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Review

Wherefore Gender

By Jordan Arseneault
  • Dany Desjardins and Oliver Koomsatira in Situations by George Stamos / Photo by Nans Bortuzzo
  • Jean Bui in Situations by George Stamos / Photo by Nans Bortuzzo
  • Situations by George Stamos / Photo by Nans Bortuzzo
  • Situations by George Stamos / Photo courtesy of Stamos

Situations

Montréal  September 30-October 2, 2015

In 1999, Canadian critic and social pundit Bert Archer published the must-read tome of the year in the subset of cultural studies known as queer theory. It was called The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality), and it proposed the stubbornly postmodern thesis that progress in the acceptance of human sexual variance, both socially and legally, was on the cusp of allowing us to shrug the primitive labels of “straight” and “gay” in favour of some kind of all-embracing human fluidity. Archer is from Montréal and spent his life in the gay-friendly literary bubbles of Toronto and Victoria. As it turns out, Archer was quite wrong. At least three entire movements would stake their relevance amidst a monopolizing fifteen-year debate over same-sex marriage that followed his book’s publication: the percolation of queer theory into the intellectual establishment (see Judith Butler), the focus on LGBT teen suicide as a political issue (see the “It Gets Better Project”) and the elevation of transgender and queer people of colour’s struggles as a societal weather vane (see Lavern Cox).

Thoughtful dancing of the past fifteen years could only respond to these loud social themes, and hence we have seen a profusion of gender-play and queer semantics on our stages. One of Canada’s most thought-provoking choreographers of this era has been George Stamos. A contemporary of both Montréal maverick Dave St-Pierre and celebrated American dance prophet Miguel Gutierrez, Stamos was chosen to create the flagship work for the twenty-fifth anniversary season of Montréal Danse in 2011-12, his masterful anthropological essay Husk. The commission was a stunning combination of virtuosic physicality, uncanny costumes and masks and the riveting inclusion of a live multidisciplinary musician as part of the scenic action (Montréal original Jackie Gallant, who was brought back to do the sparse soundtrack for Situations). Sitting in the Agora on opening night between a trained dancer seeing Stamos’s work for the first time and an established sound artist familiar with his oeuvre, I couldn’t help but see Situations as a sequel to Husk, with much of its symphonic elements, but also something new: a twinge of indeterminacy.

The first inkling of this indeterminacy came with the piece’s title, which was initially slated as Danse de garçons (“boys’ dance”), presumably with his five handsome principals in mind: his partner in the 2013 duet Liklik Pik, the erotically charged Dany Desjardins; Zone Homa’s Prince Charming (http://www.quartierhochelaga.com/lamour-au-temps-du-dollarama/) and porcelain-skinned Situations poster boy Sébastien Provencher; and moody music experimentalist Owen Chapman. Two refreshing faces, the surgical Oliver Koomsatira and cherry-picked RUBBERBANDance newbie Jean Bui round out the principals. To this core group Stamos adds an almost Shakespearean number of “special guests” too numerous to name (though we will).

The action begins with a stark but crafty duet between Provencher and Chapman, who crouches at a low, wheeled dais filled with pedals, turntables and the obligatory laptop. Provencher creates part of the looped soundscape with Chapman before engaging in formalized, non-narrative movements, underscored by angular limbs and a telltale modernist signifier: the black blazer. Walking with knees and arms bent at right angles, Provencher executes a series of arm movements with the precision of a tai chi practitioner, only more mechanical and expansive in space.

Here is where the special guests come in. We know that gender is on the menu because the gnomic performer and dance scholar Marc Boucher is sprawled in auditorium chairs downstage right, wearing a little, pink, faux-satin eighties dress, and inexplicably holding a birch log. Upstage, the magnetic Winnie SuperHova (aka Winnie Ho, recently seen at Montréal performance events Short & Sweet, Edgy Women and So You Think That Was Dance) is “manspreading” in boy-drag beside an androgynously dressed Emilie Roberts like two gangster dandies. The dashing Desjardins – whose stage presence exudes an aura of “team captain” – struts in with Koomsatira and Bui preening and presenting their sculpted bodies to the audience before everyone (except Boucher) starts taking selfies in a moment of levity highlighted by SuperHova brandishing a selfie stick. We nod in acknowledgment of this possible first use of the newfangled, metre-long cellphone perch on a professional dance stage in Montréal. The effect was a comical cue that Stamos is talking about gender as self-representation in a world obsessed with the latter.

Bui, Desjardins and Koomsatira get a shirtless trio early on in the piece that vibrates with sexuality, strength and poise. Bui’s placid face belies a firecracker performative strength matched only by that of Stamos’s standby, Desjardins. It becomes clear early on that in spite of a potentially exciting addition of secondary characters (the typically brilliant Nate Yaffe was underutilized throughout), the principals are given the bulk of the choreographer’s more athletic and exciting material. Torsos and limbs are slapped, statuesque poses are struck; the dancers’ feet are weightily grounded (perhaps influenced by Danse Nyata Nyata founder Zab Maboungou, whose technique Stamos has studied in depth) and spastic movements occupy the stage in areas that splinter our focal point. Sometimes we get interlocking trios of synchronized lunging movements in a fugue.

After this display of group activity, the troupe dissipates to sit in the sidelines allowing a titillating segment with Provencher and Bui to take centre stage. Stripped to their underwear, the two are airbrushed in neon pink with an actual paint gun wielded by Boucher. I wanted to see what a butch Winnie SuperHova might do juxtaposed with the similarly jockstrap-clad Provencher, but alas, this duet was not yet in the gender representation of flux of Situations on opening night. Might it come in a later version? For a choreographer as expressive and experienced as Stamos, the permutations are endless, and the pure talent on stage kept the entertainment level high throughout.

The gender thesis of the work takes on a startling added dimension when Stamos’s duet Nunounenon, featuring a powerful Gabrielle Surprenant-Lacasse and Anouk Thériault (presented by invitation at a Université du Québec à Montréal studio as a work-in-progress last year, and as a street intervention since), appears to be grafted onto Situations about halfway through. Their shirts stuffed with balloons so that they look like buxom cartoonish versions of A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992) lady baseball players, the Nunounenon women are brought in to marshal and dominate the stage’s mostly male bodily arrangements and yell their feminist “Non à la complaisance!” (No more complacency!) anti-oppression manifesto into a microphone. But we don’t get to feel why this cut-and-paste needed to be done, or whether it is really a manifesto and not just a tirade of political statements said in a fictive space, especially as the sentences devolve into saying “Non” to a variety of nouns, including anchovies. Their duet is strong on its own, but its insertion here felt less assured, even if the screamed text’s didactic force was clear: the dance world imitates, unwittingly or deliberately, the gender injustices in society, and this should stop.  

The show-stopping scene that may in the end have been the climactic statement of the piece was Desjardins (again) bent forward wearing only underwear briefs behind an upturned table with his buttocks raised toward the audience. His seemingly disembodied hands grope, slap and aggressively caress his perineum while another dancer spray-paints the word “MOM” and a geometric anthropomorphic symbol on the cinderblock upstage wall. In the context of all this gender-play, the foundational nature of the erogenous third eye suddenly became a motif all its own. Boy, girl, man, trans-man, trans woman, gay, straight, butch, femme: we all have one, just as we all have a mother. Since bodies are the material of dance, dance will always be about gender whether we like it or not. We are left with a sense that perhaps Situations wants us to move into a kind of gender future, where a greater diversity of bodies can interact scenically without pretending that we can check gender at the door; that a queer aesthetic can be more ambitious than the mere absence of a heterosexual pas-de-deux. Gender occupies this antinomy: that we know it mostly through its representation, but many people experience it mainly through its socially perpetuated inequalities. Stamos may be asking if we can dance about this situation without perpetuating it.

 

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