Alchemy of a Dance Festival: FIND-Lab Part 2 

By Kathleen Smith

Festival international de nouvelle danse 

Festival international de nouvelle danse 

Montréal  September 30-October 12, 2003

The second part of this year’s edition of FIND was characterized by unusually fine weather outdoors, uneven programming indoors and an absolute obsession with technology everywhere you looked. Could these three elements possibly be related?

The alchemy of a dance festival is a delicate thing. Who knows what wizardry festival director Chantal Pontbriand has used in the past to mount Canada’s most artistically satisfying congregation of international dance artists and aficionados. Sadly, in 2003, her magic wand seemed to be losing a bit of its glitter; disgruntlement among critics and audience members was the order of the day. 

There could be no meteorological or metaphysical excuses or synchronous rationale for Compagnie de Brune’s “Encyclopedia: Document 3”, the latest from Lynda Gaudreau. Part of an ongoing experimental series that Gaudreau has been pursuing with her company since 1999, this document was infuriatingly oblique. Ostensibly an exploration of pre-movement (“What happens before an action or intention materializes? What exists before and after movement?” are the tantalizing questions posed in her program notes), the piece serves a clearer purpose as an object lesson in how technological toys can run away with the show.

In the central box of Usine C, Gaudreau’s dancers matter-of-factly go about their business, working on the set, telling stories, unrolling a scrim that will later serve as a projection screen and then as a canopy. The piece includes live wild audio sounds collected and distorted, and some handheld projection of short videos featuring Akram Khan, among others. In terms of the mechanics, all is revealed. But it’s this very lack of concealment that ultimately adds to the irritation factor. Cables need pulling, tape needs adjusting, audio relay squawks need soothing – even the most accomplished performers can’t make this kind of work interesting. And when these glorified stagehands do dance, we see none of the obsessive, detailed and precise movement library that typifies Gaudreau’s past work. At barely an hour, “Document 3” felt way too long. Yet even the eventual welcome ending of this work was simultaneously abrupt and flaccid.

An evening similarly full of technological intervention but more satisfying on every level saw the Montréal premieres of a fifty-five-minute work entitled “Chorale”, the short film “Cantique #1”, and the solo “Etude # 1”, all by Marie Chouinard and her remarkable company.

“Cantique #1” marks Chouinard’s official debut as a video director. It features two buck-naked performers – Carol Prieur and Benoît Lachambre – who walk towards the camera until they are in tight close-up, neck and head. A duet of jaws, tongues and lips ensues with an accompanying soundtrack of grunts, sighs and screams. It’s vintage Chouinard but on a big screen, and it sucks the audience into a primordial world of sex, aggression and tenderness. Remarkable.

Not quite as remarkable, however, as Chouinard’s solo for Lucie Mongrain, “Etude #1”. For me, this forty-minute work was the most exciting dance FIND 2003 had to offer. On a stripped down and brightly lit stage at Place des Arts, Mongrain – in steel-tipped shoes and shorts – works a territory defined by a large blue rectangle that has been miked and amplified. On and around her blue kingdom, Mongrain sustains a dance that features not only Chouinard’s trademark movement idiom but references to classical ballet, tap and martial arts as well. In embarrassing contrast to the Gaudreau piece (and many others at this year’s FIND, notably Daniele Desnoyer’s “Duo pour Corps et Instruments”), here the technology is seamlessly subservient to the artistry. “Etude # 1” also features real time processed sound (engineered by composer Louis Dufort) but this technology (though in plain sight and introduced in the opening moments of the show when Mongrain rolls a series of silvery spheres across the surface of her rectangle) is so integrated as to shortly seem invisible. As they should, all eyes remain on Mongrain. This solo is a tribute as well as a test of stamina and wit and Mongrain has proved to be a worthy subject.

A similar rigour and attention to detail drive Chouinard’s new full-length ensemble piece “Chorale”. Here, Chouinard deepens her exploration of vocal work with ten dancers who are required to exercise their voices as well as their bodies to portray a world driven by primal impulses. Chouinard uses the idea of a wolf pack to make points about the human animal in all its sexual, tender and lonely complexity. One of the most striking recurring images in the piece is that of a performer alone on stage adjusting the placement of a rolling light, then standing and howling at it. Though somewhat sprawling, “Chorale” is infused with innovation and a kind of loving, gentle quality (the performers blow a series of kisses towards the audience in the closing moments of the piece) that might seem, dare I say, cheesy, in the case of a lesser artist. Chouinard has always had a severity and an edge; in “Chorale”, these qualities are tempered by compassion and a deep understanding of human frailty.

If Chouinard’s evening could be described as deep, round and soft with its hard edges concealed; a mixed program from William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt that closed FIND 2003 was all glittery angles and sexy fun. “The Room As it Was”, a twenty-four-minute ensemble piece for eight dancers, opened the program on an elegant rather stately note. The hallmarks of Forsythe’s movement vocabulary – studied and nonchalant exits and entrances, off-centre turns, loose arms and legs swinging into classical attitudes as if by chance – were all in evidence. But this work was somewhat “boring” compared to some of the riches to follow: “Duo”, an intimate feminine pas de deux for Jill Johnson and Roberta Mosca and N.N.N.N., an intense and equally intimate dance for four men. The evening literally reached its crescendo with “One Flat Thing, Reproduced”. This work from 2000 opens with the crash of twenty tables being pushed towards the front of the stage, where they remain, evenly spaced, as an installation site for the dance. A nonstop barrage of movement ensues, over, under and around those tables for a full seventeen minutes until the lights crash off and the audience, inevitably, jumps to its feet. Exciting stuff and bracingly pure – if the previous ten days had cast doubts on the future of dance presented on its own merits, Forsythe and Ballett Frankfurt reminded us of all that can be achieved with sharp minds and trained bodies. 

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