One of the greatest strengths of Maïgwenn Desbois’ new choreography with her company Maï(g)wenn et les Orteils is that it provokes a level of nuanced and lingering reflection from audiences about their own roles and assumptions.
Avec Pas d’Coeur was presented by Tangente as part of BIGICO, the Biennale de Gigue Contemporaine and the Semaine Quebecoise de la Déficience Intellectuelle and featured Desbois with company members Anthony Dolbec, Gabrielle Marion Rivard and Roxane Charest Landry, each of whom have a different intellectual disability.
Landry opens the piece alone breathing calmly into a microphone under a soft spotlight. She is casually dressed in a loose white shirt, dark maroon leggings and flower-printed Doc Martens, similarly to the other dancers who enter later. In the darkness behind her is another microphone stand holding a pile of tutus and a long wooden block that serves as a bench.
She shifts her gaze occasionally toward the audience in between deep lunges and expansive arm circles, as if to check if we are still watching.
Tapping the floor with the soles of her boots, Landry introduces an imprecise rhythm — a tiny prelude of the gigues to come. The gigue is a Québécois folk dance similar to clogging, and its percussive rhythmic motifs stitch together various representations of sexual intimacy throughout Avec Pas d’Coeur.
From the beginning, breath and touch are amplified by the shared microphone and by the performers’ vocal and physical reactions to tender advances. After a group gigue, Landry reacts to her companions’ touch viscerally, recoiling and singing to herself on the floor. She is inconsolable. Pushing and shouting, the other dancers impatiently urge her to sing into the microphone. The scene treads a line between humorous chiding and the serious issue of trying to engage someone who feels the need to shut out the world. Desbois choreographs the boundaries between tense uncertainty and expressive celebration with synchronized gigues, live singing and dynamic duets with dancers supporting, manipulating and embracing one another.
The more physical danced sequences and the partnering were less than polished, which I found distracting, and the sung sections felt showy next to more intimate and nuanced exchanges between the performers; however, those songs also reminded me of something a childhood dance teacher of mine said: “It isn’t cheesy if you mean it.” In this context, the sincerity and honesty of the performers toward the artwork, the audience and one another was palpable. Whether they were delighted or disgusted at one another’s touch, they responded directly and vocally.
After the final chorus of Oublie pas by Karkwa, the dancers chant in French: “Don’t forget my body,” while bird sounds play loudly to the point of being sharp and painful. The performers stand on the bench, peel off one another’s shirts and wrap thin, white romantic tutus around their chests. Now transformed, they danced with balletic arms, circling around one another as if drifting into a fairy tale. In this newly discovered utopia, the fear and struggle of expressing and reacting to intimacy was replaced with a natural softness. Still playful, everyone except Desbois stuffed their tutus under their shirts like big pregnant bellies.
At this point, reality suddenly rushes in and Desbois steps away from the carefree but persistent pregnant bellies chasing after her. She rushes to pull the tutus from under the shirts, gathering them protectively in her arms. She seemed fearful for this intellectually disabled group wishing for children. The jarring bird sounds from earlier reinforced this tension of what should be joy, but is instead linked with fear.
I entered the theatre curious about the unique relationship between those who are intellectually disabled and sexual intimacy. I left with a new set of questions: Should I hold performers who are intellectually disabled to the same standards as those who are not? As a society, whose voices and interests are being heard and are we also considering their bodies? Does treating people with intellectual disabilities like everyone else make it easier for them to cope with societal expectations and to fulfill their desires?
Maï(g)wenn et les Orteils turned a critical lens on my assumptions about who we classify as “normal,” about physical desire as a right and about my way of engaging as an audience member. My fellow audience members also seemed hesitant as to how to react. It was halfway through the performance before I noticed the group self-consciousness had lifted and I was fully with the performers, not merely looking in.