Bodies: Concrete, Multiple and Diffuse - Part 1 

By Megan Andrews, Philip Szporer, Marie Claire Forté
  • Transports Exceptionnels by Dominique Boivin / Photo by Thierry Jourdain 
  • Le grand continental by Sylvain Émard / Photo by Yves Médam  
  • Singular Sensation by Yasmeen Godder / Photo by Tamar Lamm 
  • Körper by Sasha Waltz & Guests / Photo by Bernd Uhlig 
  • H3 by Bruno Beltrao / Photo by Scumeck 
  • l'Orgie de la Tolérance by Jan Fabre / Photo by Jean-Pierre Stoop 
  • GravelWorks by Frédérick Gravel / Photo by Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup 
  • GravelWorks by Frédérick Gravel / Photo by Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup 
  • GravelWorks by Frédérick Gravel / Photo by Grouped’ArtGravelArtGroup 

Festival TransAmériques 2009 

Festival TransAmériques

Montréal  May 20-June 6, 2009 

Editor’s Note: For the 2009 edition of the Festival TransAmérique in Montréal, Philip Szporer, Marie Claire Forté and I each contributed impressions and reflections. Marie Claire was only able to attend a few shows, which happened to be the ones I could not. Between us, we’ve created a comprehensive two-part review of the festival offerings. I encourage readers to scroll through to find sections about the various works and artists (in bold) and to return to browse other sections. – MA

Bodies: Concrete, Multiple and Diffuse

Philip Szporer: The third FTA season is in full swing and it has grown and developed in notable ways: there is a generational shift, leaning towards a younger generation of artists; and based on the bunch of dance shows I’ve seen this edition, this year’s dance selections (the festival encompasses both theatre and dance) are inherently more dance- and body-based rather than theatre-infused.

Outdoor site-specific work is figuring large in this year’s programme, with France’s Beau Geste kicking off the event at the Old Port with “Transports Exceptionnels”, featuring Dominique Boivin and a mechanical shovel. I didn’t catch the performance but it was a hit with audiences. Apparently on Saturday afternoon hundreds upon hundreds of onlookers crowded together to see the action. A neighbour brought her family and reported back that they loved it because it was fun and accessible. I’ve seen this kind of thing before (check out Mitchell Rose’s dance/media work, “Deere John”, a duet for a dancer and a mechanical shovel for another take on the idea), and its success puts the pop back into popular entertainment.

An upcoming outdoor event is Sylvain Émard’s “Le grand continental”, combining contemporary dance and line dancing. Émard has been working with sixty-some line dancing enthusiasts, and when I bumped into him earlier in the week, he seemed absolutely content and excited about the project. Coming soon.

For one of the OFFTA events, I headed to Place des Arts’ esplanade to watch Milan Gervais’ collaborative work for three dancers and a car called “Auto-Fiction”. As an eager cluster of viewers waited, rain brought everything to a screeching halt, even before a dancer put a foot to the metal. Dancers on slick chrome is not a good idea. The next three days aren’t promising more than grey skies and showers, so this one might be headed nowhere fast. (Ultimately, bad weather and scheduling challenges prevented me from seeing the performance.) 

Megan Andrews: I arrived in Montréal on Friday May 22nd in time to attend the multidisciplinary, multi-performance event Microclimats. The concept, very much along the site-specific line you’ve already noted, offered a series of short performance works and installations in various spaces – from attic to scene shop – of Montreal’s famous turn-of-the-century theatre, Monument National. In some ways this program was a great warm-up to the festival, in part because between the micro-spectacles, I ran into various people I knew and was able to chat in line, catch up and start to feel connected to the scene.

At the press table, I received a schedule of the evening’s performances and a booklet with descriptions of each event. There were thirteen different events of varying lengths scheduled to run several times each over the course of three hours. None lined up; start times and end times overlapped or were flush with each other, leaving no time to navigate through the building and catch something if you really wanted to see it. I was advised to get a drink at the bar and make my plan. Well, so much for escaping everyday life at a theatrical event! I scheduled in the performances by artists I knew I wanted to see and headed for the 8:05 showing of a work by Antonija Livingstone and Caroline Dubois entitled “Petite Riviere”.

Having just seen Livingstone perform her exceptional solo, “The Part”, in Toronto, I admit I had expectations, but this work took a very different turn. More performance than dance, Livingstone and Dubois begin kneeling on the large worktable in the scene shop facing each other over a centerpiece of beautiful golden hand bells resting on a pink felt cloth, itself on a sheepskin. They wear peasant-style dresses with embroidered aprons over t-shirts and coloured stockings and socks. After a Boston Terrier stops barking in the office window high in the workshop wall, they don gardening gloves and begin. Beneath a metal mushroom-shaped lamp, which may have had a “sunlight” bulb in it, a chess-like game of rearranging the bells ensues, until they both take one in each hand and begin ringing them in turn toward each other. The tossing of tones back and forth crescendoes to a simultaneous and passionate climax of sound and then softly diminishes. During a section of sensual rolling and ecstatic arcing and reaching by each dancer on her own end of the table, a fellow in the audience pumps up a small air compressor and (possibly floral-scented) water sprinkles from the long wand onto the floor in front of the workbench. Four other men get up from their seats and take positions as couples embracing on the floor to one side. The work ends with a kneeling sequence in which each dancer folds a green felt cloth into various triangular shapes. The folding culminates in a distinctly phallic upward-curving form, which they draw between their legs and then push forward toward the arrayed bells, prostrating themselves as though in worship. Performed to an aural wash of nature sounds – birds and running water – and with obvious references to both female and male sexuality, the work suggests an odd fertility ritual. I think many in the audience left quite perplexed. The applause was thin.

Second on my “schedule” was an intimate performance created by Stéphane Gladysewski, known for his theatrical-technical magic specifically with light. The work, “Corps noir / annexe 2”, took place in a small vestibule off a main hallway and seated a very small group of about twenty-five spectators. We sit in pitch darkness until the figure of a woman in a coat is revealed lit as though in silhouette, just the edges of her form glowing softly. Black-out. Moments later, she reappears naked, moving in a projected illumination downstage left. Eventually she approaches a large deep freeze to the side of the space and takes out an orange. As she peels it, its flesh emanates incandescence. I am mesmerized by this subtle magic. She proceeds through a series of extreme and exposed poses with the orange, each of which is lit for a nano-second by a strobe flash of light from a live-operated lighting instrument running on rails between the two sides of the audience. The visual echo of the image persists on my retina until the next flash annihilates it and takes its place. Suddenly, in another flash we see a man has joined her and they move through a duet of which we only see moments illuminated – embraces, lifts, hair flying, skin glowing. I can’t imagine how they negotiated the movement in the thick blackness and such a tiny stage space. Later moments involve a blood red projection on the back wall along which the woman seems to ooze, the red catching only certain parts of her body: fingertips, edges of arms. To end, she simply walks diagonally upstage away from us and fades to nothing. At moments the room was exquisitely dark, like a light vacuum, a black hole. True vanishings occurred; it was a kind of outer space, the lit bodies appearing as celestial nebulae.

Of the other works I was able to catch, one other stood out: “Écoute pour voir” by Emmanuel Jouthe. Ten solo dancers populated the main second floor hall and foyer. Each wore earbuds and an MP3 player clipped to his or her pants. A second set of headphones shared the same source. As audience members walked through the space, they were invited by different dancers to don the headphones. At first I thought that the connected couples I saw were both dancers, given the interactions between them; however, I was soon invited and agreed to accept. It was a potent moment of uncertainty about what I was getting into. Once connected and listening to a heavy thrash rock song, I felt hugely pulled between just watching the dancer as she danced around me and wanting to respond and dance with her. Her gaze was incredibly compelling; she looked right at me and immediately I connected. I had to; there was no other option. Interpellated by her gaze, I immediately became a subject to her. I couldn’t help but smile and she smiled back. She started moving slowly, oddly seductive and then switching to a rock-star, air-guitar-playing style. She would circle me and I responded, circling around her; I was encumbered by my bag and jacket (and an injury) that ultimately prevented me from getting into it, which I may have done. I certainly felt the impulse to join in. I felt my skin tingle in anticipation of the unexpected; I really didn’t know what she would do, what chances she would take with me, how much of this was improvisation or how much set, whether she would read me accurately and respect my inability to respond… She did and eventually gestured toward the headphones, giving me the choice to conclude the encounter.

Later, I spoke with some colleagues who also experienced this and they were convinced it was not improvised, specifically because the dancers’ gazes were so very engaging and compelling. I wonder though, if the intent and gaze could be set but the movement improvised; surely they were choosing different songs to perform to throughout the night, since this particular “show” was continuous through the three hours. One colleague went back for four different dances with four different dancers. We laughed together about his being a “gourmand”, savouring this incredibly delectable experience of having a dance/dancer so intimately and specifically to oneself. There’s a “private dancer” experience embedded in this with sexual/seductive undertones, which were played upon through the use of gaze and the interactive/invitational mode of many of the performers in relationship. Ultimately I found it an excellent concept/experience that effectively played with risk, participation and relationship.

Though the scheduling of performances throughout the evening proved somewhat frustrating, particularly when certain shows started late or ran long, I did manage to catch a few other theatrical mini-shows. I was particularly pleased to see work by local artists; however, some pieces were rather stifled in this context, and the limited space meant that some audience members left without seeing what they’d come for. Overall, though, the Microclimats concept worked for me as an effective performance tapas preceding the festival’s full-evening works to come. 

PS: The modestly scaled “Singular Sensation” from Israeli Yasmeen Godder is a rush. The choreographer vividly embraces the tone and reflex of the times in a very urban piece. Performed in a loose, seemingly impromptu, though anything but improvised style, the dance captures all kinds of physical details – faces twist and grimace, tongues poke to the side, or flicker in hungry, lustful mockery. In other identity-forging moments, nylon stockings are peeled back, a dancer pierces her breasts (actually oranges artfully tucked into her brassiere) repeatedly with a knife, extracting juice, a dancer has his face shot with squirts of slick green paint, while another has the green gloop running down her inner thighs. The work is anything but sleazy, nor is it nihilistic or pretentious; what Godder captures is brutal, coarse and dissonant.

The performers of her Jaffa-based company move in distress or exaltation; their characters are jittery, and occasionally emotionally devastated. But forget any neo-realist leanings; “Singular Sensation” veers closer to super-hero design, with a heavy dose of interdisciplinarity. A spare white floor and large expansive rear wall partner the five dancers, and the layered sound score augments the experience. Ultimately the piece sputters and lags, but Goddard is a new voice with something to say.

MA: I’m glad you had a positive take on Godder’s work. I did too, though I know others who differed. I thought the stage floor was intriguing with its curved up sides; to me it looked like an elongated skateboard half-pipe. I was disappointed that the choreography didn’t play with its potential much. The dancers, in their eighties-retro costume pieces – a green velour dress, gold lamé items, athletic short-shorts, snakeskin pants, etc. – certainly do play however, in movement, with each other and with any number of various objects and materials as you’ve noted. To add to the list of items – many of which are used to adorn one of the men as a kind of awkward super-hero at a later moment: handfuls of spaghetti noodles (stuffed in a headband they become ears), swimming goggles, long plastic fingernail extensions, blinking bicycle lights, a plastic sheet (strung around his neck as a cape), and of course the red jellied salad transferred from plate to stage in which two dancers dive, squish, slip and slide in a hedonist frenzy toward the end of the work.

For me, the work walked a strong but uncomfortable line on the edge of control. The dancers moved in a mode of body release that became more and more uninhibited as the piece progressed. Hyperextension of limbs and torsos becomes a kind of emotion-less flailing as the dancers lurch their bodies in primal, pleasure-seeking impulses. The apathetic and disengaged emotional tone adds to the discomfort in a quest for instant gratification that never actually satisfies. Smacking oneself (e.g. in the opening male solo), and fleeting moments of humping and bumping (e.g. the women form a momentary threesome) are interspersed with bits and pieces of recognizable dance, a formal leg extension here, a technical jump there. Fleshy, messy, oozing, sticky excess. The piece functions at the border of the grotesque somehow, in the sense of extreme distortion. The Hebrew title of the work, “Achusheeling”, apparently translates as slang for “Wow”. But it’s ironic. Empty hyperbole. Someone suggested to me that the work was dated. Perhaps in a North American context, but Godder is an Israeli living in the throes of a political and cultural war in the Middle East. True, the work of renowned Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin has pushed similar boundaries before. Nonetheless, the piece worked on me effectively and I left the theatre feeling like my own flesh had been squished and pulled. 

PS: Well worth watching was Germany’s Sasha Waltz & Guest’s “Körper”. As the title suggests, the body is the thing, and as the abstract work progresses a series of memorable images remain: the cast of thirteen dancers, bare except for white briefs, are caught behind a massive encased pane of glass, sliding and slipping, squeezing past one another, creating a tangled pile of humanity; as a pile of saucers shakes and clatters, reminiscent of vertebrae, one dancer’s neck is theatrically snapped; performers grab folds of skin and carry each other around; a massive ten-metre black wall crashes to the ground, which indeed causes a stir. Scenes evolve, and occasionally one of the dancers recounts, in Pina Bausch-like style, tales pulled from the threads of their lives. The quiet moments are most affecting, for instance, a lone body looking out into the light, or a line of pale bodies gently rolling forward and back. Waltz first developed choreographic sketches in the then-new Jewish Museum in Berlin, designed by Daniel Liebeskind. Are these the stark images we recall from some Holocaust-ravaged dream, or are they a reflection of the passage of time and the unveiling of inner imagination? “Körper”, perhaps appropriately, ends abruptly with a blackout.

MA: Indeed, some of the images and events in Waltz’s work were spectacular. The falling wall (Berlin 1989?) being one of them. Another, the woman with braided hair extensions attached to the ends of two ten-or twelve-foot-long poles that she manipulated with her hands, spinning and swinging. The “s in-partnering” was also engaging, with the dancers using chalked hands to lift and flip each other. This was definitely a show and, at almost ten years old (the work premiered in 2000), the choreography proceeded like a well-oiled machine. Indeed, the soundscape by Hans Peter Kuhn, is most effective in creating a machine-like atmosphere with low rumblings, repetitive humming, clanging and banging that became almost deafening at times. Definitely industrial. The German language has two key words for body: körper and lieb (pronounced “libe”). Körper refers to the body as machine, the clinical, functional system, whereas, lieb accounts for the “lived body”, the fleshy, affective, perceiving, experiencing and relational body. Here, clearly, the emphasis is on the former; even in duets and group sequences the images and effects are of an emotionally neutral, mechanistic integration of parts.

The opening unison duet sets this up with the men’s robotic movement and back and forth manipulation of each other. They dance tightly along and around the wall, which has several openings through which hidden dancers’ various body parts – a leg, hands, a face – protrude and gesture. Alternately black-suited or in flesh-toned tops or bottoms, with a good amount of upper body nudity for both men and women, the exceptionally precise dancers execute scene after scene. Some involve intricate movement sequences and full-on dancing, while others are more theatrical in nature. The dancing is finely honed and controlled, generally rapid and exact, with complex and risky lifts and partnering, deftly articulated. In one more theatrical scene, two women enter with what looks like a steel tray of surgical instruments. They engage in a series of factual statements about how much a particular organ costs on the donor market, while slapping price tags on each others’ naked skin in the appropriate spots. A sequence follows in which suited dancers wring out naked dancers’ joints; hidden containers of water empty behind the action into strategically placed buckets. It’s a humorous moment.

In the first half, the scenes generally involve solos, duets and small groups whereas after the wall falls, the scenes develop in larger ensembles and we get a stronger sense of the machine of humanity. Images fly by and the mass of thirteen dancers marches in formation up and down the black-wall-become-gigantic flesh-toned ramp. In the end, a group of dancers line up one behind the other stage left and lie head to foot in a recessed section of the stage (they lift out floorboards). The pane of glass descends again and one dancer mirrors another on either side. And yes, then blackout as you have already noted. I could have resonated with the closing image just a moment longer. The end felt awkwardly abrupt to me, though as you say, appropriate. I wasn’t moved by the work, or kinaesthetically affected like I was with Godder’s piece, but likely this was not the intent with a work titled “Körper”. I was impressed by the scale and the dancers’ abilities. It was great to have the opportunity to see Waltz and Guests, though I did wonder why the festival director, Marie-Hélène Falcon, chose an older work. 

PS: Brazil’s Bruno Beltrao and his Grupo de Rua made a big impression on audiences. With nine energetic and fierce young men as movers, his “H3” had great promise. But it was hard to gauge how his version of hip-hop is revolutionary. Beltrao’s mission is to take hip-hop from the streets and make urban street dance an art form. Unfortunately, his choreographic ambitions run out of gas. We end up seeing repeated violence-tinged encounters, without much variation, and a more tender sequence between the boys is relatively fleeting. Nonetheless, watching these guys run at velocity speed, to and fro, you marvel at the quick-wittedness and the sheer daring of these fabulous young dancers.

MA: I too wondered about how Beltrao’s work revolutionizes this form, especially knowing some Canadian artists who have been querying breaking in a theatrical setting for a while, including Victor Quijada’s Rubberbandance Group from Montréal. Certainly the aesthetic of Beltrao’s work is different than Quijada’s, with more connection to the grit of the urban context than Quijada’s hybrid explorations of movement vocabulary combined with ballet and classical music. I wasn’t surprised by the general frame of “H3”. I did find some of the encounters between dancers to have emotional potential. The instantly aggressive competition-mode of the b-boy battle was modulated by a kind of physical/bodily patience; moments of waiting/listening before bursting into motion added sensitivity to the performer relationships. I also have to mention the fantastic backward running sequence. Partway through the piece, a lighting effect made the black dance floor into a glossy, reflective surface. The dancers launched themselves into a full-tilt run – backward – accumulating into a spiral form that was reflected by the floor. Eventually they exited one by one from this reverse vortex. Very cool. For sure the dancers were physically powerful. Their bow was confrontational: after their intense performance they stood in a line downstage, very close to the audience and as the applause filled the house, they continued to simply stand and stare out at us. It took a long time before they actually bowed and accepted the response. It was almost like they were waiting for a standing ovation. They received a partial one in the end. 

PS: A wank is a wank is a wank. In “l’Orgie de la Tolérance”, an absurdist series of sketches conceived, directed, choreographed and designed by Jan Fabre, so it goes. Known as a passionate and sensual theatre artist, with a penchant as a shock-meister, it’s possible even today to experience his perceived perversity kinesthetically. Some people around me were getting quite giddy, and I suspect liberated, from watching the brutality and the leering. For me, it just looked dated, a blast from the late seventies. I felt trapped in this retro vision. “Orgie”, for me, was an exercise in social pathology. It’s easy to view Fabre as a creep who gets off with self-righteous themes – no to rampant consumerism, and a rallying cry against racism. But why preach to the converted. More importantly, if Fabre is so fervently anti-racist – the dialogue is peppered with slanders against everyone, equally – and a supposed provocateur, why choose an all-white cast for this production?

His scenes roll on skillfully, but the content of the sketches is hooey. The opening sequence, where the performers are simulating masturbation in an extended (and so long it becomes boring) race to the finish, and the subsequent numerous copulations and dick fixations (dildos play large in the props, so do cigars and rifles, and occasionally we see a real dick or two), have no sensuality, and the beatings (with whips) are calculated in their ferocity. His characters lives’ are so mechanized it’s not even possible to discuss moral choice.

At times, Fabre uses easy humour – a Jesus Christ figure (replete with cross) is encouraged to use “JC” in order to become a top model. In the final scene, the audience let loose some well-deserved chuckles as everyone from the festival director to Fabre himself gets a “f-ck off” quip.

It’s a long night, and without any motivating emotion in the piece, the supposed driving narrative goes nowhere. The piece lusts for shock – the guy parading on all fours with the rifle up his ass is a novelty, and the woman who describes cutting herself in every possible place imaginable is chilling – but it’s all packaged like pop fantasy. The performers are uniformly excellent – committed, fierce, with a level of trust that kept me in my seat despite the litany of self-indulgent “atrocities” Fabre serves up.

Back to you, Megan.

MA: Phew, yes Fabre. The piece actually felt like it yelled “f-ck off’ at us right from the beginning. Not knowing what to expect and never having seen Fabre’s work live before, I felt shoved back in my seat from the get-go. I guess in-your-face is how he likes to work but in my experience, if you want to slap people around, shock them and provoke them, you have to draw them in first, encourage them to drop their defences and open up. The opening masturbation competition scene, with gun-toting, boot-wearing coaches egging their candidates on, just didn’t do that for me. Perhaps as you note, he’s going for more humour in this work, rather than images that complicate and problematize our experience of beauty as he has in other works. Granted, humour can provide a release and could prepare a similar state in viewers, but that was not my experience here.

I have to also admit that I’m not fond of text-based theatre so the “acted” scenes also functioned for me as a blunt instrument (talk about getting hit over the head … ). An effective scene involved “pregnant” women perched on their shopping carts giving birth – with agonizing yells – to various commodities including pasta, canned goods, candy, beer and a miniature couch, all of which land with a metallic thud in the bottom of the carts. The miniature couch got a laugh. The set comprises dark leather armchairs, couches and side tables with bottles of scotch and floor lamps that suggest an aristocratic gentleman’s, colonial-era study. Earlier in the work, in one of many similar scenes, two men thrust the bottom edge of one of the large leather couches between a woman’s legs while she convulses, moans and cries out: “give me a baby”. Later, the cast enters with shopping carts and a kind of grocery-store ballet ensues, to an orchestral ballet score. Shaded in cool blue light, there was something both alien and familiar in this scene that I appreciated, besides the fact that it was “dancing” not “acting”.

You’ve already mentioned all the racial slurs peppered throughout. I recall a scene early on in which the men sit around smoking cigars and talking about different peoples as though they are assessing specimens for their personal “art” collections. It made me think about the “pathology” of ownership, novelty and display that underlie the act of collecting in general. Fabre may be preaching to the converted in this setting, but we’re all implicated in some way too.

I absolutely agree about the performers; fierce and committed are excellent words. They certainly deserved the standing ovation, if the work didn’t entirely convince. I too felt aspects of it were dated, including some of the references. I understand it’s still in process to some degree and tours throughout the rest of this year. I wonder if/how much it will change. 

I’ll make my comments about GravelWorks here before I pass it back to you. I was looking forward to this work, in part because I’ve heard about Frédérick Gravel and company’s somewhat deconstructed approach to performance. This work, presented at Theatre Prospero, was an amalgamation of a series of shorter works with “La section neuve” added toward the end. I know this, we all do, because Gravel himself mc’s the entire performance from a microphone on the raised stage at the back of the space where the “band” is located, drum kit, laptop/electronic array, guitars and all. The work opens with the seven performers crossing the stage in horizontal corridors in various pedestrian and exaggerated walks, à la Groucho Marx among others. They’re in their skivvies and t-shirts. One by one they approach the mic: “Bonsoir. Je m’appelle Frédérick Gravel. Je suis hétérosexuel et je danse.” Each takes the mic and repeats this same statement, using Gravel’s name. This is happening while the audience takes their seats. Eventually they put on their pants and hang around the sides of the space, taking the stage for a series of vignettes and scenes/dances. With not enough space to enumerate them all, I will mention a few that stayed with me.

Gravel announces before a scene that they are going to proceed with a series of “poses dramatiques”. He fools with the homonym “pauses dramatiques” making a couple of humorous plays on words with his characteristic nonchalance and hint of self-consciousness. Then they begin. The dancers run to specific spots in the space and take an extreme position, for example face down, butt up, nose squished to the floor, or contorted against a wall. One guy leans hard up against the back door of the theatre (it’s a simple black box) and the door swings open, he falls onto the concrete step outside and we feel the breeze blowing in. While the dancers hold their positions, one of the musician performers plays a short Chopin Nocturne on an old-school cassette deck that he sets on the floor in various places. When the music ends, the procedure repeats, with Gravel announcing each “pose” numerically from the mic: “Pose numéro un”, etc., After “pose numéro six” (I think), the scene ends with no further ado and another scene commences. In an abrupt duet, a woman jumps with legs spread onto the guy’s hips over and over, each time more aggressively than the last. In a solo by Gravel, he eats a bag of fries while running on the spot accompanied by a musician on trumpet playing a Spanish-sounding tune. In between, Gravel offers anecdotes about the work, more plays on words (some of which I missed because of the nuance in French), and the band (who participate in most of the movement scenes also) sometimes plays a tune or two, with or without an accompanying movement scene.

Okay, I’ve gone on and on. In the end, I really enjoyed this evening, though some scenes worked better than others. Gravel’s frank and informal tone, both in his mc-ing and in his composition of performance elements was – dare I say it – refreshing. The final scene, in which the band plays and a woman enters naked to gesture limply in the almost-morning light was quite beautiful. Gradually, Gravel and the other musician exit, leaving a single fellow playing a folk-rock tune on guitar as the lights fade. There’s a nostalgic quality to the end that makes me think of youth and age and having had a good time.

So – your thoughts on this and subsequent evenings? 

PS: Before I jump into the Gravel show, I just want to comment, albeit briefly on the Sylvain Émard participatory (in the sense of community activity) outdoor event “Le grand continental”. The same reliable neighbour who raved about Dominique Boivin’s poetic dance with a ground shovel told me she was really moved to tears watching the rows of sixty-six non-professional line dancers of different ages, from twelve to sixty-eight, some of them toting cowboy hats, doing their thing on Rue Emery. Conflicting schedules of the OffTA and the FTA kept me away from this show, but my source, who likes dance but rarely goes to shows, was shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of the curious in the crowd. Apparently, at the end of the thirty-minute show, the mass of happy onlookers was asked to join in, and based on the enthusiastic capsule review I received, a rousing, down-home experience, with couples swooning to Patsy Cline, was had by all.

For the record, Émard was immersed in social dance growing up in Montréal’s east-end. Church basements were the hub of these activities, and he’s said that’s where he began line-dancing. I’m thrilled that Émard didn’t cast this dance form as something lesser to contemporary dance, because as far as I’m concerned anyone’s fascination with moving needs to be embraced. To mark the occasion, rather than focus on the feet, which facilitate the quick changes necessary for line-dancing routines, Émard’s embellishes the standard, by engaging other parts of the body, craftily giving this social dance a more contemporary standing. 

Frédérick Gravel’s “GravelWorks” has a different take on democracy. His work, in general and this project more specifically, attempts to cultivate human immediacy, connecting and communicating with audiences in his work. Gravel is an intelligent guy, and as you mention, his stage persona/presence is likeable because of his innate wit and overall smarts. Outrage isn’t part of his vocabulary. Intellectualizing, in his case, also means serving up equal measures inspiration and frustration. Beyond the work just wanting to communicate something to an audience, and therefore moving past the first level of democratizing performance, a larger question looms: why are these dancers up there performing in front of a crowd of people, and what are they really saying? 

Clearly, in delivering a live rock music/dance show, he’s grabbing people who may not feel compelled to see a contemporary dance piece. He and his bandmates are serving up a kind of hedonistic, ersatz rock, and his pastiche sound (some at high decibels) is popular and generally celebratory, though he does reference a slew of other musical idioms. His commentary – his verbal runs that you refer to – speaks to people who are looking to understand and analyze the work, and give doses of complexity to the piece, but the layperson won’t be running screaming for the exit. The performers don’t get any closer to the public than necessary – the closest they come is a still-safe distance of a few inches or feet, and gives the illusion of padding. Their having a drink on stage at intermission heightens the possibility that audiences might feel they are closer to them. 

The movement quality of “GravelWorks” varies from tableau to tableau, but I wasn’t taken by what the dancers were dancing, as much as by the energy they invested in the various segments. For instance, when dancer Francis Ducharme opens that alleyway door, and falls out head-first, it’s unexpected and garners a huge laugh. It’s that kind of uncommonly witty, well-crafted sight gag that makes the show appealing. His group sections pulse with the pure physicality of group: we see them run this way, then that, or they shift direction and start again. We see them fall, or a woman hurtle up into a man’s arms. Another section, with Ducharme hoisting Ivana Milicivec by the crotch with his forearm and parading her this way and that, underlines some power politics. The interplay between men and women is also revealed in a section in which Ducharme, with his long shaggy hair cascading over his face, is sandwiched between dancers Lucie Vigneault and Jamie Wright. He shifts his gaze from one to the other, apparently in control. But his cocksure stance is shaken as he attempts to rub up real close to one, then the other, but never quite gets to home base. Little by little, the women open up the space between them and Ducharme, much to his consternation and confusion, grunts “hein”, several times. Eventually he is left flailing about in a self-imposed maelstrom. 

The tasks in any of the sections seem to be clearly indicated, and followed through. The action is minimal, but there is clarity to the positions the dancers attain. Gravel flirts with the concept of “we” – in the sense of his collective – but through his presence he assumes an authority, albeit a quiet, sometimes awkward, authority over the proceedings. Seeking immediacy, being in the moment (the French fries sequence is perfect, and when he can’t quite swallow, we all can acknowledge and accept his momentary limitations), Gravel is engaging and confronting conceptual ideas and patterns. Because he works in relatively small bites of disjointed, seemingly unpolished material, he plays against expectations, nor is there any building of anticipation over the course of the show, as perhaps it would be possible to do in a more linear, traditional show. But “GravelWorks”, running at two hours, was an hour too long, and the sprawl of the show compromises his best intentions. 

Please see Part 2: thedancecurrent.com/review/bodies-concrete-multiple-and-diffuse-part-2

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