A Scattered Resistance 

By Philip Szporer, MJ Thompson
  • Marianne Gignac-Girard and Robert Meilleur in Ginette Laurin’s “Onde de choc” / Photo by Ginette Laurin 
  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company in “Nearly 90 2” / Photo by Anna Finke 
  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company in “Nearly 90 2” / Photo by Anna Finke 
  • Faustin Linyekula’s “More more more…future” / Photo by Agathe Poupeney 
  • Compagnie Salia nï Seydou in “Poussières de sang” / Photo by Antoine Tempé 
  • Compagnie Salia nï Seydou in “Poussières de sang” / Photo by Antoine Tempé 
  • “Golpe” by Tammy Forsythe for Tusketdance / Photo by Terence McGee 
  • “Golpe” by Tammy Forsythe for Tusketdance / Photo by Terence McGee 
  • Louise Lecavalier and Elijah Brown in “A Few Minutes of Lock” / Photo by André Cornellier 
  • Louise Lecavalier and Patrick Lamothe in “Children” / Photo by Massimo Chiarradia 

Festival TransAmériques 2010 

Festival TransAmériques

Montréal  May 27 - June 12, 2010 

MJ Thompson: I’m not feeling festive, exactly, as the BP spill goes on, the economy tanks and Harper remains … well, Harper. Can you call it a festival if the overall mood ain’t joyful? Why call it a festival, anyway? Is it the new commissions, the new artists, the sense of an emerging new guard? Can it be new if it happens at the same time, same place? Is it about curatorial vision or marketing? Is it the street fare, the artist talks, the after hours parties that make the gathering? At the outset of FTA 2010, I dream that it’s a gathering, in the sense of strangers meeting across vast fields of difference, hell bent on seeing action in light of none.

Philip Szporer: Hello MJ. In the face of various atrocities and misgivings over an uncertain future, I do have to say that artists, as everyone else in society, must continue to work and create. It’s probably important to state that the FTA in its mix of theatre and dance has chosen an underlying theme for this edition: resistance. I don’t expect fury and assault to be evident in the first reviews of Cunningham or Laurin we’ll put forward in our dialogue, but next week provides a mirror to some of those concerns: whether it be in the Ndombolo-punk spirit of the Congo’s Faustin Linyekula’s “More more more… future”, which purportedly sets a positive spin on our perceptions of desperation and turmoil in that corner of the world; the protest and revolt in Burkina Faso that figures in Salia ni Seydou’s “Poussières de sang”, or the state of urgency in Montréaler Tammy Forsythe’s “Golpe” (as in coup d’etat).

If we look at the broader Canadian scene, many artists reference, subtly or not, the high stakes we all face. In last year’s “Dark Matters”, from Crystal Pite, we were reminded to question, in the wake of catastrophe and planetary frailty, if dancing is enough. But self-expression in the face of moral, political and aesthetic concerns – Jo Lechay in the late 1980s comes to mind – is not everyone’s bailiwick (as evidenced in work by Dave St-Pierre, who in a recent interview commented that he’s not one to tackle the world’s problems, but prefers to entertain.)

MJT: Hey Philip. What about the festival as a genre? I agree that artists are always at play in political fields, whether through aesthetic or thematic choices, never mind the overlap between these two. Last year, it was pretty exciting to see the FTA really pushing dance’s political consciousness in terms of curatorial decisions. I’m thinking of works by Yasmeen Godder and Jan Fabre, perhaps two of the more obvious people who come to mind in terms of overtly politicized work from FTA 2009. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out this year and what ways, if any, the dramaturgy of the festival might take this even further.

I saw “Nearly 90” in Brooklyn last April, and like a lot of people, I was slightly shocked by the psycho-level excess onstage: a giant steel beehive by the architect Benedetta Tagliabue; innocuous video projections by Franc Aleu; and the band Sonic Youth, mostly standing around onstage looking slightly aghast at their inclusion.

Merce had always done better.

Then again, there was the movement – a procession of solos, duets and trios, especially after intermission, that were riveting in their complexity and shifts in tone, speed and direction. Add to the drama the dancer’s fierce technical grip on the material and their complete surrender to the mental demands of the work. It was an indelible night at the theatre.

With the company at the outset of their two-year-long final tour, announced upon Cunningham’s passing last summer, how great to get the chance to see a modified version of the show this week as the FTA 2010 festival opener. “Nearly 90 2” has been trimmed in design and number of rockstars. The score by Takehisa Kosugi and John Paul Jones is at once in keeping with Cunningham’s aesthetic and thrilling in its pacing, reaching an exhilarating crescendo of ramped-up and competing electronica. Lighting by Christine Shallenberg emphasized the silhouette; mostly on track in its simplicity, evocative in its use of horizon, occasionally distracting at times, as when a white cube appeared.

We won’t be able to see this stellar company much longer. I love watching dancers like six-year company veteran Rashaun Mitchell, whose quiet presence and precise delivery flesh out and clarify Cunningham architecture; or three-year alum Daniel Madoff, whose high energy and extraordinary leaps are bound by exacting technique and the occasional grin. Then there is Julie Cunningham, a supernatural being, part human, part LifeForm, whose joy in the material shines through and whose ease with Cunningham’s simultaneous and competing lines is uncanny.

But Friday night, the company looked tired to me, even careless at times. Never has the work seemed so loaded with emotional or narrative impulses: movements to be read as gestures, interactions made legible as passions. To my eyes, the cool language of Cunningham seemed more earthbound, certainly more emphatic. Is this nostalgia talking? Is it okay for the company to evolve? Watching MCDC in a post-Cunningham world means letting go of the Master, disavowing newly minted histories and forgoing competing rhetorics that would overtake his contributions. In life, he kept the hype at bay via curiosity and work ethic. Can we just dance already?

PS: Depends on whose dance you’re referring to, it appears. I was speaking with a woman quite in tune with the contemporary arts and with a particular affection for dance, and she related to me that she stayed away from Mr. Cunningham because she didn’t like “American dance” (my quotations), and far preferred “Montréal dance” or “Belgian dance”. Now those two preferred categories are as widespread and indefinable, in my opinion, as you can imagine. But she stated that she was in heaven after watching O Vertigo’s “Onde de Choc” (Shock Wave), loving every gesture and the poetry in the piece. I’m guessing it’s a kind of holy-of-holies infatuation. Those kinds of worlds she likes to inhabit, she said. Cunningham, for her, was “too much work”.

Before I jump into a discussion of “Onde de Choc”, let me say that the Cunningham performance sent me to a similar moment of rapture. What I enjoyed so much about “Nearly 902”, the only Canadian stop on the company’s Legacy Tour before it disbands, was the completeness of vision, and the possibility that I entered into his imaginative world, even fleetingly. The dancing, on the night I watched the show, was so exciting. The thirteen skilled dancers performed the speed and clarity of the movement with gusto. The repetition had impact, as did directional changes, small details like angular shifts and rapid footwork. (Incidentally, the speed component was accelerated with all his Dance Forms investigations, executive director Trevor Carlson told me in a public chat.) The dance seems novel, relevant, and was absorbing. I loved how my senses were stimulated, and how even when I drifted at times, I could zap right back into the groove. The music, full of synthesizer riffs and electronic cacophony performed by Kosugi and Jones, worked well in the overall collage. Merce may be no longer, but well after the performance, I began to imagine how he communicated to his dancers, and the entertainment he must have had, even in his last months, in being confronted by the various challenges of this production.

Montréal audiences must be a balm for most choreographers and performers. There is an unqualified generosity of spirit in response to live performance, which usually erupts into a ragged but enthusiastic standing ovation. Something about this group spirit turns me off. Naysayers will remain naysayers, but I wonder about those who really need time to digest what’s gone on but are caught in the wave. And I often wonder what happens when folks really do see something of major merit, or one of those thrilling moments that seizes you in your belly and won’t let go?

Which brings me to O Vertigo’s premiere of “Onde de choc” (Shock Wave) by its artistic director, choreographer Ginette Laurin. Laurin, one of the upper-tier contemporary choreographers in this country, creates in a poetic abstract manner, often seizing on the inner workings of the soul, and the fortunes of one’s existence. Early work in the 1980s was defined by an audacious physicality and a partnering quotient that few matched. She asserted her power in physically demanding, aggressive, and yet witty pieces. Much of the bite dissipated over time, while the poetic overloaded, covering many stylistic bases, including everything from dance and wordplay to design elements and lighting innovation. But from the first to the most recent, her pieces share a set of repeated, unifying themes, centred on the human body and our need to reflect inward in an uncertain and caustic world.

In this new work, Laurin and her team of artists adopt enhanced sound design, magnified human heartbeats and a raised, rectangular, slippery platform that extends under a flickering horizontal bar of light. The piece begins very quietly with her performers (Marianne Gignac-Girard, Rémi Laurin-Ouellette, Chi Long, Robert Meilleur, James Phillips, Gillian Seaward-Boone, Audrey Thibodeau and Wen-Shuan Yang), dressed in muted greys and dark tones, slowly entering the stage in waves, with subtle, nuanced, even delicate hand and arm gestures. Eventually the magnified footsteps and whacking slaps to the shoulder or the chest indicate the various “shocks” that rouse the dancers, and they race across the stage, into each others’ arms or in a flurry of frenetic, skittish movement past one another. Later, bodies collapse to the floor, or are dragged lifeless across the platform. Life seems lost and won, over and over again.

Laurin seems to be operating within a comfort zone here. She clearly affords time to develop material with her hard-working dancers, plus develop engaging collaborations with celebrated London-based composer Michael Nyman (of Greenaway and Campion film fame). He provides a luscious, and often filmic, violin-enhanced score, that combines with the sound design and electroacoustic composition (with lots of Morse code–type beeps and thunderous booms) by Montréaler Martin Messier.

In terms of innovation, the heartbeats that reverberate throughout the piece recall Edouard Lock’s use of the same device in 1993’s “Infante, C’est Destroy”. I remember sitting in the large arena that is Place des Arts’ Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier and seeing Louise Lecavalier, after a particularly heart-pounding sequence of movement, raise a mini-mic of sorts to the chest of drummer Jackie Gallant. Her heartbeat quickens as she continues smashing into her drum kit, all the while echoing the blood that must have been coursing through Lecavalier’s system. It was a riveting moment, unforgettable in fact. Laurin’s adoption of the amplified heartbeat pales by comparison. It works within the context of the dance she has created, but it isn’t new and it doesn’t change how I think about watching dance in the way that Lock’s vision did.

Laurin’s lifts and partnering are always interesting to watch. Here the male-female groupings take precedence, and there is an exciting velocity and a lightness to the spins and lifts. The dancers take particular delight in bounding to the raised platform and sliding at full speed across and over the precipice of the set piece. As usual, there is a bevy of twitchy ‘acted’ moments in which a spectrum of emotions is expressed (this consists of the dancers mouthing words mutely or appearing to scream silently), though the tireless dancers’ arsenal seems overwrought and oversold. There’s little seduction; somehow it all seems so familiar.

Laurin’s tendency is to overstuff her work. Here, the movement just keeps coming, and the piece ends up feeling chaotic and hyper, which in the short term might be the intention; yet by the conclusion she seems to be veering thematically toward something more settled and grounded. Exaggeration eclipses subtlety. A couple of false endings don’t help matters. Where has the sublime poetry gone? The audience surrounding me creakily got out of their chairs and, piecemeal, stood to cheer. That’s not what I call bedazzled. Laurin beamed, and why not? There’s a lot that’s good in the piece, but “Onde de choc” feels like a composition still evolving.

PS: On the wide expanse of the Usine C stage, Congo-based dancer-choreographer Faustin Linyekula in “More more more… future” provides a glimpse into a corner of the world that is anything but tranquil. An astonishing and quietly powerful mover, he’s wiry, with a short stature, his hair in short dreads. I was hooked in the opening moments of the piece, as he travelled along the exposed back brick wall of the theatre in a steady, serene and sinewy pathway of movement, bathed in a golden light. It felt to me like the opening phrase of a story which spanned time, and connected with something deep and ancient. Linyekula and his fellow dancers, Dinozord and Papy Ebontani, circle his collaborator musicians – a drummer, a bassist, and the amazing guitarist Flamme Kapaya (a full-fledged star in his home country, and the show’s musical director), decked out in a full-body red sequined outfit. All of the incredible costumes, including the patchwork puffy outfits worn by the dancers, are designed by Congo-born, Parisian couturier Xuly Bët.

The evening is a full-on rock concert, with Kapaya channeling Jimi Hendrix (riveting and rapturous), all set to the incendiary poetry of jailed Congo poet Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, a personal friend of Linyekula. Muhino’s words, which were written from his cell, are projected in English and French as they are recited at full volume – “I am not afraid of kicking in the anthill”, “Remove those false nails and rings”, “Turn off that music for amnesiacs”. We hear rages against “cosmetic democrats” and cautions about “How deep we’re fallen down”, while “Our dance steps lead up to the tomb of our fantasies.” “Turn off the sound” is the repeated roaring exhortation of one of the singers. The musicians start playing the rhythmic rumba-infused Ndombolo music so popular with the Congo masses, but the rhythms take on a rock tone quite quickly, with the singers embodying the punk scream/shout of the seventies era.

At one point all the men form a circle in the back corner of the stage. The lights dim to a setting sun–kissed burnish. They clap their hands, sing, and each member dances in the centre, the community as one. It’s a transcendent, timeless moment, fusing past and present.

The show is not just about a future but, as the title suggests, “more” future to the power of three for those living in the Congo. At one-hour and forty-five minutes, it is long – too long – and the choreography is scattered among the musical numbers, but nothing can diminish the integrity and the wake-up call that the theme of “More more more…future” lays out: dance and sing but let’s “dream with our feet firmly on the ground”. As Linyekula said in the post-performance chat, in the face of poverty, internal strife, corruption and apathy, “To be positive is most subversive. Celebrating is resisting.”

Another all-male tandem showed off their wares the following night. Frédérick Gravel, of the Grouped’artGravelArtGroup or, more familiarly, GAG (got it?), presented “Tout Se Pète La Gueule, Chérie”, a loud and often sensationalist live rock event. Gravel likes to be inclusive, and have the audience onside from the start. For this outing, he has enlisted performers Dave St-Pierre and Nicolas Cantin (in the movement department), and Stéphane Boucher (as singer-musician), to entertain the crowds. Ostensibly it’s all about the vortex of the male, from the crude, the cocky and the disruptive to the downright sexy and subversive. Gravel has good patter, delivered in a shy and deadpan style, with wicked timing. He doesn’t hesitate to reinforce, constantly, the idea that contemporary dance is “waaay” too serious, and why not have a good laugh?

St-Pierre is in particularly good dancing form, on the rebound from a lung transplant earlier this year (to address cystic fibrosis). During one interlude, he comes on in his famous long blond wig from his own work “La Pornographie des âmes”, and asks, “What do you want to see?” Someone shouts “a split”, and presto he’s there; then a call for “a cartwheel”, and he complies. But, then, on his own initiative, he sends up a variety of dance icons, “replicating” moves from Cunningham, de Keersmaeker and Laurin, savage takes on Benoît Lachambre (aimless stumbling about) and Daniel Léveillé (bending over slowly and opening his a-hole, widely, for all to see). Presented with these alternately silly, laugh-out-loud, and objectionable-with-a-wink moments, the audience was giddy and chortled loudly; some patrons gasped, while others were absolutely dumb-founded. St-Pierre’s final bottle-up-the-ass salute to Jan Fabre concluded his spiel. Creepy, but somehow right on. Gravel then comes out from the sidelines to give “context”. Referring to the bottle moment, he says it’s important to understand that this is not scandal, it’s all about the release of the sphincter muscles, and therefore all about contemporary dance. More hilarity. (Whoa, anyone else think this is a not-too-subtle dig at Marie Chouinard’s “pee in the bucket” AGO performance from years ago?)

“Tout se pète” is superficial, almost from beginning to end, but it’s canny entertainment. The choreography is extremely limited in scope and investigation, but Gravel’s musings (not to mention his personality) are really engaging and show his endearing wit and intelligence. And the music skillfully performed by Boucher (with a little help from Gravel) just keeps driving everything forward.

MJT: Super interesting. Okay – here’s a binary that is totally problematic, but fun to chew on: text versus more muted dance, or at least, text versus the moving body’s kind of expression. The use of text – whether as spoken word or projected imagery, etc., – seems to have a tighter grip on the messages associated with dance. For many that means didactic work, in the worst sense of the word; for others, it’s all part of the interdisciplinary turn and a welcome nuance or complication. Are we seeing a lot of that this year?

Of course the body in motion is never as mute as some believe. I think that the way movement conveys seems – because it’s happening on a body – both familiar or close but at the same time incredibly ambiguous for reasons social, cultural and time-based. It’s all happening so fast, and we’re less adept perhaps at reading bodies than say books ….

Over the weekend, I saw “Poussières de Sang”, the new work by Seydou Boro and Salia Sanou of Burkina Faso, with its truly compelling extension of traditional elements in West African dance – the rhythmic structure, the percussive use of body and hands – with a contemporary vision and a pretty unique vocabulary. The musicians occupy stage right and the sole sculptural ornament to the stage, a large square wall by Ky Siriki, stands at stage left (beautifully lit, its painterly quality almost Rothko-esque). The seven-member company begins with a prolonged, grueling dance that features the group on their knees, slamming the floor with their hands, rocking their necks and spines with a speed and degree of focus that is alarming, then fascinating, then disturbing, then beautiful. Here, unison ensemble work is radical.

The movement is abstract, but the message is not: this is lamentation, subjugation, resistance. Made in response to an eruption of violence in their city, Ouagadougou, in 2006, the work dramatizes the rupture and aftermath of terror and, more generally, the torments that humans are made to endure by others who share the same name. In “Poussières”, dancers face off: one pushes another’s head down, hand to skull; the other twists away as head meets dick, a human meeting a dog. Elsewhere, company members throw themselves at the wall, push and shove to find a spot there. They pound their heads, they kick their neighbors, they carry away the dead. Countless gestures choreograph the worst abuses of power. Watching in the audience, I felt them as ordinary, everyday abuses precisely because they were made via small, recognizable actions and delivered with such style and commitment.

Still, it’s hard to aestheticize murder. How many times can you watch someone get kicked onstage, before you shout out “No” or, more suspect, begin quietly to retreat?
These questions stick in my throat, as do riveting performances by Seydou Boro and Salia Sanou, especially in a duet which involved staccato arm work – take the position, then stop, then start again – as if pain erases habit, trauma destroys all pattern. Equally magic was the affectless, direct gaze of dancer Asha Thomas and the near-to-end song by the musician Mamadou Konè, his voice high and reedy and full of grief and hope.

PS: For me, the movement in “Poussières de sang” is initially absorbing, and the gathering menace suffocating. There is nothing languid in these insular insidious intransigents. But Salia and Seydou’s scrutiny of the dimensions of violence remains unsatisfying, stilted in its relentless repetitiveness. This kind of erasure only feeds a Western colonialist guilt brimming with confusion about the realities within particular African societies.

On another note, the uncompromising linguistic stance in “Poussières de sang” is riveting in its connection with the language issues that spring up on our own soil. Djata Ilebou opens the work by singing a tremendously melancholic lamentation, but as the song unfolds it takes on a different weight and becomes tragic and unsettling. The lyrics are in Kassena (from southern Burkina Faso) and there are no surtitles provided, but it’s possible to connect through somatic empathy, sensing things in the body movement and connecting to the hurt and pain coursing through her voice. At times I itched to know the meaning of the words, but my need for narrative was trumped. (Salia and Seydou refuse to have the songs in the piece, or the words that are later spoken, translated.)

MJT: Hmmm. It reminds me of something Peter Sellars said about the 1990 LA Festival and how curators had consciously decided not to frame or contextualize artists. (See Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Confusing Pleasures”, in Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.) The thinking was that, in the encounter between cultures, less information was better in terms of preventing a kind of bogus “understanding”, all the while promoting for viewers a sensibility of pleasure in surprise and a sort of dexterity and comfort with the unfamiliar. Of course, this can sound downright anti-intellectual but what’s the alternative? Knowing little of life in Burkina Faso, I’d say that for me not knowing any of the linguistic references meant that language functioned as another element on the stage, in this case ultimately mysterious except for the enormous ways in which sound, tone, melody and rhythm shape expression. Given the clarity of the gestural movement – kicks, hits, etc., – translation might have been overkill.

Here’s a company at the height of its powers, with a strong vision anchored in direct experience. I guess I’d have to say that what bothers me about “Poussières” is its beauty. I keep thinking about the floor surface: Ky Siriki’s gorgeous, scraped and burnished red and ochre floor, its pocked surface meant to conjure bloodshed and trauma but somehow making me think of more of elite art practices and the perils of over-aestheticisization. Making terror too pretty, too easily consumed, too easily dismissed: these are real traps for those wanting to do political work.

Watching Tammy Forsythe’sGolpe” was disturbing, mostly for the sense of good intentions gone amok. Generally, Forsythe has a lovely, strange way of being in movement – her lanky reach and street swagger holds a kind of DIY vibe that dance needs. But something went wrong here, from casting to design, from dance to thematics. “Golpe”, meaning ‘blow’ in Spanish, is a patchwork of claims, buzz words, punk songs and heart-felt indignity. Three dancers move about on a cluttered stage, wearing cool hand-made costumes, performing minimal movement – really a phrase or two that repeat – and doing various tasks, many of which involve interactions with hanging, possibly quilted, anarchy symbols. Seriously. The rendering and manipulation of objects here looked empty to an inexplicable degree. For instance, a dance with guns, perhaps meant to invoke Mao’s Model Plays, seemed an afterthought, as if dancers had no idea what to do with these props. Text pointed at something, more gloss than gusto; for instance, the repeated “IMF” in a punk song by Forsythe’s band 3-Kore only begged the question, What about it? The material leapt from change in Washington to Cuba, Venezuela, the wall between the United States and Mexico, 911 and the American torture debate but, whereas words invoked concrete experience, no deeper sense of what’s at stake in any of these things for the artists or for the people living in these places was ever given. What happened?

PS: I walked away from the “Golpe” performance confused and not necessarily persuaded. It’s a difficult show to embrace because of its many flaws, but Forsythe imbues the overall production with a seething anger that you can’t dismiss or ignore. She rails about the apparent lies and deception doled out by government(s) and institutions. There’s hardly a nuanced range of feeling in sight or earshot. For all the diatribe, though, what I’m hooked on in her work, and it’s been present in earlier pieces (I haven’t seen her output in a number of years) is an inner conflict, between globalized political rhetoric and something else that’s exploding within her.

Incidentally, this has been an auspicious year for this multi-disciplinary creator, capped by her receiving the Canada Council’s Victor Martyn-Lynch Staunton Award, for outstanding mid-career artist, which perhaps has led to certain expectations that this would be a shrewd political production. Forsythe transforms the Agora stage with primitive/folklore set elements that are easy to enjoy – how long do you think it took to make those padded ‘A’ for anarchy rings that were suspended and occasionally tossed about? Her patchwork knee-length apron-styled costumes, with rubber gloves as accoutrements, were pretty terrific. At the start of the show, a young Venezuelan performer Gelymar Sanchez brings out an old cassette recorder playing the ubiquitous festival announcement – another nod to handmade aesthetic. Likewise for the scratchy, often black-and-white hand-held video recordings of rehearsals and footage from her travels in Venezuela. And the crisp red and white strips of material she employs, as if ripped from the American flag, serve as a somber reminder of where she stands politically.

The performers seemed casually in process, flubbing one thing or another (a cord is ripped from a speaker, and singer/dancer Sioned Watkins incorporates the blunder into her song; Forsythe gently tells another cast member that it wasn’t time for a particular recording), or moving deliberately from one task to the next. Nothing seemed set or certain. At one point, Forsythe reads out a shot-list of material they’ve gone through, and I couldn’t help but think this declaration was as much for her performers’ benefit as ours. At another moment, Sanchez pulls out a cheat-sheet to help her along in her task of writing significant dates and country names (none of this data is explained). The throbbing basement punk band-quality to the music underscores that DIY quality. (Wish the voices were better, though.)

But “Golpe” is, as Forsythe states at one point, a coup d’état, a break with the current state of affairs. Our community needs artists with social-justice convictions, but as a “political punk opera” her slogans and diatribes are flat-liners, giving a sense of pictoralism or an internalized political analysis or action, but providing little way in for the viewer. For all Forsythe’s anger/scorn/venom at the state of world politics, or her concern for a better world, her opposition to the global oil economy, for one, remains of the bumper-sticker variety (“Geitner still has a job!”, “BP has the US Coast Guard in their pocket….”, “The IDF keeps shooting!”, “Viva! Viva! Palestina!” are just some of the lines). With a disconcerting sneer to her voice, there is little subtlety to her message. Apart from her piling on these denunciations, what is her alternative to these problems?

In a Canadian reference, she initially speaks about the CIA’s psychological torture method as practiced by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Hospital at McGill University during the 1950s. Her suggestion: a plaque to tell everyone what went on. A plaque, really? It’s disingenuous to say the Cameron experiments were a hidden and unspoken part of our history. (Reading material that is easily found on the subject: “I Swear By Apollo: Dr. Ewen Cameron and the CIA-Brainwashing Experiments”, by Don Gillmor; “In the Sleep Room: The Story of CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada”, by Anne Collins; and “Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, by Naomi Klein.) But it’s when she begins to shriek, “Nobody knows about it!!”, repeatedly, that the intent of the show irrevocably shifts. It’s an explosion so deep within her core that it makes every other detail she was trying to express seem secondary. With her upper body convulsing, and her head titled back and her hands twisted and shaking, what perhaps started out as a theatrical posture becomes a frightening sight to witness. In an instant she becomes an isolated, tragic figure. And I doubt that’s her intention.

Maybe working in the theatrical setting isn’t suited for this piece. Perhaps a punk bar/music venue would be best, and I’ve heard this is a possible tour venue for the piece. Whatever front line she chooses, her dystopic anthem would benefit from some thorough self-reflection.

MJT: Philip, I’m glad you mention the DIY thing again. The costumes were so original, and can we just have a shout out for the hot drummer in an apron? It seems like the right moment for dance to consider questions of labour, manual knack and skill, which the hand-made ethos raises nicely. So much work went into this piece, and that’s one reason why its derailment seems so wrong. What’s surprising here too is the weird disregard for audience: mostly adults, mostly locals in a city that prides itself on discourse and engagement across a variety of faultlines. If fans can’t get the message here, where? I like the idea of multiple venues for this work: the bar, the street, the university, the mall. But “Golpe” still needs to find its centre, to have something to say apart from using the word as private code or invocation: “Peter Kent”! That could be cool potentially, but then it’s a different piece – focussed around private ritual or maybe political language and spin. A dramaturge could help. So could more dance. Not to go all purist here – it’s just that Forsythe really is unique in terms of her vision and quality of movement. She could do more with that.

In terms of the larger argument, what might this say about politically engaged work and/or the festival? Sometimes different strategies work: say, alternating sincerity with irony, à la Bill T. Jones. Sometimes, shifting tone and technique create impact: overlaying anger and lyricism, performative gestures and written poetics, as per David Wojnarowicz.

There’s a lot to be angry about. Confrontation may be hard, but many people are willing to go there given a sense of why it matters. For political work where the stakes feel so high – do justice to the problem, honour the dead! – more rigour in terms of structure and information may be required, a deeper sense of the beauty and fragility of things too.

One other thing: festival programmers merit real praise for curating work of this register. Because of its intensity, the festival genre offers an opportunity to see a lot of shows in a short space of time, often alongside friends or colleagues. In this context, difference counts in terms of galvanizing the debate and pushing the form in new directions.

But sometimes familiar directions look pretty good too. The eternally mesmerizing Louise Lecavalier performed Thursday night in “Children” (2009), a fifty-minute piece by Nigel Charnock of DV8 fame, followed after a short pause by “A Few Minutes of Lock”, her reconstructed solos of early La La La material. Super entertaining, and a lesson on the nature of individual presence. That word can mean many things, but here it invokes how artists with experience, depth, discipline and focus (do I mean this last word or should it be attention, commitment or tension even?) simultaneously hold and charge space. Electric kinetic transference (the audience stood and roared, literally, at the end of the night)!

The evening was strangely nostalgic, in spite of the new work on view from Charnock. It was the 1980s all over, bound by camp, collage, physical theatre, gesture. “Children” is a well-crafted collection of scenes depicting a relationship: maybe between parent and child, maybe between a pair of lovers, maybe between performer and creative output. One scene is a pillow fight for exhausted breeders or feuding couples; another shows Lecavalier, dancing with Patrick Lamothe, through a superb sequence of floor work involving, among other moves, repeated high-speed walks on all fours. Held together by an engaging sequence of songs – Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, for instance, and Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” – the dance is rhythmic, charming, and ends with the pair in an excellent embrace – Lecavalier climbing up Lamothe! – in a spotlight, pouring water over each other’s heads as Callas’ voice soars and the lights dim.

Here, fifty minutes felt like fifteen, thanks to the smoothness and sense of fun in Charnock’s choreography. No new aesthetic here, more a sense of master interpreters revisiting the techniques that made them.

PS: The last two dance shows of the festival veered from the political arena to a reflective and joyous place, involving, in separate shows, two master dance artists, Lecavalier and Japan’s Saburo Teshigawara. Lecavalier is asserting her desire to engage in a daring full-out dance entertainment. Frothy and fun, the evening indeed had pensive moments, and watching an in-form Lecavalier was a pure treat. It’s rare these days to see a dance artist actually dance, and really bite into the material, demonstrating focus and, whether it was the moving Miles Davis duet, in which she and Lamothe touched ever so briefly, signaling their deep affection for one another and their comfort to be apart, or the martial arts–tinged, baton-twirling solo or, later, the lovely and silly Charleston-esque shimmies or what looked like serious jazz dance workout. What marks Lecavalier’s oeuvre, from Lock to Charnock (and Lachambre and Robinson in between) is, as you’ve indicated, her innate focus and consummate pitch-perfect artistry in the tiniest details. The pair’s precision, synchrony and entanglements bowled me over. Lamothe may not have been everyone’s ideal dance partner (I heard some grumbles), but I loved seeing him, in his every-guy physicality, alongside the striking Lecavalier.

Post-intermission, “A Few Minutes of Lock” revisited some of the duets from “2” and “Salt/Exaucé”, which she danced with Elijah Brown (with a brief cameo by Lamothe). The audience was on its feet at the end of the thirteen-minute mini-event. The way Lecavalier plays it, you know reviving these short dances is not nostalgia for her, but from my perspective, having seen the original works (which came at the end of Lecavalier’s career-defining run with La La La Human Steps), I would prefer to recall the original performances. Might it be that a producer or two told her that the “Children” program wasn’t long enough (or perhaps serious enough) and why not beef it up with some Lock classics?

Note to the next generation of dancer: pack the halls during Lecavalier’s next run in Montréal in April 2011. This is what it’s all about: something real, felt and deep. She is a mesmerizing dancer, and in “Children” she will take a little piece of your heart. It’s a deft performance, directed with subtlety and verve, without a trace of bravado, from a gracious, enduring artist.

I was equally drawn to Teshigawara’s “Miroku”, in which the dancer/choreographer, set, lighting and costume designer, takes centre-stage. The title recalls the future Buddha in a world that is spiritually harmonious. The genius of the work lies in his playing the arc of chaos, tension and internal agitation before discovering the path that eventually leads to a holistic homeostasis. Danced in an ever-changing environment of light and an evolving intensity of tone and colour, Teshigawara is also, as he described in a public chat with me following the performance, under the influence of waves of energy that cascade over and around his body. Watching this veteran dancer move is a deep, rich and resonant experience.

PS: We’ve had lots to mull over these last weeks. I missed a through-line in the curatorial choices in this year’s FTA, at least on the dance side of the roster. But what was on show felt more global than in previous editions; it’s true that conflicts are continually flaring up, but at a time when tensions world-wide are too innumerable to entertain in this discussion, it seemed sensible (and pertinent!) that we stumble upon some of the concerns from less-dominant regions. It reaffirmed that there is mystery in what we see, and that we can accept that not everything is understood. Hosting an event is all about accommodation and not posturing, and sometimes providing a place for the less than obvious voices proves inspiring. Thank you M.J., for your insight and thought-provoking posts. I’ve loved having the chance to dialogue.

MJT: Likewise, Philip. Great to follow your eye, and to get a wider sense of the range of material on view at the festival this year. Thanks. One last thought about the Lecavalier evening. I loved seeing the Lock material again, and following Charnock seemed like the right context for revisiting that work. There was a pared-down edge to these duets: less anarchic than I’d remembered, more taut, and tougher somehow, as if they’d been deconstructed to emphasize certain lines and emotions. A question mark for me lay more in the evening’s theatricality. What was once so radical, in terms of mocking the artifice of gender and the limits of ballet, felt a bit old fashioned. The demons of the dance world – and the world – are not what they once were. And playing parts is tricky since styles of acting change, as do audiences’ modes of interpretation. For now, given her iconic position, Lecavalier is always playing herself on stage too – or at least some version of herself. I think that doubling of identity, always there in dance but made more explicit by Lecavalier’s current work and stature, is important and something to be developed further or else abandoned entirely in favour of something new. What I saw on view, that night and others, is perhaps an attainable and quieter revolution. When dance makes evident the power of individuals making choices, working ensemble, taking action, it models a way of being – inspired, directed gesture – that may come closest to delivering a pragmatic and, yes, political framework into the beautiful tick-tock of everyday life.

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