The Malaise of Modernity

Frédérick Gravel and Étienne Lepage By Lucy M. May
  • Photo by Nadine Gomez
  • Photo by Nadine Gomez
  • Photo by Nadine Gomez

Ainsi Parlait

Festival TransAmériques 2013

Montréal  June 5 - 8

The monologue has been a central element in work presented under Montréal choreographer Frédérick Gravel’s Grouped’artGravelArtGroup (GAG) banner since 2006. Yet never has Gravel’s pairing of words and gestures been superimposed as effectively as in Ainsi parlait… a dance-theatre collaboration by Gravel and playwright Étienne Lepage, which premiered last week at Festival Transamériques.

In past choreography, Gravel himself delivered wryly philosophical treatises in the mumbling tones of a late-night radio host or a DJ in a seedy strip joint. The interludes often suppressed an accumulation of dramatic tension or speed. The dancers in GAG pieces performed the movement but didn’t speak. In fact, they often seemed dissuaded from emoting much at all, lest the silence of cool be broken.

In Ainsi parlait… by contrast, the cast of performers (Daniel Parent, Marilyn Perreault, Éric Robidoux and Anne Thériault) are in charge of it all, and also, in total crisis. They are each entrusted with both text and movement, which they grab by the balls and hurl back at the public. The voices and bodies of the performers yoke the material and drive it as hard as they can. Meanwhile the characters reel under the weight, speaking in run-on outbursts rife with Québécois expletives. Their monologues and soliloquys, with titles such as “Privileged”, “Theatre Critic,” and “Crucify Me,” ride lines of tension between opposing attitudes: political and apathetic, masochistic and sadistic, self-centred and beatific. The humour is sardonic but the message is somehow, mysteriously, reassuring.

All the strongest GAG dance gags are present, Gravel’s Top 40 hits, so to speak: the signature grungy, pelvic-thrusting and backwards-moving-broken-down vocabulary. All of it is tightly interlaced to Lepage’s script, which speaks obliquely to the embedded codes of their movements (both in contradiction and exaggeration). The bodies amplify the text, while the text clarifies the gesture. Éric Robidoux, in one vignette, explains directly the choreography he is performing. As some kind of charismatic preacher/salesman/life coach, he extols to us the wonderfully impractical virtues of moving into one’s “back-space” as a creative solution to problems in the workplace. We are provided with both white- and blue-collar demonstrations.

Nothing is withheld: Anne Thériault lets loose to Jimi Hendrix songs, offers herself to the audience with wide wet eyes, a disturbing lack of moral boundaries, and a hand in her pants. She dry-humps Robidoux’s mop of brown hair as he scrambles around on all fours. The group performs an adage, their bodies becoming melting wax-Jesus effigies. They fight off “The Government” with limp-fisted lunges and kicks after concluding that it lurks somewhere, parasitic, inside their own bodies. Marilyn Perrault goes off on a couple of psychotic tirades full of maniacal laughter, her whole body taut and straining to make sense of her crazed observations and self-criticisms. The stink of male chauvinism floats around, but it is reduced by both genders’ equally despicable characters and our pity for all of them. The transitions between scenes tell a story that tosses the balance of power back and forth between the four characters.

Abstracted movements seen as conceptual and delivered in a deadpan style in Gravel Works (2010), for example, are here contextualized in a way that brings other colours and facets of meaning forward, which previously lay below the surface. In Ainsi parlait… they pop out as perverted human archetypes we sheepishly admit we can relate to. In one situation, Parent–dressed in a pink button-down shirt, vest and cowboy boots–implores us to embrace our Inner Asshole. It begins with him puttering on the spot with tiny steps, as a toddler needing the potty, until he finds the ‘on’ switch that propels him forward to the mic with a cheesy grin on his face. The antsy marching continues as he speaks, giving a peculiar rhythmic energy to his story. Eventually, bloated with noxious frustration, he explodes in a foul-mouthed conniption fit that borders on a step dance. His coming-and-going between the two states is funny as hell. His is but one of a dozen characters we see struggling to be powerful when all signs point to failure.

In my evaluation, Ainsi parlait… could be a staging of Charles Taylor’s 1991 CBC Massey Lecture, The Malaise of Modernity, as a dark comedy. In his book, the philosopher identifies “the fading of moral horizons” and a loss of political will as key modern fears. He also asserts, however, that “our degrees of freedom are not zero.” According to Taylor, society generally divides into those who see individualism as completely disgusting and those who think it is our saving grace, although fundamentally both are only bastardizations of the “ideal of authenticity” or of “being true to oneself.” Individualism is a moral ideal that can be directed to many different ends and in Ainsi parlait… we see it at its seemingly most jaded and egocentric.

Taylor concludes that in life, individuals retain an agency to differentiate between “what is great in the culture of modernity, as well as what is shallow or dangerous.” That agency has to be exercised. In doing so, in deliberating what to do with the distinctions we have made, we engage in life in possibly transformative ways. Lepage’s characters move molehills and not mountains, but they engage nonetheless.

Emotion flows freely through the movement in Ainsi parlait…. The performers’ characters touch only the iceberg tip of their own agency (occasionally masturbating it) but in enacting with their whole bodies the dramas of their moral debate, they disclose an emotional investment in the world. Together, Frédérick Gravel and Étienne Lepage may have found some warped kind of love.

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