It’s a scorching Friday morning. Squinting out the sun is necessary. A small crowd occupies the few pockets of shade to be found near the entrance to Montréal’s Grand Bibliothèque. Performers gather in the public area wearing long, rough-sewn yellow vests, grey-blue street clothes and sunglasses. The intervention entitled Bells 13 is the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) edition of Robin Poitras’ Bell Works series, created for her Rouge-gorge performance company. In this instance, Poitras chose thirteen artists – all of them well respected for their own creative endeavours. They seem to have two directives: to walk in stream-like patterns with their folding stools and sleigh bells in hand, or to sit and make a clamouring din (loud enough to at least challenge the inextinguishable voice of the city).
The performers sit on their stools, their knees widespread and the bells strung over their thighs. They make a rhythmic baby-jouncing movement that is unembellished by other gestures. On such a hot day the effort of repetition shows itself in the sweat on their foreheads. The performers’ canary-coloured outfits make me think of crossing guards, but it is more satisfying to imagine them as Clydesdales or Morgans – the summertime calèche horses of Montréal’s Old Port – or as off-course reindeer decked out in bells. While sitting, the performers’ arms generally fall by their sides, unless they need to alleviate a stitch or burning hip flexor and then float their limbs in the air. They sit and bounce their knees in front of the library, their gaze forward and casual. Then again near the Saint Laurent Metro station, and again, ascendant on the concrete steps of a plaza near Place des Arts, before one by one gathering their things and wandering off in the direction of the festival’s Quartier Général.
There are few choreographic changes to watch for during the seated parts of the hour-long piece, but lots to hear in the constant clatter. Although the Place des Festivals was unfortunately busy with the music of other performances, Bells 13 is, in any case, best heard from within: the dynamic spacing of bodies invites observers to circulate between the sounds strewn across Poitras’ selected outdoor locations. As I meander between two performers, or find myself at the hub of three or four, I am rewarded with the stereophonic popping of the bells’ different tones and textures. With Cage-ian ears, audience members find the pulse of the song, lean in to it attentively and listen. The clashing ring is joyous. Poitras herself best embodies that lovely ecstasy of noise and seems buoyed by performing in the heat.
Between sit-ins, the performers make processions single- or double-file, first west along De Maisonneuve and then continuing along Sainte-Catherine. They hold their bells ceremoniously in the crooks of their left elbows, palms upturned. The audience falls in step and together we form a parade, the performers’ pollen-tinted vests reminding me of a procession of Tibetan monks. I hear passersby wonder aloud if last year’s casseroles protests may have started up again under new colours, but with old sounds.