Dancing, Death & Narcissism 

By Philip Szporer
  • Daniel Firth / Photo by Stephane Corriveau 
  • Daniel Firth / Photo by Stephane Corriveau 


Estelle Clareton

Montréal  March 12-15, 2003 

Estelle Clareton, one of Québec’s up-and-coming choreographers, sets up an inspired theatrical premise early on in her new work, “Monsieur”, the first in a planned triptych focussing on men. A packed house, anxiously awaiting the premiere of this solo work for dancer Daniel Firth, is told that the star of the show is late due to unforeseen circumstances. The audience begins to rumble, little snatches of conversation between people questioning how can this be, this has never happened before, etc. After about four minutes of this flare up, Firth bursts into the theatre in street clothes, toting a gym bag, looking menaced and a bit shame-faced.

Music starts, he’s in a spotlight, and you realize you’ve been had. But it’s a clever device, and it works. After he’s spent a few stage minutes taking off street clothes, putting on other socks, taking them off, rifling through the bag, Firth moves centre stage and signals to the technician to cut the music. “Excuse me, I’m late,” he announces to the audience. “I forgot my shoes as well,” he says. He explains his dilemma. He’s got a headache. Earlier in the afternoon, hed been drinking beer and watching the football game. And he fell asleep. He’s dashed here, he says, but he’s not warmed up. A bit of comic Charles Aznavour music plays as he runs about in a circle, defined on the stage with blue markings, almost like a running track. He does the same running routine a little later to “Where Do I Begin?”, sung by Shirley Bassey. Firth talks about how he’s set his sights for his career on having a residency at the Agora de la danse. He tells us a few biographical details: he’s danced since 1985. He’s thirty-four years old. He’s always been told that he’s a fluid and volatile mover. His theatricalized stand-up monologue evolves, Firth bathed in the spotlight. The audience laps it up, chuckling, eyes wide open.

We’re not used to seeing Firth so up front and confrontational. This is not as he’s appeared in the past, in his ‘normal’ stage persona. At one point he grabs a microphone and breaks into rap. “I’m a homosexual. I’m thin,” he rails. Suddenly, the backbeat stops, and he looks up, and with full irony exclaims, “They never said it would be easy.”

Up until this point, the dance and movement sequences are limited primarily to the running around the track. His autobiographical ranting and raving is more engaging, but goes on too long. Ultimately his stories are not that entrancing, so when he blurts out, “I’ll probably finish my life alone,” we’re not saddened or too disturbed, but at the same time, we can’t help but agree that this self-involved boy-man is probably right.

Firth’s early background was in gymnastics, classical ballet and modern dance, and he’s been an integral member of Montréal Danse for a decade, working for over fifteen choreographers. “Monsieur” marks the fourth time he’s worked with Clareton (she has created a number of dances in the Montréal Danse repertoire). 

If theatricality is Clareton’s oxygen, her passion for theatre - direction, words - overwhelms her dance sense. When Firth starts yapping about looking forward to death, interest really begins to wane, particularly since cynical posturing about death for someone so young is an easy stance. The urgency of living and dying, at least if we consider the politics of the day, makes this kind of theatrical ranting seem terribly anemic, hardly a gutsy examination.

Death by measures has figured prominently in Clareton’s work for some time. Metaphorically and literally, dancers die a little bit every day in very unflashy ways - pain, injury, rejection, dejection, poverty, depression, stress disorders, paranoia, alcoholism - you pick the syndrome, or the spiraling disintegration of the dancing body. Her own injuries while dancing for Ginette Laurin’s O Vertigo company forced her to reconsider her career path. In a duet for two women, “Cest à 30 ans que quoi déjà?”, which premiered last fall with local actress Manon Brunelle and herself as the performers, the on-going fascination with aging and death seemed more posture than prescience.

Nihilistic, narcissistic, the pacing of these theatrical musings doesn’t quite gel, because, as statements they dont build up dramatically, and therefore seem inconsequential. When the dancing does start, “Monsieur” doesnt get much better. Clareton is becoming a master of the theatrical gesture, but I hesitate to call it choreography. The overall construct of the piece just isn’t there, even if some of the more static material is intriguing. The signs and signifiers in her vocabulary - fingers pointing, palms forward - are an ambiguous display.

The stage goes black and we hear Firth and Clareton backstage, mic-ed in muted tones. He’s sounding distinctly petulant, moaning about something or other, and she is giving him some kind of instruction. When the lights come up, the set (by Guillhaume Lord) becomes our focus. An open-sided metal cube, it’s used in one extended section as a boxing ring. Firth comes through the curtains into the stage area in boxing gear - satin gown, shorts, big bulbous red gloves - but he’s no boxer. His punches lack, well, punch. He’s a pugilistic lightweight - he can float like a butterfly, but he’s got no sting. In fact, the boxing outfit seems a device just to tempt the audience with Firth’s buff bod. His cut, compact torso and abs are well-defined, and Martin Labreque’s lighting helps accentuate the definition. Male iconography obviously interests both Clareton and Firth, but the movement material doesn’t reveal much, or develop anything new in this area.

Billed as a solo, it’s a bit of a surprise when Clareton, in a lovely shift dress, enters the cube and starts to dance a duet with Firth. It’s a romantic coupling, set to the hypnotic music of the great Brazilian ‘tropicalisto’ Caetano Veloso. The bodies pulse and twist; there are lots of interesting technical bits full of muted desire and understated pleasure. However, in these sections, Clareton inadvertently steals Firth’s spotlight, upstaging him. She’s the more interesting dancer - her desire is more potent, her lines and beauty more defined. After their duet, she moves about the stage, but to no real end - and for those not able to identify Clareton, they’re left wondering who this woman is, and why she springs up and then disappears. More importantly, after all is said and done, it’s hard to understand what Clareton, the choreographer, is living and experiencing through Firth’s eyes. Perhaps they both share a worn and fatigued feeling about dance, and that whatever it once embodied in them has vanished.

After Clareton departs the scene, Firth moves through some more sign language, rolls his head and neck, angles his body, ripples and wriggles it for the umpteenth time, and finally melts into a cross-legged, forward-bending position, shadowed by darkness, and enveloped in the nothingness of what surrounds him. Reflecting back on his nihilistic ranting and expectation that he’ll end up all alone - isn’t this what he reviled all along? 

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