Creativity is shaped in different ways, and inspiration leads to sometimes unexpected results. A few years ago, Montréal-based choreographer Louise Bédard, intrigued by the photomontage and collage work of German dadaist artist Hannah Höch’s subversive output, chose to locate her production “Ce qu’il en reste” (2005) in the context of the 1920s visual artist’s work. (The dadaists’ cutting, nonsensical performance and biting visual send-ups railed against tradition and conservatism and expressed the sentiments of the pre-WWII anarchic revolution.) In Höch’s startling and often jarring photo images and motifs, you see cubist space married to political content and satire, as well as the beginnings of image appropriation.
None of these charged elements appeared in Bédard’s dance work; her pieces never tell stories. But certainly the pasting quality inherent to Hoch’s process affected Bédard: she became a collagist herself, diving into working in a very tactile fashion and less with her head. An ironic bric-à-brac sensibility infiltrated her choices in constructing, and fragmenting, the movement.
In another production, actress-cum-political photographer Tina Modotti served as inspiration. In “Elles” (2002), a series of duets, featuring Bédard and Sophie Corriveau, Bédard played off the wit and drama in Modotti’s still-life aesthetic. Now, with “Enfin vous zestes” (2008), she’s turned her intention to the ghostly, haunting, hyper-realistic portraits of children by Canadian painter Marianna Gartner. In her canvasses, Gartner uses old photographs as a starting point for her work, by reinterpreting them and reinventing the context for the subjects. As in previous instances, none of the paintings appear in Bédard’s work. But Gartner’s vision is expressive and nonetheless does provide meaning in understanding the themes of this choreography, though if you had no prior knowledge of the visual artist’s work, you might never make a correlation with what is produced on stage.
I mentioned collage earlier in the context of Bédard’s dances, and this technique remains central to this new work. Here, it appears she is sampling quotes, building bridges between her dancers’ life experiences and what she’s developed on stage. In various press interviews, she’s quoted as saying that she allowed the dancers to improvise quite freely in the investigation phase, only being privy to certain strands of ideas and working around them. Bédard comes across as modest, not self-conscious. She is an artist engrossed in the process of making dances. Unfortunately, the results of “Enfin vous zestes” are decidedly mixed, and discomforting, for a lot of reasons.
Part of the trouble is that with a talented craftsperson and a serious artist, like Bédard is, control is always an issue. Providing a concerted place for improvisation might be a new way of working for her, and beneficial at some level in the creative process, but in this case her “hands-off” approach depletes the dance. Even though she never works with a narrative per se, in this instance she could have gone deeper in exposing the emotional, dramatic detailing and animating of her “characters”. What we get instead is a run-on sensibility, akin to long sentences that seem to have been written by different voices, with flourishes and tones that are attractive or interesting at times, but it’s a “grab what you can” sensibility that pushes viewers away, rather than drawing them in. In a piece with a confusing syntax, this abundance of information makes the piece easy to forget, because little sticks.
The title “Enfin vous zestes” is a play on words. Bédard has described how “z’este” derives from the old French, to indicate “I refuse!”, as in asserting one’s prerogative. In relation to this dance — in which the movement and interplay of her collaborators reflects a desire on the choreographer’s part to explore the tragic and alternately comic possibilities of life — it’s a reminder of how nothing is what it seems, and how little is gained from masking one’s true self. It could also be read as “Enfin vous êtes”, or “Finally, you are”, reiterating a similar perspective.
The piece opens with composer and sound designer Diane Labrosse (who works with a highly nuanced palette of sounds) entering and sitting at the music soundboard, at the side of the stage. Shortly thereafter, the six dancers (Tom Casey, Jean-François Déziel. Marie-Claire Forté, Victoria May, Ken Roy and Sarah Williams, representing different generations of dancers) arrive from the wings, singly, cloaked in beige trench coats, giving a gender-neutral feel to the piece. Their arms extend, as if breathing into the space, and in extending outwards, occasionally they touch another’s hand or shoulder as they progress across the stage. They seem self-absorbed, preoccupied, their glances furtive, or just indicating they are in their own “zone”. Vividly moving into the space, they twist and turn, opening their arms, with Labrosse commanding the aural environment with whooshing sounds and ricochet noises. It’s a wonderful and affecting sequence. In some ways, these characters are reminiscent of the lost souls that populated Jean-Pierre Perreault’s mega works; like Perreault-esque figures, they are burdened, but fundamentally interconnected. Perreault was masterful in creating intimacy and a poignant connection between his dancers, and the audience was always invited into their world. This question of intimacy is reflected in Gartner’s photographs too, but ultimately, in Bédard’s dance, the quality simply comes across as idiosyncratic and with a thinly veiled irony.
With “Enfin”, the set by Geneviève Lizotte informs and gives coherence to the overall piece. A series of frames recall canvasses assembled in a bric-à-brac fashion, while also hinting at an urban cityscape, with the frames suggesting buildings and rooftops. Lighting designer Bruno Rafie’s ever-changing palette augments this “lived-in” landscape.
The dancers soon ditch the trench coats. For the remainder of the dance, the costumes (by longtime collaborator Angelo Barsetti) are mainly comprised of shirts and pants, in a somber infusion of olive greens and khakis. The dancers appear mostly in solos or duets, with an abundance of movements. The gestures appear pedestrian — scratching the body, tying a shoelace, little shudders, for example. They enter and exit the stage with great frequency. The idea of the canvas recurs as quadrants of light on the stage floor bring to mind frames, the dancers working within these confines. David Emmanuel Fafard’s video projections fracture the space, and are superimposed on the mobile “canvasses” projected on the floor, and the frames that form the fixed backdrop.
Bédard incorporates “playful” vignettes, perhaps evoking childhood memories — Williams fooling around with a stuffed bear, and Roy wrestling with a tiny plastic dinosaur — which I found silly fun, frivolous, but distracting and simply too long.
Identity, expressed through empathy and connection, is the backdrop for Bédard’s dance. But “Enfin vous zestes” ambles along, a flawed dance that, in its premiere performance, shows off certain of her choreographic skills and those of her assembled cast as they work through their ideas, all of them in search of a firm grasp in terms of direction and development.