A piercing call of the wild opens Daina Ashbee’s new show, Pour. The howls that emanate from the darkened stage suggest an animal or creature ensnared in a trap raising its voice in a rallying cry. It is a powerful, almost epic, moment evoking mythic wilderness and vast unmitigated space. The voice is female and the plaintive wail draws from a deep reserve. The sound is not one of heartbreak, but the reverberating and seemingly relentless high- and higher-pitched cry shook me to the core. Eventually, after several minutes, once the calls died away, the audience catches a brief glimpse of a figure in the shadows, walking back and forth downstage.
When the lights flashed on in full register, the brightness momentarily made me close my eyes to shield them from the blasting fluorescence. After the initial shock, I realigned my senses and saw Paige Culley, a Compagnie Marie Chouinard dancer, standing, front and centre, gazing fixedly outward, self-possessed, calm and unperturbed, simply wearing jeans and no top. After a few moments she unzips her jeans, lowers them, and, always looking forward, she crouches. Then she stands and zips up. She repeats the action of unzipping, while uttering a dull-sounding “Uhhh.”
Culley turns and walks upstage, lies prone, on her back, her side, and then her back again. We barely hear her breathe; her eyes remain placid. The stillness of Culley’s presence is serene. She soon chucks the jeans, and for the rest of the performance she is nude. Nudity in performance can be a challenge or a provocation. Here, skin is empowering. In Ashbee’s first work, Unrelated, about missing and murdered indigenous women, the dancers were nude, which provided a vulnerability to sustained sections of intense violence, achieved through hitting, falling and slapping.
The program for Pour, which some might confuse for the French word “pour”(for), indicates that the work “documents and exposes menstruation in order to un-censor women’s pain and stories.” Though Ashbee doesn’t provide a literal framing of any of these ideas, her statement makes sense, given that our response to different sensations varies dramatically according to the context in which they take place. Whether it is menstruation, childbirth or the mental and physical demands of sports competition, the relativity of pain and pleasure is ever-present in our lives.
Ashbee, a Montréal-based dance artist with Cree Métis and Dutch heritage, shifts her compass northward, beyond the treeline, to awaken an essential part of her emotional fabric, embodiment and essence. In her production design, she’s chosen a whiteish-blue panelled floor made of polystyrene insulation, which cannily resembles a series of ice floes. I’m no specialist in these things, but there must be a thermal quality to its engineering because when Culley’s body is in contact with the floor, her body glistens, most likely from a moist residue accumulating on the surface membrane. I sense this production element is a riff on a deeper idea that consciousness is in constant contact with nature – in this case, through an extreme landscape that reflects isolation, yet in a place where space and time are not set in stone. In one extended sequence, Culley attacks the cool white-blue surface in a series of rhythmically pumping gestures, using isolated parts of her body (legs, feet, arms, buttocks, etc.) evoking a thumping seal in contact with the ice, but also she allows an inner torment to achieve expression.
Transcendence occurs in many guises. The cumulative effect of Culley’s actions reveals control of her body and of the space that surrounds her. Again, I feel this solitary figure is in a state of sensory exploration, in tactile engagement with everything nearby, breathing in the air, eyes looking outward and her skin directly interacting with the surrounding environment. This representation also reminded me of what the historian Constance Classen writes about when she states that communication through “touch is associated to irrationality and primitivism.”
Ashbee’s approach is to elevate the body in a very physical sense and bring awareness to relevant issues that are rarely addressed with such an evocative touch. Pour provides an intimate cultural lens on bodily expression and the way in which we humans, but women in particular, experience and find ourselves in a constantly changing world. This bold and exceptional new work enlivens sensations and provides a moment to recognize one another’s humanity.