Dystopian Impressions

Marie Béland’s Beside By Philip Szporer
  • Rachel Harris, Bernard Martin and Sylvain Lafortune in Béland's Beside / Photo courtesy of La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaine

October 15-18, 2019, maribé - sors de ce corps & Montréal Danse, Théâtre La Chapelle, Montréal

Fragmentation immediately pervades Marie Béland’s imaginative Beside, a collaboration of maribé - sors de ce corps and Montréal Danse. Three performers (Rachel Harris, Bernard Martin and Sylvain Lafortune) sit around a metal table with a transistor radio set on the side. In the first reveal, the audience hears snippets of a radio broadcast, even though at first glance the stage appears as a TV studio, with large light panels.

This evening, the hour-long performance is delivered in English. It’s worth noting that Montréal only has so many English-language radio and television stations. The performance starts with the audience listening briefly to one of Montréal’s private stations, so there’s plenty of fast-talking banter oozing from the radio. (Béland previously tackled sound and image in her 2010 work Behind, where scenes from a couple’s existence are concealed behind a series of panels.) Rather quickly, the performers put on headphones. The gambit is that they repeat what they’re hearing on the live feed so that there’s a constant, in some ways incessant, stream of words. The immediacy of the response requires acute listening and clear verbal skills. More particularly, the performers are interpreting ideas and concepts into bite-sized nuggets of information. At its most essential, the piece reflects the fragmentation and changes caused by the destabilizing technological shifts in our midst.

These are not professional broadcasters, and it’s easy to forgive the constriction of communicating fluently in English (only Harris is a native English-speaker). Given their task, they comported themselves very well in transmitting the abundance of media surrounding us. Occasionally there were slips in terms of the coherence of the information being spoken, but that’s the conceit of the piece. The conscious dribble that sets in is built into the structure of the work, with sounds and syllables repeating or lopped off and words rebounding between them.

The gestures that populate the piece are lifted from observations made of public affairs, television anchors and guests. Béland culls social codes from the broadcasts, mixing and matching mediated ideas, words and images. There’s a capacious sense of possibility about the whole setup. At one point, news snippets about the federal election and Brexit filter into the performers’ speech – that bit alone indicated that the station had shifted from a talk-radio outlet to CBC’s As it Happens. (Like I say, there are only so many English-language choices in town.) As a bit of a news junkie, I have to admit I leaned in with interest to hear what was being said rather than watch how the bodies were expressing it. It should be underlined that the cast hadn’t performed in English countless times previously. The week before, the group premiered the English version at a festival in Nottingham, and I can only imagine the fright of trying to divine and recapture the cadence of Midlands English in live performance.

By design, the arrangement of the mimetic movement is key. Béland streamlines little accentuated cocks of the arms and hands and small jerky head swivels that infiltrate the performers’ bodies. The staging of their interactions makes a fine use of ambiguity, especially as the performers avert eye contact and display a curious blankness in their line readings. In their stilted manner, the interpreters talk over one another and seemingly interrupt flows of discourse. Even so, it’s like watching each person diving into a kind of individuated oneness with the accent on what’s being said and the manner in which it’s said. The impersonal begins to permeate the piece, with performers outfitted in gloves and nylon stockings over their heads, masking their skin, their words incrementally taking back seat to the gestures. Dystopian images advance with a measured, and I’d say menacing, tone, exploring the disintegration of singular personhood and revealing incremental knots of mechanical movement characteristics overtaking any trace of human agency. The prerogative of the piece suggests a gap between reality and the replacement of the human race, with a shift most pronounced in the final tableau, where the “announcer” switches from human to prototype. There’s no denying it: Béland’s ability to zero in on defined human activity leaves a lasting impression.



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