“We have to make them jealous,” Sylvain Émard told the assembled crowd of dancers. There were nearly 400 of us packed into a large salon on the UQÀM campus, and in a few minutes we’d be marching four-abreast to Montréal’s Place des Festivals for the opening performance of Le Super Méga Continental. Émard was giving notes on the previous night’s dress rehearsal, and above all, he wanted us to be less serious, to enjoy ourselves more and to make our audience’s hearts catch with envy.
We cheered, as we often did. We were a celebratory group, and we’d been whooping and clapping through nearly three months of twice-weekly rehearsals by this point. Émard’s choreography combines contemporary and jazz styles with line dancing. True to its name, Le Super Méga is full of sass and flair, with lots of big movements and emphatic punctuation. When it’s not jubilant, it’s slinky; when it’s not pulsating, it’s snappy. Needless to say, there had been plenty of opportunity for shouts and laughter.
Not that it wasn’t hard work. The defining feature of the Continental series isn’t actually the large number of performers, though to date something like 2500 people have danced in Émard’s mass-movement spectacles, including 150 currently preparing for a January performance in Santiago, Chile. There have been thirteen other editions since 2009, beginning with Le Grand Continental in Montréal, followed by Le Très Grand Continental, then El Gran Continental in Mexico, then back to Montréal for Le Continental XL, and after that a proliferation of Continentals in places as far-flung as South Korea and New Zealand. The sheer scale makes an impact, but Émard’s innovation isn’t the multiplication of bodies. The real trick — and one big reason why this work has found so much success — is that he doesn’t do it for us. We do it for him.
In the Super Méga Continental, as with all Émard’s crowd pieces, the dancers were mostly amateurs. Some were devotees of different forms like swing or bhangra, and a few were former pros, but overall we were just an oddball assortment of humans with the dumb impulse to perform and not much else in common. Our massive troupe included the sweetly serious, the faintly bemused and the totally effervescent. We had our charming loudmouths calling out quips, our sweaty seniors swigging from water bottles and our clumps of teenagers falling all over each other. Some of us were Québeécois TV celebrities; others were economists, audiologists and retired schoolteachers. Some were miraculously graceful in all their movements; others weren’t. Some wore bicycle shorts; others wore flowery dresses. One had a baby in her belly; another had cancer. It was a wild mix, but we are all game.
Despite the chaos of personalities and abilities, Émard insisted on a form of professional rigour, driving us hard to learn thirty minutes of detailed choreography on an 8/8 count. There was no collaborative input or creative negotiations with the dancers. Rather, the movements sprang directly from Émard’s artistic vision, and our job was to imprint them on our bodies as best we could. Surely it would have been easier to carve out blocks for individual interpretation, to make a few rules and let us play. But Émard didn’t want to risk our audience’s charity. Le Super Méga Continental was supposed to be good, for real.
So we worked. Split into two groups, we met two evenings a week for two months in a giant church basement with mint-green walls and fluorescent lights, and then another few weeks all together at the Olympic Stadium, that impressively terrible building looming over Montréal’s east end. It was always a weird transition, moving from the stresses of the day to join that unlikely congregation of dancers. By the time we had scarfed an early dinner and trundled into the rehearsal hall, we were usually still processing some fresh horror in the news: another assault by the American regime on the non-white and non-rich, another reason to invoke impending global catastrophe. And then we danced, each in our spot, counting “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” under our breath as we pointed and twisted and hopped and spun. It was an escape, but I think we also felt we were doing something good — if not for the world, then at least for ourselves.
I first heard of Le Super Méga Continental while researching an article last winter about choreographers who work with non-professional dancers. One snowy afternoon in January, I dropped by Montréal’s Circuit-Est Centre Chorégraphique to interview Émard about his crowd works. In the course of our conversation he told me that his amateur dancers sometimes reported dramatic transformations in their personal lives. They experienced inner awakenings; they left their partners and changed careers. “They realize, ‘I’m happy, and elsewhere in my life I’m not, so something has to change,’” he theorized.
Émard never intended any of that. “I just wanted to do it because I wanted to see it,” he confided. He came to dance originally through line dancing as a young man, and by the time he had the idea for Le Grand Continental, he’d already enjoyed two decades of international success for his traditional stage works. So, as he put it, “It pleased me to do a mass choreography as an homage to line dancing.” By the end of that inaugural crowd piece, however, Émard realized that something bigger was happening. “Many times, people tell me it’s changed their lives,” he told me. Still, he thinks the real reason it works so well as a community project is that it was never supposed to be one. The Continental series comes from the same place as all his other works for professional dancers: “I wanted to do something that was important to me.”
Personally, I joined Le Super Méga Continental for the masochistic reason that I hate crowds. I’ve never been able to enjoy a good dose of mob mentality. Whenever a bunch of people stand close together and try to share a single experience, for me it is often like triggering an ejection seat out the top of my head. I end up feeling alien to myself and others, peering around me and worrying that I’m broken in some fundamental way. So when Émard told me about his project, I saw it as an opportunity to take my faulty wires and jam them straight into a life-changing collective vibe. Also, I like to dance.
It turns out, one really can find harmony in dance, especially when everyone moves their bodies in the same way. Unison is powerful, and it doesn’t take much to get the effect across. Think of the inexorable stadium wave or how people will throng to see a parade. In Le Super Méga Continental, Émard builds mass unison to ecstatic heights. There are moments in the choreography that really slay and others I found cheesy; either way, Émard possesses a remarkable genius for bringing a crowd of diverse people to the farthest limit of its collective skill and gusto. I don’t know what it’s like to watch from the outside, but from the vantage of one cell in the larger organism, intricate collective movement can be achingly beautiful.
Often it was the big, simple movements that worked best. For example, I’d get shots of electricity when we’d all march with fat cowboy steps and swing our arms stiffly overhead. But even though the beauty was clearest in the elemental gestures, the pleasure also lay in the accents and details. Émard kept us in a sweet spot between complexity and expansiveness, pulling us along with challenging sequences and then setting us free into joyful, unrestrained motion.
In rehearsals, I found myself craving the unison. I wanted it to be exquisite, but it never was. I don’t think there was a single moment when I looked around me and thought, “Look at these crisp rows of humans doing the exact same thing.” People have too much character to replicate each other perfectly. They’re too strange, too real and too irrepressible to do anything precisely the same way. At any dance performance, I always find myself instinctively studying the individuality of each dancer. In Le Super Méga Continental, I realized that the shared choreography — as captivating as it often was — really served as a collective marker to highlight the uniqueness of the 375 dancers, in all their gorgeous originality.
About twenty minutes after Émard’s pep talk, we found ourselves standing in tight formation behind the bleachers that had been set up at the edge of Place des Festivals, moments away from taking the stage. A short, grey-haired woman in the row ahead of me turned to those around her and said, “I’m incredibly proud to be surrounded by all of you.” She repeated it several times, making eye contact with each of us. Everyone smiled. We all felt it too.