Festival TransAmériques 2011

By Philip Szporer, MJ Thompson

Festival TransAmériques 2011

Montréal  May 26 - June 11, 2011 

Philip Szporer: Hi, MJ. Here we are in the thick of festival season in Montréal. The Festival TransAmérique (FTA) got off to a mixed start, but I’m heading straight into what I think will be a highlight of the event. Sylvain Émard is getting the festival the kind of media attention that would make any promoter envious. His outdoor freebie, “Le Continental XL”, is not only a bag of boundless happiness (for the spectators as much as the participants, I suspect), but it showcases the long-awaited renovations to the city’s Quartier des spectacles – in this case Place des Festivals, the expansive plaza smack dab in the cultural mecca – to marvelous advantage. Émard’s idea stems from his own early love of line dancing (which he learned in a church basement), and he’s managed to segue personal delight into public rapture. For this edition (FYI, he’s recently gone international with the concept in Mexico), he’s amassed some 200-plus enthusiasts – young, old, student dancers, non-dancers, etc. – and used some pulsing and popular music (thanks, DJ Mini!) to create a mass-appeal Busby-Berkeley–like mob movement happening, replete with exploding water fountains and klieg lights. The thirty-minute show will erase any grouchiness you have in your system. It looks like a lark, but it’s also finely crafted and wonderfully executed.

What isn’t keep me up at night is the official opener, “Trust”, a collaborative theatre-dance piece from Berlin’s Schaubühne, with a script by German writer Falk Richter and movement from Amsterdam’s Anouk Van Dijk. The cast takes us on a journey through the collapse of the financial markets, a ripped-from-the-headlines script that rails at the world banks (why not?), and carries the metaphor into the realm of caustic human relationships. It’s turgid dance and theatre, tripping from dance sequence to spoken text (lots of talking into microphones), and repetition ad nauseam. Notwithstanding a few gifted performers and rare stellar moments, like the sequence involving a floating dancer, the length of the work just kills it. The writing needs to be seriously reeled in, and the dance more seamlessly integrated.

MJ Thompson: Hey Philip. Funny, I started with “Le Continental XL”, too. As in, what if someone like the underground filmmaker Jack Smith made a dance and reclaimed the strangely fascist space of the Quartier? I loved Émard’s mix of kitsch music and B-movie gestures, lava-lamp-like lighting (think blobs of red or blue, floating in the outdoor night), and the motley band of non-professional performers. The event called to my mind a more marketable version of Smith’s trash aesthetics, effusive colour and commitment to the beguiling aspects of untrained performers.

Émard smartly capitalizes on the pleasures of mass choreography and of inserting into the line dance familiar movement details like making peace signs pass over the eyes, à la Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction”. Yes, “XL’s” biggest moment was predictable: when the group falls down, two rebels self-express wildly as an old man approaches them sternly, only to join in the rock ’n’ roll fun. But I still wanted to meet every person in the line, with curious stylizations and neat outfits all their own. By the time the fountains embedded in the Quartier’s surface came to life – popping and jumping to the beat, with audience members recoiling from the spray – I was all, “Where do I sign up?”

Perhaps I was on the rebound from where we’d just been. “Trust” offers up a decidedly un-smiley universe, wherein the current economic crisis and love relationships are equally built on lies, apathy and greed. At first, “Trust” seemed a gutsy choice, with its strong interdisciplinary vision and ambitious critique of late capitalism. As one performer screamed something about ripping the heads off the “useless pigs” that run the world banks, I wondered how safe any of us Quebecers felt amid the accusations.

The prime movement images – jerks, slides, falls – and the core theatrical structure – extended monologues, call it rant n’ roll – smartly evidenced the anxiety of the day and the failures of capitalism. And there were plenty of nice bits: the preliminary tirade by Stefan Stern, in which he lays out the work’s thematic of “systems in collapse”; a section where dancers lift and, as you say, “float” a taut performer through the space, as she drones on in false apology; and a late solo for the dancer Jack Gallagher full of imaginative floor work, off-kilter inversions and rubber band isolations of the shoulders, neck and torso.

So what fell apart? Maybe it was the sustained bitterness of mood: “If I understand you, it wouldn’t change anything.” Maybe it was the triteness of the characters: “I watched you sleeping, it was like you were the wardrobe.” Maybe it was the huge set, with multiple rooms, two levels, and chairs, mattresses and microphones scattered around. What seemed at first a rich metaphor for the problem of excess became itself a victim of that observation. Massive, expensive to transport and underused by the company.

Still, you have to admire somebody’s balls: Day I, FTA 2011. As one performer laments, “I can’t keep doing this any fucking more.” Everyone lies. The system sucks. Hell yes.

PS: As we dive more deeply into this fifth edition of the festival, I’m still riffing on the cathartic release of the “Continental XL” show, and getting excited by some of what the local, younger choreographers are offering. On that note (ba-dum) there’s nothing like a bit of spellbinding tension to give a festival event some bite. A series of light flashes followed by a quick succession of what I’ll call chunks of electronic bleed opened “Derrière Le Rideau, Il Fait Peut-Être Nuit”, a thirty-minute show that pulls together well-executed sound design (by Martin Messier) and a tight, thriller narrative to boot. The piece plays with dark lighting from odd places throughout. We first see dancer-choreographer Anne Thériault almost methodically picking up cables and then dragging a chair across the cement floor, finally sitting and blindfolding herself, and then wrapping the cords around her waist and chest, and we realize something is off-kilter. This woman is not entirely helpless, nor in any panic. Absorption and detachment play tag. Devoid of any stimulus other than small, makeshift light fixtures, and some reverberating, ricocheting sound, the piece conveys a place devoid of life or contact. Or so it seems.

The non-descript cement-walled, bunker-like Société des arts technologiques (SAT) is the perfect environment to spike a sense of loneliness and isolation. Messier further plunges us into the dark by building the static of his oppressive barrage of a score; it keeps banging at you, and further suggests a disconnection all too apparent in Thériault’s nighttime confrontation. Submerged in the same blackness, we feel equally trapped. Color and mood shift perceptibly when Thériault is violently thrashing knives on an amplified surface, an eerie section that chillingly cuts to the core. This really isn’t a dance piece, more of a sound installation-slash-thriller incorporating a character/body. A final climactic flourish is too delicious and nasty to divulge.

I’m pulling together my thoughts on Chanti’s Wadge’s performance, “O Deer!”. In the meantime, I’ll turn things over to you, MJ.

MJT: A strong aspect of this year’s festival seems to be the inclusion of young Montréal choreographers. There are many doing short works, some of them unfinished or works-in-progress, which really messes with the notion of the international arts festival as pre-fab genre: over-packaged, over-processed. Can you say more about the next wave Montréalers, Philip, especially given your immersion in the scene for some thirty years now?

I saw Anne Thériault’s short work “Derrière”, and found myself totally engrossed in the darkness of the space, the foreboding mood and the daring lighting choices. How about a five-minute sequence (I didn’t time it but …) performed in total darkness? The audience hears movements but can just make out the outline of the action unfolding in darkness. Wow. Super evocative politically. The electric cables that Thériault ties herself up with, of course, call to mind the images of Abu Ghraib. And the sustained darkness beckoned Cheney’s ominous phrase about Americans going to “the dark side” and the unseen actions – say, “extraordinary rendition” – of the Cheney-Bush years: shady goings-on in the dark.

The knife sequence, in which Thériault scrapes a variety knives over an amplified block of wood, then shines a light under them to cast shadows on the wall, borrowed from the genre of puppetry and to my mind emphasized this artist’s commitment to interdisciplinarity. Less satisfying was the ending that reduced real paranoia to a simple – albeit surprising – gag. Here’s the spoiler alert, and let me divulge: She gets up to leave, asks for help from the audience, and as she and a volunteer leave, we see she holds a knife behind her back. Funny, sure, but it equally let us all off the hook. Still, I’m not sure there is any “better” way to represent horror on stage but work of this order raises a question of ethics for me.

At stake is the question of the treatment of real bodies, sometimes called people, men or women, citizens, peasants, etc. We’re quick to point to the sensational representations of torture or race in the media, but what responsibility does art assume in the staging of violence? How can dance present bodies under duress in helpful ways?

What seems key is how this kind of work questions the category of dance. Theriault’s training and background place her squarely in the form, but the theatrics and stylized tasks of the piece move it into performance art. For a whole bunch of reasons, dance seems to hold a special history in crossing disciplinary boundaries. One might be the way dance “uses” the body, makes it its subject and object via performance. Another might be how dance’s centrality of the body, our matrix in daily life, means that dance content always spills into the real world anyway. I’m riffing here but dance has always seemed to me to be acutely versatile and inherently political: think of the fluid agency of the performer, the fragile physical and economic health of the performer, the marginality of the form itself, the necessity of collective engagement in making dance …. I think these are some of the reasons for dance’s ingenuity and its interdisciplinary tradition. What’s your sense, Philip, of this? And the challenge, or not, that this kind of work poses in terms of audience development?

Dancer/choreographer Chanti Wadge, formerly of Montréal and now living in the Laurentians, begins the work-in-progress “O Deer!” as she and the remarkable David Rancourt appear in fetal position on the floor. In unison and slow motion, they lift one leg back, somersault over and crouch low on one knee, lifting the other leg, palming the ground, tumbling down and over, reaching out into the air. Wrists stiffen and bend, fists paw the ground; the movement is exploratory, staccato, even tentative as the dancers perform deer-like jitters and nods.

In one memorable scene, they are two buddies on a camping trip, unrolling the sleeping bags by a camp-fire-like headdress made of peacock feathers. In the magic light of the fire, and as a comment on our deepest need for natural environments and contact with the elements, the campers transform. They become animal-like, bending knees and elbows, lines turning-in as opposed to turning-out, grunting, snorting and stomping. At one point, they sound the words, “You are on your way to see the Great Spirit.” Here, x=x, but I still don’t get it.

I don’t understand the realism of the work. Wadge creates a slow and visually beautiful world, to be sure. But the birch tree projections, animal simulations, hoof-like boots and fur rugs pale before our own experiences of the natural world. At one moment, Rancourt’s solo begins to look like a quotation of a Blackfoot dance, and the primitivism of the work flares. A sharper sense of purpose, and either more information (say, textual) or less (maybe unitards instead of deer-like dresses) might help the project in its next incarnation.

It’s early yet but can I sketch a number of thematics that seem to be emerging across shows? Animals (think of “Trust’s” dog barking scene); prolonged and unusual floorwork (in everything I’ve seen thus far); one-to-one gestural symbolism (in which, for example, a shiver conveys fear; a fall conveys collapse); and, finally, the dance soundscape anchored by ominous drone. Is it a pattern, and might it reflect something of these economically and war-filled, abject times? Back to you, Philip.

PS: I see your point, MJ, about the gag nature of Thériault/Messier’s ending. Perhaps, upon further reflection, it is a bit pat and lets audiences breathe a sigh of relief. But your parallels with atrocities near and far are spot-on; the images reverberate, and long after you’ve exited the building.

This kind of intelligent cross-disciplinary work more than deserves to be in the FTA roster, in part because these artists need to stake their place, not necessarily garnering instant international recognition, but having the power to influence and make dance invention meaningful to a future generation.

It’s been said many times before, but going back three decades there was a diversity of voices within Montréal’s ranks, including artists ranging from Paul-André Fortier, Jean-Pierre Perreault and Margie Gillis to Édouard Lock, Marie Chouinard and Ginette Laurin. The Montréal dance community has managed to organize itself and secure strong support from political and economic forces, resulting in a stimulating environment that has grown over time with a sense of strong continuity. I don’t think dance artists today have the same sense that everything before them is possible, but what I have observed is the enthusiasm of enterprising artists – like the Short and Sweet organizers Sasha Kleinplatz and Andrew Tay (they’re also the instigators behind the wildly successful Piss in the Pool annual event featuring a next generation of dance talent), or the activities at the interdisciplinary space Studio 303 – and how others have responded resoundingly to these incentives. The attitude is far from blasé, nor is there a sense of entitlement in the ranks, but these actions are solidifying the current community, bringing Franco and Anglo artists closer together (the city has developed a unique ecology at that level), and I would stress that this is reinvigorating both inspiration and demand.

I attended the Short and Sweet event last night, and I adore the format – you’ve got three minutes, do your thing, and then the sound and lights are cut. What I sensed is that the vast majority of the artists are looking with a fervent interest at detachment, and how we look at the body. (Two standouts: Dana Michel, decked out in Afro wig and moving with a seemingly African-inspired pelvic thrust, which was actually an articulate spinal movement, originating from the top of an extremely relaxed spine, and Hélène Messier’s superbly controlled butoh reflection on ageing.)

“O Deer!” is a discovery, for the marvelous tandem of Rancourt and Wadge, yes, and how in their duet they oscillate between states and tasks (a keen listening develops between these kindred souls) but also for the risks Wadge, as choreographer, takes with silence and contemplation. The dexterous movement, as you’ve astutely described it, feels lived in. In all of the uncovering and unfolding, both in the movement and the manipulation of the props, it’s as if Wadge chose to mirror her surroundings. Perhaps she’s giving a nod to the mountains and nature in her midst (she lives in a region about an hour-and-a-half north of the city). Concurrently integrating, through visual elements, a sense of the physical dimensions of the space around her (as you’ve described them), she is also inscribing a spiritual connection that no doubt resonates for her. The piece operates on a pictorial level, snatching images and impressions and extending them over a span of time. I was hugely impressed by how, as creator, Wadge chose to challenge not only herself in her use of progression and simplicity, but how in the process she challenged us, as spectators, to look and listen, and perhaps to meditate on what we were consuming and the embodiment before us. It felt at moments as if we were in dialogue, performers and audience, drawing on the same ritual movements.

It strikes me that Wadge’s ambitious and wholly original work is akin to shamanist practice, adopting sensation, awareness and perception in a spiritual journey. To add a mystical layer of interpretation, I sense that her journey is navigating cosmic flux, with humans acting as a microcosmos within the macrocosmos. The symbolic meanings to the artifacts and props she adopts don’t feel random, they take on a deeper transcendental interpretation. For all my enthusiasm, she does need to work on transitions (arbitrary doesn’t work), and there are some questions, as you mention, that arise from her use of pedestrian costumes, nonetheless, her movement-poem offers refinement, passion and integrity.

MJT: OK, Philip … Piss in the Pool? Who knew? Thanks for the heads up on a number of alternate presentation outlets and on your sense of the next generation. If I can paraphrase the dancer/choreographer George Stamos, something he said in an interview last year: what other city has posters of dance shows up all over town? That the locals love movement is clear in any number of ways, but I’m stunned by the consistency of standing ovations and multiple curtain calls this year.

I felt the love big-time last night in two discrete shows: a delicious Kit-Kat of a dance from Manuel Roque, entitled “RAW-me”, in the Tangente space and part of the OFF-TA festival; and the thrilling “Still Standing You”, by the Dutchmen Pieter Ampe and Guiherme Garrido, at Théâtre La Chapelle. Roque’s piece is a snack. OK. But it’s a pretty satisfying amuse-bouche for some larger, pending feast he will build in the near future. Well-crafted, beautifully performed, Roque works in smart ways with a minimalist set: a pile of plastic bags, one of which he wears over his face for a particularly arduous and riveting dance; an amp by a street-lamp fashioned out of theatre gear, on which he stands and performs a lovely hand dance. If some of the movement felt Chouinard-esque (the company with whom he currently dances),who cared? If the piece seemed a bit loose conceptually, never mind. Here is a performer at the top of his game, working with what he’s got to explore new territory. Right on!

OK. Pause. I am going to try not to scream and gush in the coming paragraph. “Still Standing You” is a wonder, in part for the way it completely eschews codified dance vocabulary and yet remains a dance; and in part for the wisdom and generosity of its performers. Garrido has a visual arts background, but he is funny, real and vulnerable and a healthy roast beef of a man who is a pleasure to watch. Ampe cut his teeth with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, but his Ozark Mountain image – scruffy red hair and beard – is more ZZ Top than Euro-crash. Together, they explore an uncanny amount of movement and psychic terrain over forty-five short minutes. As the audience enters, Ampe is lying on his back on the stage, his legs upwards and stiff at a ninety-degree angle. Garrido sits on his feet, nodding to people as they stream in and making small talk. The scene combines the intense physical effort with the warm humour that makes this work so much fun.

There are bird-like arm flaps, hisses and cat scratches, hilarious lifts and balances, strange walks, butt sniffs, shrieks and belt whips (shifting the mood and eliciting a collective “ooooh” from the crowd). The pair throw each other around, butt chests, climb all over each other, and the violence of the movement can at times make you wonder: “How safe is this? What’s my complicity as viewer?” But the darkness is fleeting, buried amid so much other movement and balanced with humour and genuine love. There is a pas de deux for two naked men holding each other’s penis that I nominate here and now for Danced Moment of the Year. Is there yet an Academy Awards–style event for dance? Life is hard, with so many pressures from all fronts. Why not celebrate our confrontation with the other – lover, brother, sister, friend – in honoring this sweaty, fleshy revelation of a work?

PS: The audience at last night’s performance of “Still Standing You” gave it a rousing ovation. Mostly people responded to the energy, the sport and sweat, and the extreme qualities of the show (as you’ve outlined). The arc of sound from the opening chat with the audience (on the part of Garrido), followed by the grunts and growls of the two, the body slaps, and the silence as they embrace in a final series of sculptural poses, stayed with me. And the roaringly funny and what looks like real pain coming from the “dueling cock duet”, as I call it, is just something to be seen, but not necessarily practiced at home. Lovers, friends, boys, men, I guess it doesn’t matter in what category they fall, other than to acknowledge that what we see is the intimacy and power struggles that surface in the company of men.

Three short half-hour works were featured on the same night at the Monument-National (again kudos to the festival for finding such great performance venues). First, Susie Burpee and Linnea Swan’s “Road Trip (Je ne regrette rien)” premiered in Montréal at the festival, and it should be mentioned that Sasha Ivanochko replaced Burpee, due to injury. The piece for me was all about the performers’ keen attentiveness to each other’s glances and physicality and the audience’s responses. Those connections often seemed to trigger a sustained riff in one way or another, rather than a sustained narrative, that only partially alluded to a decisive voyage. The formal wear of the women, and the harsh makeup, seemed to suggest another era, but in many ways they both seemed to be caught in time.

Dancer-choreographer Caroline Laurin-Beaucage and musician-composer Martin Messier concocted a lean and mean “Hit and Fall”, in a fabulous rehearsal space. In three sections, marked by blackouts, the first round was absolutely fierce and extremely well performed by both players. He enters and sits at his drum kit. She comes out and stands behind him, waiting, anticipating his first move. As soon as he hits the drum skin, she jumps on his back and grabs his arms, attempting to stop his playing. She grabs his legs, and he still manages a steady beat. She pulls at his hair and face, and yet again he continues rhythmically pounding away. She returns again and again, until she whacks him and he falls to the ground. The other two sections are less abrasive, but nothing diminishes Laurin-Beaucage’s lightness of step and the absolute focus and intention in her articulate body, whether she is rising onto her toes, or weaving through the space with a drumstick in each hand. Messier’s static-driven electronic music during the interludes is more muted than his pulsing drum beats, and less effective in keeping our attention, but I will say that the tandem of music and dance is prompting some interesting exploration in this year’s festival.

I’ll leave you to comment on Marie Béland’s “Behind: une danse dont vous êtes le héros”, featuring Rachel Harris and Peter Trosztmer, as I was a facilitator in the Montréal Danse Choreographic Workshop, where the choreographer first mounted a preliminary version of the piece.

MJT: I, too, caught the three shows at the Monument nationale – and can I give a big shout out to FTA planners? It’s a generous act on the part of programmers and performers to allow fans to see so much work in a compressed amount of time. You really get a sense of the range of aesthetics emerging, and there is the satisfying illusion of collective preoccupations. But, Philip, can you talk me off the cliff here – as in, can we talk gender trouble?

The thirty-minute “Road Trip” was a short trip, through a theatrical world marked by strong gestures: two dancers in gowns smoke a cigarette, drink from a glass of water, run in circles around the stage or move their hands – palms facing up and outward – in tiny circles in a stylized “Broadway Rhythm” bit. But the vision is mean. On this trip, the women argue over banal memories: “I was in the front seat,” and “You were in the back seat.” One recurrent image finds the dancer’s hand on the back of her own neck, forcing herself downward as if in submission. The work ends as the two women vie for space, while standing on two chairs, and smile and nod before an imagined audience. Us? Hard to know, and I was surprised by the sinister, controlling vibe of the sisters doing it for themselves.

Ditto for Caroline Laurin-Beaucage’s study for movement and percussion. Maybe it was just an exploration of sound and body. Or maybe the opening image – girl climbs all over boy drummer, stops him from playing, then dismantles the drum kit – offers up the cliché of girl as obstacle. It’s John and Yoko all over again; the bitch broke up the band. From there, Martin Messier controls the lighting, while Laurin-Beaucage performs – beautifully, to be sure! – an aestheticized dance of get-up and fall. In what I understood as the rape scene, she lies before the big drum, legs spread and facing it as Messier pounds the foot pedal and her body shakes in response. I’m all for harsh imagery in the service of some greater idea but for now the meta on this dance feels simply harsh.

Thank goodness for the final show of the evening, “Behind: une danse dont vous êtes le héros”. A highly imaginative work, in which old-time theatre tricks are played to new effect, this twenty-five-minute dance unfolds behind a series of panels that begin about one foot from the floor and end say nine or ten feet high. It’s as if the choreographer wants to tackle performance’s problem of “looking”: that is, the long history of live bodies on display (whether dance, theatre, even ethnographic display) as complicated by inequities of power and representation, and by desire.

The drama unfolds mainly in the space under the panels. For the first few minutes, all we see is the blurred image of forms moving: the shape recalls legs, the colour is golden. Increasingly, more info seeps in: two pairs of legs, flares of green and red colour, sound, voices, dancers, possibly in rehearsal. I don’t want to say where this work ultimately goes, only that it is great craft and savvy pacing on view. Choreographer Marie Béland has made a conceptually strong piece, both challenging and fun.

Quick thought: there is a longer conversation to be had at some point (how about we co-write something for the Dance Current next year?) about how women and men appear as such, whether intentional or not, on stage; about how a pair of performers come to model relationships, whether intentional or not; and about how the performing body can re-present the everyday body, with its various culturally-produced visual significations. This may in part be about managing the familiarity of dance’s materials – the inevitable realism of the body. I’m guessing that I wouldn’t have reacted with such dismay to “Hit and Fall”, had both performers been wearing orange coveralls with shaved heads instead of the ordinary street clothes they had on.

PS: I drew different blatant allusions in the Laurin-Beaucage–Messier piece. It is Laurin-Beaucage’s choreography, and as such I felt that this young woman was confronting the overarching testosterone-driven male music scene, both offering her commentary in terms of anger and aggression (hers) and avoidance (his), all the while painfully acknowledging the groupie syndrome of the music biz, and laying it bare. When his masculine pride is left hanging in the final installment, with Messier literally on his back, draped on a stool, Laurin-Beaucage goes all the way in exposing her ultimate dismissal.

Geneva-based Cindy Van Acker (Cie Greffe) offers up a resonant evening of uncompromising solo works. “Lanx + Obvie”, which I saw (the other pieces were “Nixe + Obtus”, which I did not see), are clear, hypnotic, well-constructed, meticulously performed pieces – employing lighting, sound, gravity, time and space – each lasting about thirty-five minutes. In “Lanx”, a track-suited Van Acker, with medium-length straight brown hair that falls over her face, partners horizontally with the floor (with lines dissecting the space like an airstrip). At first, we rarely see her face and it’s off-putting, but gradually that feeling subsides as each repeated gesture and each continuous roll has an equal footing, so to speak. The itchy electronic score grinds and pounds, a counterpoint to the expert semaphore in motion. “Obvie” has a faster pace, and the dancer moves from the vertical to the horizontal, the movement circles and swirls, and the body extends and contracts. The performance, excellently danced by Tamara Bacci, has the same clean and clear precision and concentration of the first piece. Occasionally the lights go out, and in a way so do we. If it sounds bloodless, I can assure you it isn’t; it’s just economical and quickly understood and appreciated.

MJT: Philip, thanks for the double-take on Laurin-Beaucage. The matter of when representation serves as illumination and when it serves as reproduction is a tough question for everyone in the game of making things. I can’t say I’d like to see the work again, but I agree that it walks a fault-line in the politics of representation. Artists are in no way obliged to show positive images. Maybe I just don’t have the stomach for this portrait of defeat.

Which brings up Dave St-Pierre and the imperative to rage, rage. This time out, St-Pierre teams up with Brigitte Poupart for the new work, “What’s Next?” And what’s next, in fact, seems to be what’s come before. This is good, old-fashioned collage – cut-and-paste, seams exposed – in the tradition of so many dance works since Cage and Cunningham’s “first” happening at Black Mountain College in 1952. Along one wall, a band plays: think “Basement Tapes” meets Kodo Drummers. In the playing square – marked by tan mats over a mound of dirt – a group of acrobats warms up. It’s an old-timey, carnival vibe: shirts and suspenders for the boys, thrift-store gowns for the girls. Then St-Pierre and Poupart enter, wearing white full-body unitards that recall Woody Allen’s bit as a sperm, and the show is entirely theirs.

They are aliens in this tribe of experts, grimacing and shrugging and smiling as they try to keep up. Soon, the acrobats leave: a warm-up to the proceedings only.

What follows is a pastiche of mostly abject moods and scenes. It begins with levity, a “So You Think You Can Die” bit in which St-Pierre and Poupart retreat to opposite corners of the square and answer cheeky questions, mostly concerning sex: “Are you a pig?” Next up, an elegant, slow motion fight between them, shirtless in blue jeans: he wins the battle. Poupart gets a Bausch-quotation solo that involves throwing herself in dirt. He gets doused in blood while wearing armour. Then the side of pork gets dragged out.

It’s hard to do fresh with meat. One starting point might be Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy” (1964), the revelatory feminist work that spun the liberatory aspects of an orgy-like experiment with flesh; whereas, Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists explored the dark side throughout the 1960s, with staged violence as critique in the infamous crucifixion of a dead lamb. In “What’s Next?”, Poupart drags out the pork, crawls in it, hangs it, kicks it, comforts it. St-Pierre does better with another rack of meat – a real, live hot boy, with whom he makes out for several minutes.

Let’s hear it for a sexy public moment that hasn’t been crafted by the corporate superstructure. But the fun doesn’t last, and soon an assistant tosses slop on the lot of them. The show ends with a song, and the frailty of their voices is a flare of emotional depth. Their voices call out from their muddied, trashed bodies: “let it go.”

Sure, we are all pigs, but let it go.

A surprise ending, more piss than vinegar. Surrender as the solution to rage? Toughness might be another strategy altogether. Cindy Van Acker wowed me over four intense solos, which I saw back-to-back last weekend. The work is abstract, emphasizing line and shape through movement and light. And, oddly, it is a bit like “What’s Next?” in its acute distrust of actor-like performance. Yet I was exhilarated by Acker’s ability to mask and reveal the body, through a minimalist movement palette, a de-emphasis of the face as source of meaning and excellent design.

I liked “Lanx”, performed by Acker: a floor-bound exercise on a bright white mat wherein the line of her arms, forming an arc and rocking back and forth suggest flight paths as do the lines of neon tape that flare in the darkness as the work ends. “Obvie” introduced us to the stellar dancer Tamara Bacci and allowed us full access to her vocabulary of hand, arm and floor work. “Nixe” featured a sculptural set of fluorescent tube lighting that had the effect of dissecting dancer Perrine Valli’s body: fragmenting it, then letting us see it anew. Finally, “Obtus” brought Bacci back, performing along a row of fluorescent tubes, with astonishing lighting that allowed her to disappear and reappear. What moved me about Acker’s work was the sustained nature of the research, the originality of her results and the rekindled perception engendered toward that most sacred and profane item, the body.

PS: I found the St-Pierre–Poupart show banal and vague, except for the cute but pointless opening (and I concur with your Woody Allen reference), and the hard-working seven-piece band. Details change as the minutes tick away, but ultimately the subsequent flailing is a prescription for a long and boring evening, and a predictable contemporary spectacle. Much as this duo perceives (certainly so after referencing their media interviews and the program interview with the artists) that they are shock jocks of the stage, bringing new life and confrontation to a staid and complacent theatre scene, I honestly don’t think that’s what’s at play. My mind wandered, in part because of the excruciating heat in the venue (a former TV studio in an industrial part of Griffintown/St. Henri), but then I thought that the rising mercury was all part of the purgatory theme. But I must give credit where credit is due: “What’s Next?” exposes tedium in real time. That is a feat, and to be admired.

St-Pierre’s palette includes talk about fisting, group sex, sex with a federal politician (that got a giggle and a coy wink from the dancer-choreographer!), and as you say, he makes out with a guy on stage (seen that one too, in one way or another, in his previous work), reinforcing the need to acknowledge the “radical”. It’s not, really, nor is anything scandalous, except if we’re talking about his flat-out lousy line reading of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy – please, may I never have to witness that extremely limited dramatic range again! Added to the burden, he phones in his performance (perhaps it was jet lag, having just returned from a celebrated tour to France and the UK). His judgment that people need to be shocked or discomforted is missing the point. I think audiences need to be challenged and stimulated by articulate dance and theatre (and there’s lots of range in that arena).

As for self-serving, with co-creator Poupart (neither is listed as choreographer) I can’t really judge, as I don’t know her work at all. Her Pina bit was melancholic (not really part of the Bausch register), but hardly riveting, and her dance with the carcass was just peculiar and meandering. When I was growing up, my butcher father was arms-deep in sinew and bone, and I remember sensing the heft of flesh, so perhaps I don’t have the same longing to wrap myself in glistening meat and slide among the entrails. I certainly wouldn’t ascribe a poetic or adventurous tag to the activity.

Dance and theatre can, for me, capitalize on the importance of individual difference. This is, I would argue, where emotional moments and transformative connections come from, and why certain performances or events stay with us. They hit us on a somatic level, in part because of the craft of the choreographer, and the measure of the things the artist needs to communicate, in addition to the necessary courage to delve into what is known and what is yet to be revealed. Impact comes not from a narrative of someone’s sex tally or drug escapades, or the abuse one can heap on oneself or the audience. In the St-Pierre–Poupart show, by the time she is sitting playing the piano, while he nicely sings his plaintive ditty (milking out emotion), we’re long past investing in the piece (but what registered is that you can clearly see he loves to entertain).

FTA 2011 has been a welcome platform for a younger generation of dance artists in shorter formats, as well as a slate of coherent and sometimes demanding works by international artists. Was there a through-line in terms of the programming? I can’t readily identify it, but there seemed to be more unity and harmony in what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming event. It’s been fun exploring the pieces with you, MJ, sharing ideas and interacting on the micro of it all.

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