Purity doesn’t exist, but it persists as a question in art. Performance descends from inspiration, and every step that a work takes toward its audience — passing through formulation, rehearsal, staging and so on — compels the artist to negotiate with the fore-image of whatever impelled them to make the journey. Between the origin and the offering lies a land of struggle, and the essence of that struggle is control.
In two very different works presented together at Montréal’s Monument-National theatre, the dance presenter Tangente has created an intriguing dialogue on the problem and possibility of control, both in art and in life. The double bill featured Marilou Castonguay’s ten-minute solo Le Jour Bleu, which premiered in Québéc City in 2012, and the debut of Andrew Turner’s sixty-minute ensemble piece A Standard of Measure, Except Not Really.
In Le Jour Bleu, Castonguay appears onstage in a Victorian-style dress made of heavy grey-blue fabric. Crouched into her voluminous skirt, yet with an erect posture, she moves her arms in long slices and rigid arcs, describing geometric patterns in the air. The suggestion of roboticism quickly gives way to something else — her gestures are animated by gears and springs, not wire and code. The movements are jointed, like those of a wind-up toy, or a creature stuck inside a mechanical clock, robed in darkness and waiting to come out.
The program places this performance at the intersection of dance, theatre and mime, but Castonguay also trained in marionette, and that’s the character she inhabits: a being hung on strings, hovering between vitality and artifice. She never refers directly to the unseen figure orchestrating the movements (ultimately, herself), but we feel that presence intimated in the choreography. Castonguay is absorbed in a task that she appears to hardly understand, but which she nonetheless executes with earnest diligence.
With A Standard of Measure, Except Not Really, the rigorous posturing of Le Jour Bleu gives way to looseness and play, yet with the same interest in precision and control. Turner’s new work for four dancers takes its inspiration from an emblem of accuracy, the International Prototype of the Kilogram. Created in 1889, this strange little cylinder encased in layers of glass and filtered air defines the weight of the kilogram. At least, it’s supposed to.
By his own account, Turner became “obsessed” a few years ago with the news that le Grand K, as it’s sometimes called, isn’t quite the universal standard it was meant to be. In fact, it lost weight, by few dozen micrograms. (A Google search also reveals news reports that say it gained weight.) Turner opens the performance with a long monologue in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, introducing us to the story of le Grand K and establishing this scientific symbol as the overarching metaphor for the rest of the show.
But his Ted Talk-style lecture is quickly interrupted by periodic physical convulsions that steal his breath and cause his body to seize and contort. The movements are pure tension, comprised entirely of flexing muscles and, although horrible to see, they become a trope that recurs throughout the performance. For Turner, these moments seem to represent the inevitable interference of uncontrollable forces, much like the subtle atmospheric factors that rob materials of their purity and purpose.
Many such illustrations follow, and many of them are funny and entertaining. Le Grand K is the reference point that’s always visible, but the dance extends in multiple directions from this beacon. The other dancers enter in piecemeal fashion and occasionally break out into wildly exuberant approximations of familiar dance forms: the clapping and slapping percussion of a stomp show, the kicking and leaping of a classical jig, or the slow spatial projection of a contemporary dance exercise. All these variations seem designed to express the ‘less-than’ that stretches out from our attempts — less than desired, less than intended.
A Standard of Measure, Except Not Really feels self-conscious, but necessarily so. Turner embraces the “despite” of our best efforts. The real vitality lies not in the perfect product, but in the energy of striving. But searching needs an object, and trying needs a purpose. Somewhere in the tension between control and the impossibility of control, a mysterious fluidity is occurring. Though Castonguay and Turner use very different means to get there, they both seek the same elusive current of change. There’s nothing out there that can be grasped, but there’s something else, and it flows.~