Oh, the energy! The six young dancers in Paul-André Fortier's "Risque (Risk)" have energy to burn. They dance as if the fiery, impassioned experience is the only one worth having. The rest is all ashes, or waiting.
Alana Elmer, Kate Hilliard, Audrey Thibodeau, Natasha Torres-Garner, Emmanuel Proulx and Manuel Roque enter the empty stage with a pleasing ease, despite the already booming, urban score by Alain Thibault. They avoid falling into the compelling drive of the music, and take their places calmly, aware of each other and of the space. Costumed by Denis Lavoie in colourful layers of athletic-styled pants and t-shirts, their hair for the most part without expensive-looking colouring or cuts, and with a minimum of make-up, the six performers look like ordinary high school kids. Then suddenly, all at once — a solo, a couple of duets, one man standing still — the stage is filled with physicality. You realize, immediately, that these kids can really dance.
In fact, the credentials of these newly emerged professionals (who are actually in their early twenties) are solid. Elmer has danced as a guest artist with Toronto Dance Theatre; Hilliard has established the Grasshoppa Dance Exchange in Ottawa; Thibodeau won the LADMMI (Les Ateliers de danse moderne de Montréal) Award of Excellence in 2002; Torres-Garner apprenticed with Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers. As for the men, LADMMI graduate Proulx apprenticed with Dancemakers; Roque, a graduate of the École Nationale du Cirque, has performed with Cirque Eloïse.
Fortier's work tends to display a serious and somewhat distant universe that in "Risque" is overlaid with vibrancy and heat. His previous choreography, "Tensions" (2001), with its minimalist vocabulary and cold, isolated passion, was a duet for himself and Robert Meilleur, quite splendid in its alienation. Part of the work's meaning came from the difference in the two men's ages: Meilleur in his thirties and Fortier two decades older. With "Risque", Fortier has reached even farther across the chasm of time to tease out the feelings of youth, a process begun with his earlier "Jeux de Fous" (1998).
In "Risque", Fortier forgoes the cosier moments of existence, throughout presenting a stunning examination of unease with a disorienting shifting of space and time that leaves no firm ground. Abruptly, constantly, groupings change so that it's hard to make sense of the ensemble. Who is with whom, and where are they on the stage? Small twitches in the shoulder become more and more urgent, suggesting interior forces struggling to get out. At one point, twitches take over the whole body and we are watching hip hop, only there's an inner motivation that transforms the usual hard mechanics of this dance into something deeply expressive. There are also a few gentle, graceful sashays across the stage, though they don't last for long and are done alone.
Contributing to the overall disorientation is the number of all-out, go-for-broke leaps in "Risque." They are beautiful, impressive; you miss half of them. Leaps occur randomly, often abruptly, sometimes breaking into space violently. It's like watching people jump headlong off a cliff and not being sure the water below is safe for their landing. You wish they would slow down, test the waters first. Some of the leaps are pure, straight-ahead jetés. Others are like judo kicks, straight up, one leg punching to the side. At least one is like a firecracker, with all four limbs exploding from the centre.
The dancers walk around a great deal, taking their places without fuss. They often stand in the open wings and watch, acknowledging what the others are doing. Now and then, they gulp a mouthful of water from large plastic bottles at the side of the stage. They watch, entering when it's their cue, sometimes enjoying their own movement; other times, copying what they've just seen, taking it and claiming it for themselves.
In a particularly disturbing section, one of the men and one of the women find themselves manipulated by the others into poses that are neither hard like a mannequin's nor soft like a rag doll's; they don't seem quite alive and yet they are not dead; they are definitely static and uncomfortable to watch. "Move!" I want to shout, "Stop being so passive!" They are being bullied, quietly, and it's hard to stomach. Finally, the young man breaks free and does a handstand — rock solid, holding it for ages — and the young woman crouches under him, so they are face to face. The tips of their noses touch, one of the few sweet moments in the piece.
The passivity of the posing section recurs. A couple hugs; one of them is removed from the embrace, and another takes her place. This is one aspect that seemed to come more from the experienced, fifty-five-year-old choreographer than from the youths themselves. Maybe the performers too, a few years past their teens, are already looking back at the frantic, romantic comings-and-goings of youth with jaded eyes. Looking back, teenage romances may well seem arbitrary and meaningless, but at the time — remember? — at the time, they are desperately full of the very meaning of life. It would have been nice to see some of that emotional excess in these sections of the choreography, although it's hard to imagine the cool, intellectual Fortier directing them.
Where Fortier has choreographed excess is in the throwaway beauty of those leaps into space, giving them the passionate self-expression and belief in the moment that is youth. Each one is heartbreaking in its brief, burning ecstasy. They are not presented to mean angst or anger, or anything so specific, and they don't even seem part of a choreographic grand plan or order (though their apparent randomness is no doubt strictly set). Rather, the work has the same rigorous abstraction of all Fortier's creations, without any of the specificity of theatre or novels; he does not fall back on words to make things clear. It is encouraging that Fortier has not compromised his choreographic beliefs — he remains the consummate artist, informed by his collaborators and his mission to create a work for youth, but true to his own vision.
During the performance, sitting in the theatre, I remember feeling inexplicably lost. I think I was trying to hold onto each leap for just a moment longer than is physically possible. Perhaps that is where, for this viewer, the kernel of meaning is found that made "Risque" such a disorienting, but ultimately great, work of art.