January 21, at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels)
In his newest creation, One Kind Favor, choreographer George Stamos considers kindness as a catalyst for genuine human connection. Created by Stamos in collaboration with his fellow performers, Karla Étienne and Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, and co-presented by Danse-Cité and the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), this interdisciplinary work offers an embodied exploration of our imperfectly human attempts at compassion and care.
As the audience enters, a video is projected on a screen in the middle of the space, revealing a close-up shot of lips gently blowing on a feather. The lights go down and the show begins. Étienne enters and sits down before putting on a blindfold. She waits, listening for what comes next. Stamos and Moumneh enter together; they pack up the projection screen before kneeling to wash the floor with rosewater. The gentle scent wafts through the room as they complete their simple ceremony, preparing the space for the performance to come.
What follows is a series of tableaus, each of which the performers approach with a sort of reverence. In One Kind Favor, ideas unfold one at a time, slowly, gently, allowing the audience to give the interpreters their full attention as they work through a series of physical and sonic tasks. Blindfolded, Étienne and Stamos shuffle through the space in sequined slippers, arms reaching out as if searching for each other in the dark. They write on the floor and slap out simple rhythms on the walls. They twirl and pop their chests in solos and duets and breathe rapidly with harmonicas in their mouths to create a strangely poetic soundscape. Moumneh sings a song in Arabic, Al Affaq, Lau Mat, Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau (The Hypocrite, If He Dies, If If If If If If), an emotional ode to challenging hypocrisy in ourselves and others. Together, all three performers blow on feathers, bringing to life the image seen earlier on the screen. One by one, they take the microphone and share memories of small but meaningful gestures that impacted their lives: a hand on the small of the back, gentle breath on the neck, hiding under Grandma’s rosebush, free medication — small gestures that brought a glimmer of light into dark or difficult times.
The simplicity of Stamos’s choreographic structure leaves space for the performers to shine. They each bring a unique quality to the work, and yet they seem profoundly united. There is a sense that we are seeing each of them authentically, as they truly are. There is no artifice here, no seduction: each word, gesture and sound is shared honestly, generously, as if they are offering us and each other a gift through their performance. The movement, music and visual environment weave together to create a choreographic universe that is perfectly balanced: there is never too much; nothing in the work is overwhelming. Stamos gives his audience time and space to digest his proposition as it unfolds in front of them.
While many shows try to communicate a clear position on a specific concept, One Kind Favor seems rather to ask us to reflect on our own position in society by creating room for personal contemplation. During the performance, I suddenly remembered my teacher in Grade 3, the one who was so kind to me the year my father died. I wondered what happened to her and how I could ever repay her kindness. Stamos’s choreography lead my thoughts further, and, several times, I caught myself reflecting on the difference between kindness and niceness. On how kindness is the quality of being generous, caring and considerate, free from ulterior motives, while niceness is about being polite, pleasing and appropriate. On how kindness is not always nice and niceness is not always kind. On how our world needs more kindness.
As the hour comes to an end, Stamos, Étienne and Moumneh sit together, singing an a cappella version of In Touch by Moumneh’s band, Jerusalem In My Heart, and Suuns. “What are the reasons seasons slip away?” they sing, reminding us to live in the present moment and to cherish the time that we have together. The lights fade to dark as they belt out a repetitive chorus: “Lord, lord, lord, you’re strange. Lord, lord, lord, you’ve changed.”
In our strange world, full of change, where we are continually bombarded with fast-paced images and experiences designed to shock, disrupt and divide us, Stamos’s proposition offers a much-needed respite. In One Kind Favor, Stamos, Étienne and Moumneh remind us of the importance of listening to each other with respect while remaining true to who we are. They invite us to celebrate our differences while also strengthening the bonds that unite us. The effect of their proposition on the night of the performance was palpable: as the audience poured out of the theatre into the lobby of the MAI, there was a sense of lightness and joy in the room, and everyone lingered just a bit longer than usual, as if unwilling to let our time together come to an end.