Confession Publique premiered on Nov. 29 and runs until Dec. 4 in Montreal at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines.
Confession Publique has the makings of a collection of essays, stacked with anecdotes, recollections and snatches of stories. In its essence, the piece interrogates this time of cultural and societal upheaval.
Angélique Willkie has been an influential member of Montreal’s dance community since settling here a number of years ago. Jamaican-born but Toronto-raised, she was based in Belgium for 20 years, working with Alain Platel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and other notables of the Flemish contemporary dance and performance scene. She returned to these shores, providing workshops and teaching to a city of hungry artists. More recently, she attained associate professorship at Concordia University, where she is my colleague. Over the years, she has founded an ongoing collaborative relationship with the celebrated Mélanie Demers, who just received the Grand Prix de la danse de Montréal. Willkie has often served as a dramaturge on many of Demers’s works, including this one. But now, Willkie is also front and centre, performing solo in this new Demers creation.
The opening of Confession Publique has Willkie seated on a series of table risers, at a drum set, elegant in a gold-linked dress and heavy jewelry, observing the audience as they wend their way to their seats. The theatre is still in its pre-show penumbra, but our gaze is upon her. For those who have not seen her work, Demers likes to upend expectations, and in recent shows, she’s had her dancers, as in her La Goddam Voie Lactée production, perform equally as musicians and singers. Here, as the lights go up, Willkie starts banging away at the drum kit, not so much making music but expressing both rage and release, courtesy of the machine.
There’s verbal detail in Willkie’s text, and right from the start, there’s a questioning of whose story is it, anyway, Demers’s or Willkie’s? Well, the tales are clearly rooted in Willkie’s life experience. The refrain “Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ange” recurs. Willkie has crafted a number of distinctive versions of this well-worn storytelling device. Standing on a table, nude, she swings a microphone. The audible swoosh as the mic swirls, and the measured, almost nervous manner in which Willkie recounts a gathering of tales is engaging.
That visceral physical choice, delineating her axis, allows her to chart her territory. The weight of that swinging mic alters her breath, its gravity grounding her further and, by consequence, drawing the spectator into her presence. This one word — presence — is the basis of this performance. In part, it’s the amplified nuance that Willkie brings to the occasion. Whether or not Willkie is reimagining a past truth and extracting with veracity is of little importance. The bigger denominator is the authenticity this 60-year-old artist offers audiences, allowing them to share in her remembrance, extending the boundaries of personal privacy and offering insights into identity.
Willkie draws us into her private worlds of imagination, hopes, dreams and memories and makes the viewer want to enter her journey. She talks, for instance, of not speaking to her now deceased mother for 12 years, a memorable bathing suit, rolling in the freshly cut grass until she bled and other moments of her life, fuelled by disappointment, violence, lingering damage and awareness. The structure of the work threads chosen bits of stories, collaging text, image and sound. Willkie, once a featured member of the Zap Mama band, is also a skilled singer. Here she intones, acapella, among other lyrics, “Sweet love, why does it torment?” (The music and lyrics are by Frannie Holder.)
One of the more striking elements lasts just a few minutes, midway in the show. The audience observes Willkie standing nude on the table, turning in measures to face each of the theatre’s four walls. The section recalls the display, prominent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of Black people from across the African continent. These “human zoos,” as they were known, placed these people on plinths, on display, for white Europeans to view with a perpetrating gaze. Willkie and Demers, both Black women, neither strangers to activism, seize the moment, bringing this historic reference into the present, centre stage. It’s a purposefully inclusive moment showing that standing there, exposed, representing herself, Willkie is visible and human. Because racism dehumanizes and treats people as objects, this scene is absolutely necessary. For some, what will be experienced emotionally is the dawning of awareness; for others, it will be the affirmation that invisibility is no longer possible. It’s hugely impactful because in this space of subtle yet direct confrontation, fuelled by the various strands of stories imparted earlier, Willkie brings the audience into her sphere, bearing witness to her questioning, grief, compassion and the fundamental exploration of injustice.
I imagine what sticks is highly subjective. One scene that painfully examines the circumstances of a resident in a long-term care facility displays bitter truth, something that cannot be solved. Both in the gestures (crouching, folding inwards), reflecting resistance in this character’s articulations, and the anxious verbal storytelling, presented as a crude statement of fact, Willkie wholly embodies a realistic representation of the loss of agency, avoiding the prurient, never muddling her message. This woman’s deadened eyes resist an aestheticized response and push back at anything we could call pleasure. Confession Publique proves its muster in these moments and responds to a fundamental question that reverberates across time: can we choose to not look? And is there choice to not speak? Demers and Willkie consider radical alternatives, not redemption, addressing the eye, the intellect, the heart and the familiar.