Cue Nancy Sinatra’s hit tune, “These Boots Are Made for Walking”, and cue the fun. If you don’t remember it, the sixties song kicks, and to hear it bang out of the speakers at a contemporary dance performance is cheeky. Then to see the cast and crew (yes, the whole gang), including choreographer Hélène Blackburn, frugging their way through the chorus is pure delight. The music choice showed audaciousness and judging from the smiles in the crowd, it went over well.
Prior to this sequence, as the audience filtered into the theatre the dancers were on stage warming up. The musicians were at the piano and the drum set. This kind of opening does not exactly break new ground, but it does set up a sense of informality; things are loose, but not just anything goes.
The “Boots” segment solidified that perception. The men walking and strutting about in women’s heeled character shoes added the requisite edge. And if “these boots are going to walk all over you”, as the song suggests, it also reinforces the meaning behind of the show’s title, “Suites cruelles”, which speaks to our search for pleasure, which is often mitigated by pain or displeasure. For costuming, Blackburn prefers to show lots of leg and a flirty sexiness, accessorizing the dancers in hip black brassieres for the gals, and for the guys, sleeveless jerseys or bare-chested.
This is a return to “adult” choreography for Ms. Blackburn, after spending a number of years creating dances for young audiences with much success. She has always fashioned her company, Cas Public, as a place where collective creation is the norm, meaning that dancers have an active stake in decisions throughout the choreographic process. She revealed in her show’s post-performance discussion that when she founded the company (in 1989), she could have named it Hélène Blackburn Danse or the Fondation Hélène Blackburn, but that really, it wasn’t all about her. To be clear, I’m not sure I buy this democratization of process entirely. But at least it suggests the semblance of free exchange, even if it sets up the possibility that no one is taking responsibility for a final decision. At least there’s no grandstanding. And to paraphrase a witty comment I once heard in reference to the wiles of a choreographer, “there’s no tyrannical despot giving orders from a chair”.
Apparently in the touring version of the work, prior to the Montréal premiere, there were many more segments that comprised “Suites cruelles”. But along the way the dancers, in concert with the choreographer, chose the sections they preferred, and dropped those they didn’t. Based on what I saw at the company’s second Montréal performance, the program still needs a good editor. Case in point: following the fabulous “Boots” segment, dancer Bennyroyce Royon (a graduate of Juilliard, a featured member of Rasta Thomas’ charismatic Bad Boys of Dance troupe, and a real find) stands front and centre rubbing his feet on what sounds like an amplified Velcro surface. He’s wearing earphones, and I expect he can hear the effect he’s creating. Subsequently, two female dancers come on and do a similar exploration. The length of the sequence is extended and the repetition is uninteresting. It brings to mind a kind of interactive experimentation that’s been seen before in different guises (the amplification of Louise Lecavalier’s pounding heart in Édouard Lock’s “Infante, C’est Destroy” comes to mind).
Blackburn has repeatedly stated that she’s attempting to demystify what’s going on on stage. “Suites cruelles” pushes that logic further, using cameras to project intimate angles of the dancers on a wide screen at the back of the stage, or shots hovering over the keyboard as the pianist tickles the ivories. Some of these images are crisper than others, although sometimes it takes a moment or more to orient to what’s on screen.
Blackburn prefers duets, rarely goes in for a solo, and that’s fine with me. The couples (predominantly men and women) are very physical — a long leg wrapping around a waist, then whipping out, the women’s bodies ultimately tilting at angles — delineating space with clear lines. Desire, passion, anger and rejection can all be read into the couplings, but I will leave it to others to offer a feminist analysis of the work. That said, the women in Blackburn’s pieces stand their ground. This work is no different. The whipping and pointing of those legs as they coil around the men, reinforce the erotic imaginings in her partnering.
Gaze is an important part of Blackburn’s intention, and by this I mean the look that the performers engage in while dancing; but our observations count too, whether we’re attracted or put off or threatened by what we see. What’s deeply interesting is the equality among her dancers — Blackburn still relies on the male as support for the female, but never do we sense that the women are being manipulated, in a controlling sense. The partnering is about attack and release, and the trust that underlines it all.
The dancers are alert and they convey intelligence and power. In one great section, a lively Kyra Jean Green maps out her territory with pianist Matthieu Fortin, telling him when to stop and start the accompaniment. She initiates the moves, and she is metaphorically in charge of her destiny. They coo at each other — “cupcake”, “muffin” — but that’s just icing for a display of Blackburn’s sinewy movement and Green’s top-form instincts and physicality.
The comic touches also work well. At one point Royon comes back on stage and delivers a short monologue on pain that’s laced with humour. “Pain is my universe, pleasure is my memories,” he says, with bounce in his voice. As he talks, he contorts, still talking but writhing now. Later, in another notable sequence, dancer Georges-Nicolas Tremblay stands still as he recites a stream-of-consciousness monologue in French using single words that build with intensity both in terms of vocabulary — “sickness, cancer, masochism, sadism”, etc. — and in terms of pacing, as the flow of the words becomes quicker and quicker.
Blackburn tests our limits especially in a sequence toward the end of the performance. Susan Paulson starts upright, but slips and slides in one corner of the stage after dousing herself in clear oil. Slipping and sliding, she hits the ground hard. It’s not pleasant to watch because of the possible impending physical harm; the experience is painful to sit through and, I’m assuming, to perform.
As in her previous work, Blackburn’s dance examines weight, placement and timing. She enjoys working on pointe. Having her male dancers share in that form suggests that the divide between genders is diluted. The use of the men in this way never seems radical or wild, just a bit of a wink to the audience. How we gauge the subtleties in her movement is also deeply related to how we absorb and connect with her central premise: our pursuit of pain/pleasure, and the unforeseen bumps that slip us up along the way. Or, put another way, how do we break with expected gratification, in order to embrace new desires?