Collaborate or Perish 

By Kathleen Smith, Philip Szporer, Megan Andrews, Kaija Pepper
  • Heart As Arena by Dana Gingras of Animals of Distinction / Photo by Yannick Grandmont 
  • Sous la peau, la nuit by Danièle Desnoyers/Le Carré Des Lombes / Photo by Luc Senecal 
  • En attendant by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker of Rosas / Photo by Anne Van Aerschot 
  • Benoît Lachambre and Clara Furey in their own work Chutes incandescentes/ Photo by Francis Ducharme 
  • Goodbye by Mélanie Demers / Photo by M Doyon 

Festival TransAmériques 2012

ROSAS, Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker, Clara Furey & Benoît Lachambre, Animals of Distinction, Le Carré des Lombes, Mélanie Demers

Montréal  May 24 – June 9, 2012 

Against a backdrop of daily student protests and nightly casseroles gatherings, the sixth edition of the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) unfurled recently at various downtown Montréal venues.

Loosely galvanized around themes of protest and collaboration, the festival offered a tight schedule of international theatre and dance, a handful of Canadian co-production premieres (more so perhaps than in past years) and, in the festival tradition, lots of panels, discussions, artist talks and parties. This year the FTA also collaborated with the Canadian Society for Dance Studies conference co-hosting the keynote presentation with writer MJ Thompson and dance artist Louise Lecavalier as well as a series of panel discussions on May 31st, day one of the conference. With a diverse range of paper presentations, roundtable discussions and workshops and continuing at the UQAM Dance Pavilion from June 1st through through 3rd, the conference lent depth to the discourse around cooperative creative practices and processes.

As with past FTA editions, there were some international dance superstars on hand – most notably this year Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker of Rosas from Brussels. She presented two works, both co-commissioned by the FTA and premiered at the Avignon Festival in France and both featuring medieval ars subtilior music and vocal work.

En attendant was presented at Usine C, where the fading light of day (the piece was originally conceived to be performed outside as the day’s light turns to dusk) was approximated. Its bookend at FTA was Cesena, which began in darkness onstage in the cavernous Théatre Maisonneuve at Place des Arts. We could hear the voices and the thuds of bodies running and moving but had to strain to see anything. Over time, the light came up on dancers singing and vocalists from the collective graindelavoix performing the story of the medieval town of Cesena in Italy and the religious massacres that took place there in 1377. Writes Philip Szporer: “[De Keersmaeker] uses the dissonant, contrasting polyphonic music from the 14th century (think of the period’s fragmenting wars and the plague as the music’s source material), to incite the dialogue between music and dance. The voices feel like they capture the weight and humanity stretching across the centuries in a timeless fashion, and the sheer physicality of the dancing reverberates within De Keersmaeker’s rigorously constructed repetition and minimalism.”

En attendant and Cesena were further informed by a daytime discussion, moderated by Szporer, with De Keersmaeker and Björn Schmelzer, an ethnomusicologist, founder of the experimental vocal collective graindelavoix and De Keersmaeker’s collaborator on this work. The hour-long session was hugely insightful and covered topics as diverse as the hierarchies of vision and hearing, compositional tools (“the magical square”) and walking as dance. As at any festival, there was a wide range of social, educational and performance possibilities at FTA (and at OFF T.A., its concurrent alternative festival) – there were hits and misses and everything in between. But the De Keersmaeker double bill and the session with Schmelzer is the kind of thing that FTA does especially well.

Here’s a focussed collection of reviews and responses to the Canadian work presented from regular Dance Current writers who were in attendance at the Festival and conference. Daniel Léveillé’s new work Solitudes Solo was also on our list for review but due to multiple injuries the premiere was cancelled. A showing at the Agora de la danse in September will, if all goes well, now launch the work.

Dreams and Visions
Chutes incandescentes by Benoît Lachambre and Clara Furey
Agora de la danse: May 25–27, 2012
By Philip Szporer

When two disparate voices and bodies share a stage, the challenge is to see how these individual’s worlds coalesce, collide, or simply drift apart. Such is the dilemma watching Benoît Lachambre and Clara Furey’s Chutes incandescentes, produced by Lachambre’s Par.b.leux company, where the two performers are presented as kindred spirits and collaborators. In this dance-concert offering contrasting states of the human soul, Lachambre and Furey are a compelling if uneven and, sometimes, disconcerting match.

They purport to have a mentor/mentee relationship and they seem to be happy in each other’s company. Lachambre has built his reputation in recent years on his highly articulated internal research, in terms of breath, organs, muscle and bone, and watching his quiet eruptions is riveting. It’s the kind of distillation that’s set him apart from many performers. Lachambre has some memorable moments in this piece: his body is soft, never hurried or violent, a vessel of meditative invention and discovery. In one entrancing solo section, his piercing blue eyes glisten and his torso awakens with an incremental rise and fall, his arms wide, his feet rhythmically tapping. By his side, Furey is an eager participant. She’s a talented young woman, with a strong command of music and keyboards, and a dark and stylish Portishead feel to her voice. No slouch in the creation department, she writes her own material, in English and in French, recalling tales of death and destruction. These are delivered with a halting whisper or a plaintive cry. Furey is committed to what she’s doing, and she certainly knows how to stoke her presence in a performance. She has an amazing face, shifting effortlessly from a softer femininity to a harsher male gaze. The two artists approach the intimate performance as if still settling into a new environment. Furey moves well enough, but that’s not the pull here, her musicianship is; Lachambre is backup singer, with his slight, frequently off-key, voice. Giving resonance to the proceedings is the uncredited (at least in the program) lighting design by Lucie Bazzo, which adds significant depth, deftly framing the stage, and adding another layer of connective tissue to the piece.

Lachambre has taken great pains to supply a back-story in the difficult to parse program notes. He cites warrior monkeys, demon kings and nocturnal awakenings. Here’s a snippet: “He dreams. His sleep crackles with the fire of desire and the anger that fuels the pages of Ramayana, the tale of the tribulations of the Hindu prince Rama. She is his voice, his flesh, his vision, his cinematographer.” And there are further references to rabbinical chanting and more, but all these mystical, ceremonial references and poetic meanderings are confusing, if not misleading. If it provides guidance and meaning to Lachambre and Furey, great; to me, as an engaged observer, it adds up to precious little. I want them to skip all the purportedly authoritative sourcing, and just dive right in to the performance.

Incidentally, this piece was initially conceived as a solo showcase for Furey. An injury just before last year’s FTA cancelled those performances. Since then, Lachambre came into the onstage mix, ostensibly as a “complementary figure”, her echo. Further explanation suggests he was present to help Furey schlep her piano across the stage on numerous occasions. Given Lachambre’s immense abilities, and for all his generosity and willingness to disappear into a more secondary role, he doesn’t ever ever achieve that kind of invisibility. Truth is, in this performance, it feels like the duo are still tuning the nuances of their collaboration. 

What is the Frequency?
Heart As Arena by Dana Gingras/Animals of Distinction
Agora de la danse: May 29–31, 2012
By Kathleen Smith

Images of cardiac arrest and heart massage punctuate Heart As Arena, the latest work from Dana Gingras and her Animals of Distinction project. Over the course of seventy minutes, the cast of five – Sarah Doucet, Amber Funk Barton, Masaharu Imazu, Dana Gingras and Shay Kuebler – fall, recover and live to die another day. Gingras’ heart motifs and metaphors are repeated liberally in this danced essay about the most important muscle in the human body – its nature and mechanics, its power and vulnerability. This is a heartfelt concept with great potential and Gingras (formerly one half of Holy Body Tattoo) definitely has the chops to pull off a fast-paced and exciting series of variations on the theme.

The dance takes place under a circular suspension of transistor radios. The installation – created by Anna Friz who has also devised a terrific sound design that explores ideas of transmission/reception, electromagnetic currents and interference – suggests a kind of force field under which the dancers act as antennae, attuned to it and to each other. The choice of music – from Maria Callas and Georges Delarue interpreting arias from Norma to international pop songs in Thai and Spanish – is so strong that it seems to be driving the choreography, a dynamic that may have been intended but that starts to feel unbalanced as the work progresses.

Transistor radios remain a theme in some of the more successful scenes – in one, Imazu saunters onstage and pulls out a bigger louder transistor than any of his colleagues’. That comic moment of competitiveness devolves into a full-blown cockfight between Imazu and Kuebler, with Gingras serving as a referee who pushes both men repeatedly to the ground. It’s physical and funny.

In another memorable sequence, the cast line up against the back wall, lit from behind so they are outlined with light. As the score becomes vaguely Southeast Asian, their slow-paced movements acquire an epic feeling, as if they are superheroes slowly advancing on the audience.

In another, Doucet enters with a heart-shaped balloon and the other dancers collapse and fall to the ground or have sudden seizures. Later, Doucet also performs one of the lovelier solos, on her knees, twisting her torso, arms and neck all around.

Heart As Arena is full of inventive, well-performed moments like these that grab your attention. This makes it all the more frustrating when, taken as a whole, the dance falls strangely flat, failing to achieve momentum and fully thrive. While beautifully suggestive, Gingras’ diverse choreographic and scenic elements feel not yet fully rendered in terms of their relationship to each other. They may need a stronger dramaturgical hand or an extended refinement process in order to achieve a perfectly beating and coherent whole. 

Too Much In the Shadows
Sous la peau, la nuit by Danièle Desnoyers/Le Carré Des Lombes
Usine C: June 2–4, 2012
By Megan Andrews

It’s hazy in here and very dim. Clack, clack, clack, clack. Three women enter upstage left, side-by-side in high-heeled shoes. Knees bent, and shifting left, heels-toes, heels-toes, clack, clack.

They look stylish in knee-length skirts and tops. I briefly think: cabaret dancers? In silence (save the clack of their shoes), they advance toward us, and retreat. Their released weight creates a rhythm, implies a strut – and with it their self-conscious display of women’s bodies. Runway sexy. Step touches reiterate the cabaret dancer image. They move into slow motion. Three men in black suit pants and shirts join the women and couples form to piano music that hints at ragtime.

A low drumming rumble builds. Shoulders thrust and bodies pulse and torque in sculpted spirals. The rhythm echoes the heel-toe shift from the opening. A bass pulse rises and blue floor lights line the space, creating a present-day, club-like atmosphere. An ocean of dancing develops. Big jumps, kicks, extensions and phrases that radiate, glide and toss. The technical skill of the dancers – Tal Adler Arieli, Karina Champoux, Paige Culley, Bernard Martin, Pierre-Marc Ouellette and Anne Thériault – shows through here.

“When I began my research I was working on movement, movement and more movement,” Desnoyers says in the program notes. “Once that was done, I wanted to make the movement speak … and my dance work suddenly became more emotional than in recent years.” Well here it is – a whole section of honest-to-goodness technical dancing – though, to me, this particular section unfortunately didn’t say much.

Alone upstage, a woman in heels and pants gyrates, postures and swaggers. A man enters, circles and grabs her by the front waistband. She releases back, his stiff arm holding her. Another man approaches to sandwich the woman between them. Not sexy now, sexual – and the woman passive between their thrusting. Dream? Nightmare? Desire?

Non sequitur. Enter a cigarette girl in red hot pants and heels. Her tray turns out to be a miniature Casio piano. A campy duet develops with one of the men: he lies on the ground and she manipulates his legs to support her in various poses. Her doe-eyed look toward the audience completes the humorous scene.

Despite her outward gaze, there is something closed about this work; these performers seem hermetically sealed inside this dance. I see them moving, but it doesn’t touch me. [Though it’s fair to ask, is that the dance, or is that me?] A male solo returns us to big, expansive dancing but it’s somehow flat; it strikes me as a concert routine. What’s the connection? I ponder as I watch the final section: dancers in sock feet, performing in silence until a big show tune and strobe lights carry us to the end, the final notes of the work – an effective denouement – delivered on the Casio piano.

Desnoyers is an established creator, with a history of movement-based explorations with sound, including the acclaimed Duo pour corps et instruments (2003). In her most recent works she has re-committed to movement and the body as primary source material. There certainly was dancing here (an overabundance), as well as a deliberate interplay with sound choices (sound design by Julien Lanthier, music by Nicolas Bernier and others). In the program, Desnoyers comments on having a “desire for meaning, a desire to touch people”. Like in a dream, various images rise to the surface and remain vivid in their daylight decay. However, for me, the meaning in this work remained too much in the shadows – under the dance’s own skin as it were. 

This is not the show
Goodbye by Mélanie Demers 
Agora de la Danse: June 6–8, 2012
By Kaija Pepper

“What do you think?” The question, asked in both English and French, is key to Mélanie Demers’ bilingual dance-theatre piece, Goodbye. The four performers demand a response from the audience several times, as if to jolt us into thoughtful interaction with the singing, dancing and ranting presented on stage.

Clearly Demers does not want a passive audience, though on opening night when a few brave souls responded, their comments weren’t exactly welcomed: the performers just sat and gazed calmly out at us, instead of acknowledging and perhaps even improvising from the responses. Admittedly, people mostly shouted simple affirmations, such as “Chantes encore, Jacques.”

This was directed to Jacques Poulin-Denis, who, along with Brianna Lombardo, Chi Long and Demers, gave an engaging, cabaret-style performance. Some of Long’s faux-operatic singing wore a little thin, though she oozes such beautiful grace and gravitas throughout it seems churlish to complain. And Poulin-Denis’ physical and vocal tantrums as he wrestles with the Beatles’ lovesick lament, “Oh, Darling” (in which the lover wails: “I’ll never make it alone”) were excessive. But when he was truly inside the song and inside the dance – genuinely performing, not just goofing around – Poulin-Denis was a charmer.

The expressive dance is mostly made up of needy duets: couples clutch each other, then crumple and fall. In a way, each duet is like a rehearsal for the real thing: for the real dance (the one that isn’t so clumsy and tense) or the real romantic connection (the one where you don’t leave or say goodbye). It’s as if another line repeated throughout – “This is not the show” – is physically manifested in movement.

More choreographic development would have added welcome layers. Long and Lombardo’s grappling, groping duet, for instance, which comes later in the piece, seems more of the same. The section does carry a new, provocative edge, but this comes from the stage business accompanying it – Poulin-Denis stroking a large knife at the side of the stage. In other words, the movement in Goodbye wasn’t as inventive as the theatricality or even the costuming, such as the tin-foil skirt in which Long opens the evening.

Demers, who danced with O Vertigo before founding her own company, Mayday, in 2007, is not yet a rigorous director-choreographer. But her instinct for provocation is gutsy. In addition to needling the audience to speak out, there are scenes of emotionally distant, physically intense sex and also of foolish tenderness (Poulin-Denis offers his breast to Demers, who suckles). These are only two examples of challenging material that seem designed to leave us as off-balance as the dance.

At the end, cutting short rousing applause from the audience, Demers read a passionate manifesto for social action, evoking the student demonstrations happening outside on the street. The shame was that we left engaged in the politics of protest; however worthy, this undercut the theatre we had just witnessed, which had its own vital political, philosophical and aesthetic concerns. My belle-soeur and I left discussing the demos instead of Goodbye, though we did get to that, too, eventually. 

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