Devious Spine Chills

Hélène Blackburn and Lucie Bazzo’s Suites Ténébreuses / The Monsters By Xdzunúm Danae Trejo-Boles
  • Photo courtesy of Cas Public

October 4-6, 2019, Agora de la danse, Montréal

There was a soft calmness to the dark theatre space of Agora de la danse as a mixed audience entered to see Cas Public’s Suites Ténébreuses / The Monsters, co-created by choreographer Hélène Blackburn and lighting designer Lucie Bazzo. This family-friendly show was visually ensnaring, enveloped in twilight with luminous knick-knacks littering the stage, on which five dancers were plunged into a quest to uncover lingering childhood fears with aggressively energetic expressions of physical flair, contrasted with restraint and sombre grace. On the left were the three musicians of the band Dear Criminals (Frannie Holder, Vincent Legault and Charles Lavoie), fidgeting quietly as two dark-clothed men appeared and disappeared into the gloom while innocently collecting colourful glowing rabbits scattered in mysterious configurations around the stage. 

As I enter the space and my eyes adjust, I notice how, one by one, the bunnies are dropped into a bag held by a very tall man (Jaym O’Esso) on bionic stilts. The only sound is the silly creaking of his long strides, which he takes with an authoritative air. When we’re seated, Marjolaine Leray’s minimalist graphics of monster sketches (some of which are better at being scared than being scary) pop up, moving relatively slowly on an angled screen stage right. After a moment, dark figures pour out from different sides of the stage. They stand in their places for less than a second when a blast of sound and movement breaks the elegance of the gloom with an astonishing display of precise and speedy action. It’s a direct contrast to the rudimentary animations and the melancholy sounds of airy voices.

Blackburn and Bazzo’s collaboration was evident from the start with the highly orchestrated aspects of the set and lighting in such lively dialogue with the choreography. The attempt to decipher who or what is directing the action is useless, as sharp spotlights illuminate a series of sequences where the dancers execute angular arm gestures juddering in front of their stoic facial expressions. Triangular formations give a sense of depth as the performers make brief but extremely dense arrays of direct and repetitive motions, stopping dryly as soon as a sudden switch of light draws our attention elsewhere. Perfectly timed subtle costume changes suggest the appearance of a king, a princess and a company of attendants. 

The set becomes more vivid as illuminated details steer our attention with a little mechanical glowing ball (patrolling the stage all on its own) and highlights of glowing ruffs. Throughout, there are animations intended for the very youngest of the crowd, but it was difficult to see the relationship between the visuals and the physical action. This connection was clear, however, in the rest of the technical and visual components, such as the interplay of light beams rhythmically echoing and triggering the performers. 

The most peaceful and illusive section of the work features books that, when opened, illuminated the faces of their readers. The soft gleam of the pages reveal curious facial expressions, and what we see are not letters and pretty pictures in written fables, but hungry eyes; the book exposing the story of the reader and not the other way around. I don’t often see rhythm in lighting in such a playful and deliberate way. I’m reminded of lighthouses, Morse code signals and fireflies. 

Ultimately, the neutral aesthetic and technical perfection of the scenography and costumes, together with the minimalist electronic songs of Dear Criminals were too reminiscent of modern life and visual culture to sprout the imagination. There were too many distracting elements. Kids probably take all of this much more lightheartedly, but I question the urge to direct fantasy. In this world, everything was already defined, and the almost total frontality of the dancers made us a kind of prisoner of their actions. They were not the kind of monsters I expected to find, or the kind of mysterious space I associate with fear, but there were definitely demons entrapped in a seemingly emotionless void. The change of mood that came with a rave-like section at the end continued to be controlled and contained, but little smiles revealed some life within the repeating dance moves, forcefully pumping arms and jostling legs.

Many aspects of the choreography would not be easy to explain to a child – perhaps they don’t need to be – but this is something I admire in Blackburn’s motives. She trusts that these storyless, complex movement propositions could interest children’s curiosity without any didactic additions. Considering the type of audience that it was intended for, bold choices were made, such as a duet between male dancers Cai Glover and Danny Morissette, who were clothed only from their waist to their knees and wore tall black heels. They paralleled a previous moment with the two female dancers Carson McDougall and Daphnée Laurendeau, who were also in heels stomping while rolling and unrolling long heavy skirts that exposed their legs. What kind of conversations do moments like these spark on the way home, I wonder.

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