M.Talk.2: a conversation between critics 

By Kaija Pepper, Philip Szporer
  • Margie Gillis / Photo by Michael Slobodian 
  • Margie Gillis in her own work “Par un fil d’argent”/ / Photo by Michael Slobodian 
  • Anik Bissonnette, Risa Steinberg, Eleanor Duckworth, Laurence Lemieux, Holly Bright, Gioconda Barbuto, Emily Molnar and Margie Gillis / Photo by Michael Slobodian 


Margie Gillis

Montréal  February 29-March 1, 2008 and March 14-15, 2008  

Writers Philip Szporer from Montréal and Kaija Pepper from Vancouver both saw M.Body.7 in their respective cities. Here, they compare their notes …

Philip: I was at the local supermarket the other day when an acquaintance rushed to me and asked my opinion of Margie Gillis’ show. Before I could say anything, she excitedly told me that after hearing Gillis on the radio, she called right up and reserved tickets for the whole family for that night. Now, I don’t normally like giving capsule reviews, especially when I have a head of lettuce in my hands, but I thought why not go along and make this woman’s day. I said that the performance was “life-affirming”. She just beamed and trotted off.

I didn’t really fib, and I’m glad of that, but I also didn’t want to tell her the whole story. Why bother to taint what sounded, for this woman, like a night to end all nights? Later that week, when the shows had come to a close in Montréal, I was having dinner with some friends, and Gillis came up in conversation again. Before long, one woman was saying that it didn’t really matter what we saw on stage (everyone at the table happened to see the show), but wasn’t it just enough to celebrate this incredible woman, who has given so much of her life to dance? Again, who’s to argue with one person’s life accomplishments? There was insistence in her voice; though, as she proceeded to tell us about Gillis’s accomplishments, her thirty-five years in the field, and her dedication to dance and the community, and how she changed the face of dance in this country. I began to feel like I was being force-fed.

But she had a point, which is important and fundamental, I think, in our discussion of this show: Gillis, unlike any other person in dance in this country, inspires great allegiance. People do flock to her, in a way that is unheard of in dances circles. There are detractors, and there’s a lot to be said about what she does and creates, but there is no denying that Margie Gillis has a devoted and adoring public.

M.Body.7, Gillis’ evening-length dance program, premiered at Montréal’s Highlights Festival. She was honorary co-president of the festival, along with the Spanish flamenco artist Eva Yerbabuena. On opening night, the hall was packed, and there was a formal introduction, “Ladies and gentlemen, Margie Gillis”. I expected her to walk on and wave to the crowd, or something. Instead there was a long, pregnant pause. No Gillis, no nothing. After a few uncomfortable beats of silence, the curtain lifted and the show began … 

Kaija: To take your cue, Philip – though I’m picking it up a few weeks later when M.Body.7 came west as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival – the evening out here began with a new solo by Gillis, “Par un fil d’argent”, in which she is partnered with a long, beautifully tailored coat that hangs centre stage. I watched the dance unfold – it didn’t really develop – in a reflective frame of mind, accepting the repetitive dipping and diving that Gillis is fond of, the circling, scooping arms and restless feet that continually take her toward and away from that coat, which she eventually puts on. No surprises, for sure, but what’s not to like about an attractive mature woman in a skimpy well-cut dress expressing her emotions through dancing?

Unlike your encounters with fervid Gillis-supporters, I had a naysayer sitting right next to me; within minutes, my friend whispered in my ear, “It’s so eighties.” That’s when she first saw Gillis and, so many years later, she was uncomfortable to find the same emotional angst. Where was the structure, she asked, and the intellectual force? Where was the personal development? I had asked similar questions myself at previous Gillis shows, but this time, instead of questioning what wasn’t there, I accepted what was, and remained as meditative as if I was at the beach watching waves wash on shore.

The same attitude helped me relax for the second solo, “At the Hem of My Northern Coastal Clouds”, choreographed by Gillis for Holly Bright, which I’d seen twice before. The piece is another seductive flow of movement, but this time it’s the costume that dips and dives – quite spectacularly, in fact. The smallest toss of Bright’s hips is enough to set her over-sized white crinoline bobbing and, as she increases her trance-like sway, it becomes as turbulent as a sailboat on a stormy sea. Was this the same first act you had in Montréal? 

Philip: Montréal had the same lineup. Originally, the plan was to have these two pieces in reverse order. But close to the opening, apparently, Gillis changed her mind. Good decision. Seeing Gillis at the beginning of the show set the tone for the evening, and let the realization sink in that Gillis wasn’t performing all night (which for some people was a harsh reality).

You’re right, there is some poetry in “Par un fil” that is quite familiar – Gillis, with her long hair in a braid, is in search of some intangible someone, whom she reaches for, recoils from, caresses, dismisses, discards, is haunted by. I too entered a meditative register while watching, and in that state it dawned on me that Gillis reminds me somewhat of Charlie Chaplin’s most important character, The Little Tramp. It’s those furtive glances, the childlike shrug of her shoulder, the recoiling reversals of her front and backstep, as if indecision and fear are prompting her every move, only to be eclipsed by a burst of joy. All of those distinct traits in concert with her swooping and spiralling made me connect her to the silent screen icon. Chaplin, like her, is a silent performer, and he created films that, in their comedic way, translated social mores and concerns and even larger political realities, in physical terms. And people responded. I can imagine Chaplin working with someone like Gillis, uttering his famous pronouncement, “Long shot for comedy, close-up for tragedy.”

In the same way that a music score in films can signal an emotion to an audience, Gillis likewise chooses compositions that have a familiar and resonant vibe. In “At the Hem …” she employs Ravel’s “Concerto for piano and Orchestra in G”, as rearranged by Herbie Hancock, to serve as the hook. I thought the solo for Ms. Bright was the strongest piece on the program. She stands stock still, in a ray of blazing white light, idly twisting the dress, as the music plays on. There’s an inherent and entrancing drama in the rise and fall of the dress. The small undulations in Bright’s body, along with the billowing and lifting of the hooped skirt, create a pleasing visual. Slowly as we watch the fabric sway, other parts of her body engage, and she eventually moves out of the light on the diagonal across the stage with sustained focussed energy, concentrating on a raised arm or the seemingly expanding solar plexus. Adding to the visual texture are three figures – a Greek chorus of sorts – seen in recline, elevated, in semi-darkness upstage. We can sense their presence rather than actually see what they’re doing – again, quite effective. With that the intermission was upon us. 

Kaija: The North Vancouver shows didn’t have the background trio for “At the Hem …” – just three stiffened skirts hanging upstage as décor, echoing the one Bright wore, and which I only noticed after some time. I would have liked to see how the chorus supported Bright because it was the use of the ensemble to support individual solos in “ICI …” – the longer piece that made up the second half of the evening – that was the highlight of M.Body.7 for me.

“ICI …”, the work I really want to talk about, was an ambitious undertaking by Gillis – renowned as a soloist since she first catapulted into public view in the seventies, when she was a barefoot young woman dancing her emotional joys and sorrows. This time, she was creating for a wonderful line-up of women; they must have had a ton of fun together in rehearsals! That’s certainly what it looked like from the way the work was structured, with the ensemble often onstage encouraging, teasing or copying whoever was taking her solo turn.

The main cast were all seasoned pros more than capable of holding the stage on their own, which is perhaps one reason why Gillis made the piece as a series of “star turns” by Gioconda Barbuto, Anik Bissonnette, Laurence Lemieux, Emily Molnar and American Risa Steinberg (Bright returned only as part of the ensemble). Gillis also featured two special guests – seventy-two-year-old Eleanor Duckworth, a Harvard professor of education, and eleven-year-old Sandrine Bissonnette-Robitaille (daughter of Anik Bissonnette and [bjm_danse] artistic director Louis Robitaille). Perhaps it was partly the need to accommodate and integrate this multi-generational group that led to the friendly staging, which I found quite delightful with its sense of “we’re all in this together, gals”. 

Philip: I agree – and also sensed the fun that must have come about during the process, in studio. The lineup, too, was terrific. The piece starts off in an unassuming manner – Risa Steinberg, in a unitard, captured in white light, upstage, her hand gliding down her leg, and then over her whole body, as if bathing. Bright brings out folded tunic-like garment in a shade of grey. While Steinberg slips on the costume, the entire cast streams in, quite casually. They come together, all in similar attire of muted shades, and they begin a kind of genuflection, a kind of bonding moment, or communion. Soon, though, the calm is broken. There’s a disagreement and all hell breaks loose. It’s a gaggle of consternation and upset. Lemieux, it appears, is the instigator. Fingers point, faces portray mock indignation, and voices shout.

As the upstart, Lemieux is in fine form, erupting in an angry dance, both wild and liberating. As she circles the stage, the other cast members hover in the background – their unintelligible whispers, and then Bach’s “Concerto #2 in E Major”, comprising the sound score. Lemieux embodies a beautiful lyricism. By the time she’s done, the other dancers are egging each other on. Lemieux has sparked a rebellion. In her closing gesture, after high fives with the rest of the cast, she gives the audience the finger. Nice.

Gillis chooses to have the dancers enter and exit the stage in steady streams to signal the next element in the dance. It’s a device that works, generally, but becomes predictable after repeated outings. The next section, which features Duckworth and Bissonnette-Robitaille, points out an essential flaw in the production. The women are giving the kid directions, nudging her this way and that, and it’s up to Duckworth to give her some steady guidance, prompting her to take her place in the spotlight. The entire sequence seems incomplete, and Bissonnette-Robitaille is under-used.

I had the chance to see this young, talented dancer in performance at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. She was dancing in the Coleman/Lemieux & Company revival of Ted Shawn’s “The Dome” (the last piece he set on his Men Dancers before the company disbanded), to celebrate the festival’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Coleman and Lemieux cannily re-designed the piece, and featured a cast of child dancers and one adult (the superb Sasha Ivanochko). Watching children dancing can be a wrenching experience – there’s the cute factor, to be sure, but that pales after a few minutes. Or the children just don’t have the goods or the energy to sustain a dance over time. Not this time though. These kids were in top form and Bissonnette-Robitaille was one of that talented bunch. I remember thinking at the time that I would keep my eye out for her.

In Gillis’ piece, she doesn’t have much to do, there’s no kinetic drive in this section. Unlike in the Shawn piece, where the coaching that the dancers received paid off, here it appeared Gillis couldn’t figure out just what to do with this young girl. She captured innocence, and that was heartening and accessible, but that’s not enough. Also, it underlined that choosing an eleven-year-old and a seventy-two-year-old, while enchanting on paper, was akin to stunt casting.

In other sections, Steinberg was angry and edgy in her solo, but I was left wanting for more from this renowned performer. Molnar, for her part, is a radiant dancer, and she justly conveyed containment in a dance that seemed to capitalize on the notion of being frustrated and hemmed in. It was Barbuto, for me, who soared, working in a circular beam of light, actively eating the space, her expressive arms a highlight. As for Bissonnette, she’s a performer known for her poise and elegant interpretations, and a bit of a legend in this town. Seeing her throw herself into a series of twitches, and not much more, was a surprise. It seemed improvisational, and that’s not expected from Bissonnette. If she wanted to go out on a limb, she succeeded. Leaving the theatre, more than any other of the performers, I overheard comments about Bissonnette – and people’s bitter disappointment with what they saw.

Another comment I overheard was that people wanted more Gillis on stage. I have to disagree. I think it would have been easy for her to celebrate her thirty-five-year career by exploiting her legacy, and simply opening her trunk of solos. Or setting them on other dancers. She said no to that.

I did take exception to Gillis stepping on Duckworth’s tender solo at the end of the show, set to a song by k.d. lang. The Boston-based dancer was just getting into things, when Gillis popped out of the wings, her long flowing hair whipping the air. Others in the cast followed, each doing their own thing. For some in the audience, that was just what they were waiting for all evening – Gillis in generous, exuberant form. I would have preferred that the choreographer cede her cult status, for one night, and take a well-justified bow at the end. 

Kaija: First, I wholeheartedly agree about Gillis “stepping on Duckworth’s tender solo”. I was so present for Duckworth, who had been kind of in the background for the piece and was finally taking her solo turn with sincerity and quiet strength. Then suddenly Gillis flies in hair first, demanding attention and leaving Duckworth flat. I felt deflated, too. I don’t agree that casting an eleven-year-old and a seventy-two-year-old “was akin to stunt casting”. I felt it was more like adding particular colours or flavours to “ICI …” and Duckworth did prove she could handle centre stage (until Gillis arrived). As well, I was content with having Bissonnette-Robitaille (long moniker, that …) as a minor note; in fact, I preferred it. For me, the weak link was the decision to give each woman a hot turn in which to express herself; this was the same-old–same-old part of the piece, merely highlighting technical confidence and strong personalities. I wouldn’t have wanted to see young B-R cast in the same mould.

Actually, that’s why I enjoyed Bissonnette’s admittedly strange shaking limbs – it wasn’t enough material to make a solo, but at least it was unexpected. Lemieux’s “angry dance”, too, which you evoke so well – yes, it was “both wild and liberating” and, for my west coast eyes, fresh.

I won’t add to your thorough description, except to say again how much fun I found the women as a group. Within the theatrical ensemble set-ups, they are fully individual but have something to do beyond themselves – the focus is on the dramatic interaction and tomfoolery, not on their qualities as dancers. While I enjoyed parts of the solos, they did not grip me as a whole; I know too well that abstract-modern-dance place where they came from, and where they were going.

Thanks for this long-distance BC-Quebec chat, Philip. I must say, with your appreciation of some of the solos and my own attraction to the ensemble, I find myself more and more curious about “ICI …”. If it were a movie, I’d have another look. 

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