Four young dancer-choreographers dressed up and showed up as bright professionals for the first instalment of the Hybridity and Emergence series, nestled within the eleventh annual festival Quartiers Danses in Montréal. Aiming to foster diversity and development through its programming, Artistic Director Rafik Hubert Sabbagh of Transatlantique Montréal cleared a path this time for works from emerging Québecois choreographers coming from African, traditional and contemporary dance backgrounds, including Rhodnie Désir (AYEwa), Phillipe Meunier (La pyramide du Sauveur: revisitée), Vanessa Bousquet (Choriste) and Sébastien Provencher (Serait-il impossible de vivre debout?).
Each creator benefited from the artistic mentorship of an established member of the Montréal dance community (Zab Maboungu, Benjamin Hatcher, Erin Flynn) or the help of an outside eye. The carefulness and precision of each creation testified to that guidance, but they were also perhaps sheltered by it.
In AYEwa, Rhodnie Désir seemed to tread over old ground. Her movement is firmly planted in Central African dance vocabulary: percussive feet and a connection to the earth, polyrhythmic combinations of gestures and a fluidity of the spine that begins in the shoulder girdle. At times, Désir repeats gestures from a different aesthetic with hypnotic frequency. She slashes her hands with angular elbows, or thumps the back of one knee against the ground.
Objects in the space – a basin, a bright blue shirt, a basket – serve to help solidify a rural landscape hinted at by textured lighting and a soundtrack of rustlings and animal calls. Désir enters the stage hunched over with a nondescript pile of dark fabric rolled atop her back. Stepping and glancing with specificity, she orienteers around the stage in tetrahedral patterns, eventually unburdening herself. An incongruent pounding of dubstep music veers the imagination off in another direction, but before long the music returns to folksongs. The bundle is eventually retrieved in a moment of intriguing ambiguity. Clinging to the hump of cloth, Désir seems fearful of having a precious possession stolen but pulses continuously as if soothing an infant.
The world Désir creates in AYEwa seems insular, and, she, obedient to carefully follow its musical rhythms. Désir writes and performs her own songs in languages that are singular to each of her choreographies. In recording, her voice is soft and pleasant, conversational, but the final notes she sings aloud to the small crowd at Monument- National rise thinly upward, just barely reaching the balcony. Likewise, her eyes rarely seek to reach out beyond the periphery of her territory onstage, save one gentle moment of emotion when she rinses her face in the water basin. I’d like to see how the perfect circles of Désir’s compositional processes, her interpretive choices or the sources of her inspiration that seek to “bridge the present and the life of her ancestors” (Quartiers Danses) might tighten, twist and take on an imperfect shape, uniquely hers.
Phillipe Meunier surprised with a piece in three parts. In Part I of La pyramide du Sauveur: revisitée, he leads with a faded trick. I’ll call it The Uncooperative Body: one body part manipulates another – hands to head, to chest, to foot – as if two conflicting minds reside in the one performer, like Jekyll and Hyde.
But Meunier has other cards up his sleeve. In Part II, his double appears on a giant screen and so the apparent allegory is refreshingly unembodied and pushed beyond the clichéd gestures. The meticulously edited video footage has him dancing in and out of unison with himself quite impressively. The self-abusive movement vocabulary of the first section slowly develops into body percussion and step dancing. Meunier’s career has primarily been as a performer of contemporary jig for the quintessentially Québecois dance companies Sortilèges – Danses du Monde and [ZØGMA] Collectif de folklore urban. He is excellent at what he does, and so his choice of Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis piano score, which ices the choreography cake with a melodramatic frosting, is forgiven.
In Part III, Meunier’s figure is again cloned. He finds himself in a complex architecture of triple choreographic phrases that swoop in and out of dance styles. The whole collapses in a burst of static as the live dancer makes a theatrical, frustrated kick towards the screen. A cheeky-cheesy bow by all three apparitions puts the cherry on top – the audience ate it up. I must mention that La pyramide’s use of video to multiply the dancer thereby allowing him to dance with himself has strong similarities to RefleXction (2011) by Destins Croisés choreographer Ismaël Mouaraki.
Félix Petit produced and performed remixed funk/soul grooves for Choriste by Concordia grad Vanessa Bousquet. He appears in an upstage corner: a bearded, hatted guy on laptop and mixing board, happily bobbing away. The choreographer and a second dancer, Laurence Ogagnon, enter in feminine outfits and approach two microphones as if to sing. They lock into step with the beat of the music, hips swaying in the classic manner of backup singers.
As their body undulations grow in size, variety and complexity, as they physically riff off the music, it becomes apparent that they will not sing at all. Rather, their inviting coy smiles, which they maintain with ease throughout the piece, insinuate that they are simply hiding that talent away.
Minimalism would serve Bousquet well. However, the coded game she so well establishes at the outset of the piece is too quickly abandoned. Rather than maintain and develop the tight idea of two singers held in temporal suspension at their microphones, Bousquet has them leave their hot spots to dance free-flowing solos, which often sweep onto the floor. Both Bousquet and Ogagnon are lovely to watch moving from their natural impulses, but the strength of her choreographic concept is in the “fixed constraint” in which she states an interest in the program note. This could have been empowered by withholding or reducing the release phrases. A dose of De Keersmaeker stick-to-it-iveness (e.g., Fase) or a smattering of neo-burlesque tease could build intrigue and variation without abandoning the prime concept of Choriste: two singers not singing.
For the final work shown in Series 1, Serait-il impossible de vivre debout?, Sébastien Provencher tackles big themes. The process of acculturation experienced between groups, societies and people was a stated jumping-off point. But his piece, a duet, read as such: an intimate relationship between two individuals.
In high relief, abstracted by warm beams of light, one dancer slips into and the other out of his shirt, as bookends to the piece. Their undulating backs are sensual visions, poetic and queerly beautiful. Each moment is danced to emotive piano music (this time Max Richter and Nils Frahm). The images are also nearly identical to my memory of segments seen in Lemi Ponifasio’s Birds with Skymirrors at Festival TransAmériques this past summer.
Sandwiched between those two asides is a long silence in which the men come into contact. Head to chest but never meeting each other’s gaze, they swerve together through Limón-style triplets as conjoined twins and other strange interdependent configurations. Following their separation, the choreographic phrasing sticks a little to the ribs. Slow-quick-slow, together-apart-together, unison-solos-unison: these choreographic patterns lead directly to that sensual-dysfunctional quality often seen in the contemporary duets on TV dance competitions.
These four young choreographers seem to have successfully reached the edges of what they (and their mentors) know well. Series 1 of Hybridity and Emergence gave the floor to articulate and capable bodies, but to creations that relied on familiarity. I wonder how Désir, Meunier, Bousquet and Provencher might next find ways to leave the comfort of their accomplishments and leap into riskier territories.