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Review

Sizing Up a Double Dose of Summer Dance

Skeels Danse and Tentacle Tribe in Saint-Sauveur By Philip Szporer
  • Alisia Pobega and Brett Andrew Taylor in Andrew Skeels's Rose of Jericho / Photo by Damian Siquieros
  • Members of Tentacle Tribe / Photo by Phoebe Marie

Montréal August 3, 2017

Everyone who runs a festival knows that you’ve got to anticipate the unexpected. Audiences, for their part, should expect the same. A case in point is the recent Festival des arts de Saint-Sauveur (FASS), which just celebrated its twenty-fifth annual season. About an hour’s drive northwest of Montréal, in the Laurentians, Saint-Sauveur is cottage country to many city people and a perfect setting for summertime dance. One program featuring two Montréal-based companies, Skeels Danse and Tentacle Tribe, was advertised as a “double-bill of world premieres,” with Rose of Jericho (Skeels Danse), “a combination of contemporary, classic and urban dance forms” and Threesixnine by Tentacle Tribe, “redefining street dance with its unique brand of conceptual hip hop.”

The crossover possibilities of this side-by-side show, in terms of forms and movement invention, were exciting. In fact, while the audience did get a first look at the companies’ respective new works, the full-fledged premieres won’t happen until later. Skeels Danse’s Rose of Jericho is set to open mid-October in the Danse Danse season, at the Cinquième Salle in Place des Arts. Meanwhile Tentacle Tribe’s Threesixnine will appear as part of Danse Danse’s programming only sometime late next year, though I will be heading to the Quartiers Danse event in early September to see how the piece is shaping up.

When the companies took their bows at Saint-Sauveur, the groups seemed awestruck by the response from the audience. There was thunderous applause from under the big tent. That’s good for the audiences and the artists. But, after quickly realizing I’d seen a stripped-down excerpt of each piece, with limited lighting and no sets, I didn’t feel it would be ethical or benefit either company for me to offer my critical views at this early stage.

Instead, with editor Emma Doran, I thought it would be a good idea to open the discussion to include the voices of the artists as they speak about their process and how the work is evolving. To begin, both groups expressed tremendous gratitude to have the chance for the Saint-Sauveur audiences to see their work, and through these conversations I was reminded that emerging companies need the support and visibility that a showcase like FASS can offer. For its part, FASS Executive Director Étienne Lavigne underlined in his curtain speech that while the festival can attract important international artists (this year, L.A. Dance Project and Compagnie Hervé Koubi were among them), the event prides itself on supporting younger artists.

A few days later, I arrived at the École supérieure de ballet contemporain’s rehearsal space, on Rivard Street, to talk with choreographer and Artistic Director Andrew Skeels. He was wrapping up a session with three well-rounded dancers, Alisia Pobega, Pierre-Émile Lemieux-Venne and Brett Andrew Taylor. The trio they performed was intricate, emphasizing precise, symmetrical positioning of the arms and accents of the hands. Rose of Jericho, as I saw it at FASS, is a well-constructed piece, highlighting fluid partnering and some exceptional duets. The resilient plant, also known as “the resurrection plant,” looks like curled tumbleweed during drought season, and blows across desert sands, but it can survive in this terrain for years. After rainfall, it unfurls and its seeds germinate in the wet sand. Skeels sees the plant serving as a metaphor for what he refers to as “the struggle, persistence and importance of collective action in fighting adversity.” As a self-described “citizen of the world,” the Montréal-based dancemaker says he is drawn to analogous global issues, ranging from immigration, climate change and “the struggle to survive,” employing these fertile topics as “starting points” for the dance.

Skeels relates deeply to “migrants looking for a hospitable place.” He refers to himself as an “artistic immigrant,” a transplanted American who trained at the Boston Ballet School. He’s clear and expressive, and appreciative for all the opportunities that have come his way since arriving in Montréal in 2009 to dance with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (LGBC). “I would not be doing art if I was still in the United States,” he states emphatically, referring to the comparative funding structures in both countries. After leaving LGBC, he set his own course as a choreographer with considerable success, leading to commissions at the Paris Opera Ballet and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Skeels is expansive when talking about his diverse training and influences. In his youth, he trained in kenpō karate, a form of martial arts that emphasizes flexibility, economy of movement and a rapid counterattack, blending energy principles, flow and connection. Coordination and continuity with linear and circular motion are big factors in the practice. “Hip hop and jazz also figure in my training, though that work was done in studio and not on the streets,” he adds with a smile. Classical dance followed, and that form became his calling card for a number of years. Of course, at LGBC he had the good fortune to work with some of the world’s influential choreographers and danced some stellar repertory. Among the lasting influences, he cites Jiří Kylián’s “sense of flow, simplicity and style,” Ohad Naharin’s “ability to energize the group and work with canon,” Mats Ek’s theatricality and Didy Veldman’s partnering. Currently, he’s fascinated by electro dance (also known as tecktonic and milky way), which originates in Paris’s southern suburbs and is noted for, among others things, its hand and arm movements. Krump, from east LA, is also in his current register. Essentially he’s clear that none of what he’s currently working on would be possible if he were “locked into one style.”

That kind of expansiveness is ever-present when speaking with Elon Höglund, dancer and choreographer, and co-director, with Emmanuelle Lê Phan, of Tentacle Tribe. The Montréal-based company is trying something new with Threesixnine, creating work for a group of dancers and, as a result, bringing new people into the company. The two women who are new arrivals, “have more repertory in their bodies,” he says, while the two young men are still learning the company’s work. The learning curve for all involves grasping weight distribution and different understandings of application and movement. But they’re adapting. Even at the early viewing in Saint-Sauveur, the six limber dancers locked, dropped, twisted and spun right through the geometric configurations – drawing the audience in from the very beginning.

Höglund says Tentacle Tribe is “a platform for sharing.” He speaks about the importance of audiences seeing work, if only because “it will inspire people to make more art.” The demands on the small company are building, with increased touring requests for various works that required the duo to hire more dancers so the work can travel. The company carries heft; Höglund and Lê Phan are seen as ambassadors for a generation and for what they call their “tenticular freshness.” What comes across when speaking to Höglund is his profound belief that pushing the boundaries of the vocabulary, their moves, with all of its influences, is a fundamentally important artistic expression and part of the current cultural design.

As has been widely reported, Höglund moved to Canada from Stockholm, hired by Cirque du Soleil for The Beatles LOVE show. With a background in various forms of martial arts (jiu-jitsu, karate, taekwondo, capoeira and kung fu) and a love for hip hop, he met his match during the Cirque stint in Ottawa-native Lê Phan, who made the leap from contemporary dance into street dance (bgirling, house, popping, locking and new jack swing). In 2012, bolstered by the innate drive and commitment and their stylistic linguistic fluency, they co-founded Tentacle Tribe, crossbreeding all their influences and styles, presenting something different. The alchemy onstage was potent.

In describing his, and their, approach to movement, Höglund extols the deep humanity and vision of this particular form of urban culture. It’s not just about spectacle; he and Lê Phan work at craft. “Dancing is free. The body is like a musical instrument. And liquid,” he says. How do you get to that place? Training new dancers in the Tentacle approach, he suggests, demands each person have “a movement and body awareness,” requiring an acute mental state, “to see outside the body.” Muscles, gravitation, axis, articulation and control are fundamentals of the physical demands, using the whole body as movement and then tackling the blocking, spacing and patterning. Their stylistic approach, he continues, is “organic and animalistic, connecting to the energy going through the body.” The goal in innovating aesthetically is to “create complexity with simplicity.” The idea, he reiterates, is to “look at dancing as something you cannot explain.”

In the discussion of the “infinity of possibilities” in the practice, Höglund finally speaks about “struggling with ego” and developing “a healthy relationship to it.” As an artist, Höglund unites with the notion that “We are the shamans of the century.” He adds, “It’s necessary to align yourself with the positive.” At its core, street dance is like community dance. With its creativity and innovation, Tentacle Tribe excels at bending space, using angular and circular force to upend gravitational forces, making for a lively, smart and dynamic experience both in the activity and the watching.  

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