The night I arrived in the lobby of the Monument National for the performance of Louis-Martin Charest’s new work, “Liberamae”, I was taken aback by the crowd that had assembled for the performance. Montréal establishment types, in pearls and fitted suits, were shoulder to shoulder with folks from both the ranks of the ballet and contemporary dance communities. Everyone seemed to take great delight in being there for the show. That the “Liberamae” crew, including some forty volunteers (who contributed to everything from an award-winning web site to the graphics for the program), managed to pull in such a diverse public was encouraging, especially in a time when dance artists are fighting to attract audiences.
Charest has been carving out a career for himself as a dancer, but ever so incrementally he has also been amassing credits as a choreographer. He began his studies at the National Ballet School in his teens, and started his professional career some fifteen years ago, dancing with Ottawa Ballet. He then danced as soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal before returning home to dance with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal for five years, where he worked with everyone from Mark Morris to Ohad Naharin. Equallly comfortable in ballet shoes or shoeless in contemporary work with Ginette Laurin’s O Vertigo. With thirty-three choreographed pieces under his belt as an independent choreographer — many of them solo creations, including commissions for Le Jeune Ballet du Québec, the Arts Umbrella in Vancouver and bjm_danse (Les Ballets jazz de Montréal) — Charest, at thirty-four, was primed for his first full-evening work.
“Liberamae” is Charest’s act of the heart. The project has been gestating for years. Thematically he says it’s linked to the quest to find happiness as an artist. The title can be translated from the Italian or the Spanish as “liberate the soul” or “liberate me”. Not only did he create the movement, he also wrote the script for the piece.
Charest has stated in interviews that, “A dancer is an actor, and a choreographer is a director and needs to think in that perspective.” While the work is constructed as a true intersection of dance and theatre, as a choreographer Charest has created a highly theatrical work, using text and symbolic images that in some way relegates the movement to a secondary role. It’s a perspective that informs every aspect of the work.
In essence, “Liberamae” is a chamber work composed of solos, duets and trios, and the space dramatizes everything. Audiences file into the 100-seat studio theatre at the Monument National from two levels — the seating rings the stage on three sides from above, as well as lining one wall directly facing the dancers below. As people enter, one dancer is already on the semi-darkened stage. To the left of the stage, a flow of coloured fabric cascades down one wall. A chair is positioned in the centre, and something not quite identifiable is suspended from the ceiling.
A woman (Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde) is ramrod-still, arms behind her back. She’s wearing a period black dress covering what appears to be a white shift. The lights come up on a man (Charest), with slicked back hair, a wing-tipped shirt, tie and vest. He’s adjusting the collar and the cuffs, overly concerned with his meticulous appearance. When the gentleman speaks, his voice is halting, he sounds nervous and uncomfortable.
From the start, the text tells the story of a desperately conflicted and unhappy man and the psychology of the role comes through the dancing as well. It’s a juicy part, and the choreography shows Charest’s understanding of classical ballet vocabulary, suited to his small frame. The man’s body seems in a state of contradiction. He takes on the stance of a marionette; his agile legs kick out and there’s some scrupulously quick footwork, but he doesn’t travel. At times, there’s sureness in his gaze, while at other moments he seems in total crisis, the weight of which literally pulls him to the ground, crumpled by indecision and doubt.
The casting was a success. Lagarde’s character could be his mother or his wife, and her line readings were appropriately nuanced. Two other figures in the piece include a towering man (Steeve Coutereel, a dynamic, tall and rangy dramatic soloist with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, with a powerful presence here too) and a lover/seductress (Anne Plamondon, seen most recently in work by Victor Quijada and Estelle Clareton). These roles evoke a dichotomy of sins, a mirror for Charest’s lonely man’s attraction and repulsion.
There are moments when Charest’s character appears like a figure from a silent film, his face and body wide open for expression. It’s not the grand gestures and flamboyance of silent film actors but rather the detailed close-up possibilities that Charest seems to have understood. Adding to the overall atmosphere of melancholy and despair is Gabriel Thibaudeau’s evocative piano score, with Eric Forget’s electroacoustic trills providing a destabilizing element to the music. When Charest’s haunted figure first encounters Plamondon’s character, he moves gingerly around her taking small tight little steps, and his head nods up. He appears almost child-like, and he seems to be in a state of perpetual spring before action. Initially, both bodies are calm, tentative. However, what starts off as something cautious, even tender, ends with a fight scene that is violent (in terms of slaps and pulls), passionate, and absolutely exciting to watch. In short order, Coutereel’s character enters, and he and Charest engage in an aggressive and powerful pas de deux, filling the entire expanse of the wide stage. The classically trained bodies impress as their fierce battle leaps across the space.
Charest’s character in “Liberamae”, it seems, will collide with others in perpetuity, and yet this anti-hero survives. “Liberamae” is about one man’s struggle to maintain his honour in what appears — at least in his eyes — to be a fallen world. Still, because the figures in this dance-theatre production remain shrouded and mysterious, Charest doesn’t quite succeed in drawing us into his lonely man’s heart. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about both the intensity of Charest’s own impressive portrayal, nor his courage in mounting this ambitious production.