Beneath the Gesture, Under Our Skin 

By Philip Szporer
  • Robert Meilleur, Wen-Shuan Yang, Neil Sochasky and Brianna Lombardo of O Vertigo in Ginette Laurin’s "La Chambre Blanche" (re-creation 2008) / Photo by Ginette Laurin 
  • Audrey Thibodeau of O Vertigo in Ginette Laurin’s "La Chambre Blanche" (re-creation 2008) / Photo by Ginette Laurin 

“La Chambre Blanche”

O Vertigo

Montréal  February 12-14, 18-21 and 25-28, 2009

With the recreation of “La Chambre Blanche”, O Vertigo celebrates twenty-five years of making dance. The central focus, as the title suggests, is a white room with grainy, milky-white-grey tiles – a place of mystery and impending chaos. It recalls a place of transition. The look is turn-of-the-century, perhaps an old train station vestibule, or more likely, in a more clinical sense, a psychiatric facility. Stately isn’t the description, so much as imposing and cold, with a bleak, no-exit sense of confinement. Whatever place it is, what audiences see is an isolated, forlorn room. Its occupants seem abandoned, uncertain, in a state of confusion.

The artistic integration, in which lights, sets and costume are featured prominently, is rigorous. The impressive set, designed by Stéphane Roy for the original production in 1992, is key – its high ceilings, with small windows that filter light, tell us that there is a world outside, out of reach. These “inmates” may want an out, but there’s no means of escape. The small ledge that runs the circumference of the room is a metaphor for their precarious state of being. Iron gratings seem to lead to unknown places, and when one young dancer (Neil Sochasky) perches himself in front of one of these portals, murmuring and gazing into the unknown, he appears to be at a confessional. There is a rumbling cacophony of sound, with layers of chatter in this brand new score, composed for this production by Nicolas Bernier and Jacques Poulin-Denis. Life for these characters seems not just on the precipice, but also in a state of perpetual instability.

Laurin imbues the dance with haunting, seemingly psychologically driven images, aided by lighting (created this time by Martin Labrecque) that gives definition to dim corners, and the dancers’ behaviour and actions most often seem to arise out of the shadows. In this space, they make frantic connections, muttering and whispering cryptic phrases, addressing their words, in French and in English, to unknown, unseen characters or witnesses. If they are struggling, Laurin does not give them solace. The piece is made up of sections of activity, with acrobatic movement sequences, for instance, where dancers swoop and almost collide head-on. They roll over backs, or spin or tumble with ease out of lifts. Rémi Laurin-Ouellette, Laurin’s son, is particularly adept at scaling the walls. The dancers swing or are pulled in one direction or another, or in a surprising tangent, a group of women doff their boots and shoes and a pointe ensemble suddenly filters into the piece. But these are no sylphs – they seem to be a gaggle of cast-offs, lost in some reverie.

Laurin has often stated that she relies on the energetic qualities of her interpreters, and in order to create her work, she grasps the uniqueness of each performer. This is true right from the first duet in which Robert Meilleur, having washed down from a spigot in a bleak stall, and now clad in his white briefs and black shoe-boots, starts marking his territory, pacing about indecisively. He comes upon the equally underwear-clad Chi Long (both these dancers were featured in the original production, though this time they play different roles), and with his arms starts cruelly jabbing the air around her, his hands flicking in front and around her face. What’s revealing – and riveting – is watching his control, or is it loss of control? And yet, as disturbing and as hateful as his movements get, she remains oblivious, very much in her own world. 

A note on the costumes: I was never crazy about the revealing white underwear worn by both the men and the women in the original production, and even less so today, but they do reinforce the overriding theme of discomfort of these emotionally stripped-bare characters. Later, the women (Brianna Lombardo, Long, Marie-Ève Nadeau, Gillian Seaward-Boone, Wen-Shuan Yang) switch into flowing black dresses, while the bare-chested men (Laurin-Ouellette, Meilleur and Sochasky) appear in dark slacks and vests.

Apart from visual flair and theatrical moments, some of the strongest movement sequences are the duets. Through these couplings, Laurin develops and deconstructs ideas of harmony and synchronicity. The choreography emphasizes partnering – whether the dancers carry one another, provide some other support or engage in full-throttle movement. Their coming together through movement packs a charge that derives specifically from the gestures. When Long told me in a recent interview that the energy of the piece is like “boiling water”, she captured in a very few words the essence of Laurin’s overall choreographic intention.

“La Chambre Blanche” is firmly rooted in a period that represents a bridge from Laurin’s purely physical, acrobatic pieces, which truly embodied the company’s name – vertigo – to a more conceptual phase in her career, where she’s created dance works with darker shadings and emotional subtlety.

At its inception, the troupe’s innovative character, the freshness and humour of its choreography, was a revelation, as was Laurin’s desire to challenge her dancers physically. What audiences connected with at the time was the speed and intensity, and a fearlessness that made the dance and the physical contact seem effortless. The off-balance loss of equilibrium and the physical risk that her dances displayed kept audiences glued to her every move. With simple gestures, gorgeous lifts and tilts, Laurin, the former gymnast and dancer, seemed to capture moments of genuine heart and soul. The hovering weightlessness that she achieved was startling and moving. Breathtaking jumps and catches where the dancers twist and turn in the air, where they fly up and roll over a partner’s shoulder, were highlights. But once she created that language, and after a number of memorable pieces, she wanted to explore meaning more deeply, or as she remarked at the time, “seeking some motivation underlying the gesture”.

In works like “La Chambre Blanche”; “Déluge” (1994), the next big work that followed, which saw Laurin revisiting great ends-of-the-world myths (a concept that she wasn’t able to pull off convincingly, and where set, costumes, scenic elements served more as accoutrement); “En dedans” (1998), with its cascade of almost secret, intimate gestures; or “Luna” (2001), where she incorporated Axel Morgenthaler’s oversized magnifying lenses to capture minute details of her dancers’ physiognomy, she set herself apart from many Montréal-based choreographers with dances stoked in the poetic, tracing the particularity of the individual interpreter, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. In more recent work, Laurin has embraced conceptualism and different ways of working, using installations and photo and video shoots, each time going deeper into the exploration of what’s under our skin. And while she has not totally succeeded in all her inquiries, her choreography remains the art of creating a poetic space. 

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