I live in a city that is famous for its festivals. They are a time of celebration and reflection, and the exchange of ideas and the simple vitality of the works on view make these events un-missable. Notions of territoriality become evident — in terms of geography, yes, but also the distinctions and specificities that take root in the various enclaves within any locale. Tendencies intermingle and artists gravitate to like-minded practitioners. Yet no image or trend can define a major cultural centre like Montréal, with its vast variety of experience. Audiences get to see the passions of the artists and the soul-filled engagement in the work they produce. Festivals are also about asking questions, seeking larger meanings and the excitement of discovery.
When all is said and done, there was a lot to parse during the recent seventh edition of Montréal’s largest theatre and dance gathering — the Festival TransAmériques (FTA). Recurring themes in this heady urban event included musings on crisis, identity and the end of the world. A generous mix of approach and activity was on display; fertile touchstones were offered by unique creative minds.
A festival “wrap-up” panel, in which I participated, was asked, among other things, to consider the links between Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel and Robyn Orlin’s Beauty Remains, and whether there could be a through-line or theme (such as “black identity”) in these works, or whether the idea of “the apocalypse” connected Lemi Ponifasio’s Birds with Skymirrors and Ginette Laurin’s Khaos. (See The Dance Current’s online reviews for more detailed critiques of some of these works.) To bestow these kinds of bonds and banners on these works seems limiting; nonetheless, the discussion ensued with honesty and respect. Ideas of positivism and negativism were observed in various works — cueing questions about the “end of ideals” mentality at play, and how ripped-from-the-headlines topics of corruption and the abuses of power were infiltrating the pieces. One other bountiful debate centred on the breaking of the famous fourth wall in numerous productions — Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolo’s Nella Tempesta, Thomas Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People and Orlin’s Beauty Remains among them. Was it to fulfill a need to get audience members to question the legitimacy of performance itself? There seems to be an assumption that audiences are otherwise sleepwalking, prompting a misbegotten need to excoriate the public as disengaged or numb. Making art is not easy to do. Convincing performance is grounded in the perceptual, with artists manipulating ideas and physical language, all made available to the public’s imagination. How it is processed need not be dictated by theory, convention or will. In that sense, just as artists can put anything into a series of performances, anything goes when it comes to an audience.
The question of where dance belongs also arose. FTA’s success goes beyond theatre-bound work by incorporating selections that happen out-of-doors — Robin Poitras’ Bells 13 and Bennett Miller’s Dachshund UN come to mind — mingling art with the incoherent activity of the street. One of this year’s most striking performances happened beyond the borders of the FTA’s programming, though most of the dance folk in attendance managed to trek by foot, bike or cab to this out-of-the way event. Bringing together the realities of soundscape and urban landscape, Peter Trosztmer’s 5 Out of 6 Machines, in collaboration with Jeremy Gordaneer, is a performance/installation piece set in the foundry-like environment of an abandoned lot in the southwest borough of Griffintown in Montréal, surrounded by massive condo construction and autoroutes. In this piece Trosztmer is working intimately on every level, in contrast to what a Ponifasio, say, is doing impressively on a big scale in a theatre. What appeals to me about Trosztmer’s presentation is how expressive the work is. His sparse undertaking resoundingly underscores the force of the body and the pure physical pleasure an artist can have in performance.
South of the border, succeeding generations of people breathlessly confess their affiliation with Jacob’s Pillow. Whether coming year after year, or returning after a forty-year absence, they make their pilgrimage to rural Becket, Massachusetts, from all corners of the globe. Celebrating its eighty-firsts anniversary, “the Pillow” is hallowed ground. Dispatched to the festival as a scholar-in-residence (there are always two scholars at the festival any given week), I give pre-performance talks, write program note, and interview artists. The task is to stoke the fires a bit — sharing my insights and providing a stimulating moment in someone’s festival schedule. One of the fulfilling aspects of that role is seeing audiences evolve –becoming excited and engaged in the art of dance. It’s about seeing their understanding shift, whether the performances are life altering or terrible. You can notice it in the questions asked during post-performances discussions and at the other public forums — the audience’s queries and comments become more nuanced about the art and practice of dance and much less focused on lifestyle issues (what dancers eat and drink, how they maintain their feet and so on).
The vast difference of the Pillow experience begins with getting there. Travelling up the winding road to the site is akin to arriving at a safe place — a bucolic environment, with trees and seclusion and extended opportunities to be part of a community of people devoted to and immersed in dance. The legacy — the connection and an almost spiritual tie with the history of Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers — burns brightly. Men dancing as a legitimate career path was established on these grounds. The Men Dancers also built some of the rustic cabins and studios still extant on the campus. Adding to the atmosphere is the historical fact that this place was a station on the Underground Railway, a haven for slaves en route to Canada and a life of freedom.
Sure, companies like Dance Theater of Harlem sell tickets like hotcakes here. But it’s whatever else that turns the head around that really counts — whether it’s the exquisite Shantala Shivalingappa expanding the traditions of the Indian kuchipudi classical form, or audiences jiving ecstatically to Compahnia Urbana de Dança, a group of favela-dwellers from Rio who skillfully blend contemporary dance, hip-hop and samba. Is the popular thwarting the art? Well, the programming at the Pillow, smartly curated by Ella Baff, is nothing if not eclectic. There seems to be a responsibility to communicate to a knowledgeable and adventurous, though certainly mass, audience.
This summer Canadians troupes were well-represented: Ballet BC returned to the festival after many years away and made a big impression, and Hari Krishnan’s company took to the outdoor Inside/Out stage. As I write this, O Vertigo Danse is set to return after a twelve-year absence, with La Otra Orilla having its Pillow premiere in mid-August. Also that week, there is the world premiere of Wendy Whelan’s ambitious Restless Creature, a suite of four new duets choreographed by Kyle Abraham, Vancouver’s Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks and Alejandro Cerrudo, and performed by the acclaimed NYC Ballet star. (Even a playful, touching, one-man physical-theatre show from Berlin, Leo, had a slew of Montréal connections, and captivated audiences with its interplay of live acrobatic performance, animation and video projection.)
What happens at the Pillow goes beyond borders and marketing and the next tour. Students at the school and the artists on site can express themselves for who they are and explore what might just be the outer reaches of experience. It’s a place where they can relish that they are dancers or choreographers and contemplate a life in dance. Here, it is the dancing, the potent physicality, the limbering up, the figurative stretching, but it’s also the day-to-day experiences, the queuing for food, the talking, the dreaming. It’s about old relationships rekindled and new friendships formed, and it’s about the love and the kinship that centres around dance.
Global connections bring dance artists together at festivals like the FTA and the Pillow. What becomes obvious, whatever the occasion, is the degree to which there’s been a cross-pollination of ideas, a flowering of shared information affecting our larger sensibility. Cultural mixing is inevitable and pervasive. It’s what Compahnia Urbana’s Sonia Destri refers to when she says “Our legs are in Rio, our head is in Los Angeles and our long arms extend from New York to Tokyo.” Festivals are the enablers of our time: reminders that artists and audiences exposed to one another can connect, experiencing a dialogue of potential that continues to stimulate these dance environments.