marin: May B review – an absurdly beautiful dance translation of Samuel Beckett

<span>‘Precisely modulated’: Compagnie Maguy Marin performing May B.</span><span>Photograph: Hervé Deroo</span>
‘Precisely modulated’: Compagnie Maguy Marin performing May B.Photograph: Hervé Deroo

A silent dance based on the writings of Samuel Beckett doesn’t exactly set the heart racing. Cue gloom and despair, without even Beckett’s words to enliven it. And when the 10 dancers of the French Compagnie Maguy Marin are revealed in crepuscular darkness, clothes white, faces plastered in white clay, feet dragging across a chalk-covered floor, I feared the worst.

But May B is a magical piece, both tribute and elaboration. Marin, now 72, made it in 1981, when Beckett was still alive. That early section, all shuffling, grunting and dry humping, sets the absurdist tone as the dancers move in a precisely modulated group, occasionally delivering a line from Endgame (in French): “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.”

Some members of the audience took this as a cue to leave. They missed out. After that gruelling start, with its emphasis on the will to survive, the piece starts to evolve. A middle section brings on recognisable characters – Pozzo and Lucky, Hamm and Clov, Winnie from Happy Days. A girl presents a birthday cake and sad-faced girls giggle as they steal a piece.

The final section, danced to the repetitive majesty of Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet brings in subtle colour and warm light; the dancers are like clockwork dolls, taking tiny repetitive steps. They carry battered cases, like travellers everywhere. One woman pauses to pull on a cardigan; a man stops to embrace her.

Later they climb into the audience to continue their journey. Another man kisses a woman on her cheek; she shouts at him but then follows. The movement is disciplined and clear, every gesture and inclination of the head telling a story. At the close, a single man freezes mid-step while Schubert’s Winterreise plays.

These images of endurance are filled not only with Beckettian bleakness but also a delicate, humane hope. Marin has conjured her own poetry from Beckett’s world. Beautiful.