This ninth edition of Montréal’s Festival TransAmerique (FTA) was once again a two-week intensive bringing dominant artists as well as newer voices from the Canadian and international scene together from the realms of dance, theatre and performance. It marked Martin Faucher’s inaugural stint as artistic director, and though it has not changed in major ways since Marie-Hélène Falcon left last season after guiding the festival since its inception, there was an air of conviviality and discovery, and the suggestion that the festival will continue to be a major event, with performances and talks galvanizing audiences to the city’s stages and halls. There was an overload of stimulation, from the poignancy and charm of Seoul’s Eun-Me Ahn’s dancing grandmothers and her astonishing company, to Daniel Léveillé’s continued study into personal space and the engagement of the other in Solitudes duo, or Stéphane Gladyszewski’s study Phos, using a playground of technology to probe what’s seen and unseen, as just a few examples of work on view. Space in this post, however, can’t cover everything in the festival, but here are a few reviews of some choice productions.
Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or&:-/
The American dance artist Miguel Gutierrez works with a purpose. In Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or&:-/, an hour-long duet with dancer Mickey Mahar, he puts an emphasis on duality, weaving dance, text, music and sound. The piece presented at the FTA is part of a larger acclaimed series of works, which premiered at the Whitney 2014 Biennial in New York (but were not featured in Montréal). Entering the intimate Prospero theatre, which seats about 150 people, the audience is greeted by Gutierrez, a burly forty-four-year-old, clad in a woman’s one-piece vivid fuschia bathing suit, replete with colour-coordinated nail polish, tattoos, and bleached-blond hair and beard. By contrast, Mahar is twenty-four years old, white, pale, and rail thin.
While folks are settling in, Gutierrez passes out nail polish and connects with the public. He formally introduces the piece with a monologue, including a significant reference to the imaginative genius of eighteenth-century poet/painter/biblical illustrator William Blake, and tells us he’s “envisioning new worlds in a queer time.” He seems to have been caught in Blake’s spell, and he cites a letter of Blake’s that ends with, “I have ten thousand things to say to you. … My heart is full of futurity.” A key figure in the history of English radicalism, Blake believed his works to be visionary. Regardless of his medium, his sublime and tragic images of the body (think of his famous Glad Day engraving, showing Albion, the spirit of a resurgent England, in mid-dance, with his arms flung ecstatically wide) and the implications of his prophetic cosmic verse had the instructive force of revelation.
In his opening talk, Gutierrez cites the names of queer theorists J. J. Halberstam and the late José Esteban Muñoz, who also wrote about futurity more than two hundred years after Blake. These varied references invoke a labyrinth of interrelated ideas linked to theory and spirituality, and as these names were introduced I began to wonder about the connectedness of theoretical and critical practice and the making and watching of art.
For Gutierrez, dance is grounded in ideas, and as an artist he reveals himself to be a sort of mental traveller journeying within his own mind. By speaking to us in a kind of free verse, he is engaging and subverting the audience’s expectation; i.e., that the audience wants the dancing served up pronto. In its tone, attitude and pattern the piece raises the awareness of “the show” and “the dancer” as objects of fascination and delight. “We are the dancers, we are the dancers,” both men chant repeatedly, modulating the emphasis in the phrase, and in doing so make the audience acknowledge the status of the performer, as well as making us really look at who is in front of us. His insight also triggers our awareness of the “emerging” dance artist and the seasoned veteran. By hypnotically saying, “We are beautiful,” and “Do you want to fuck us?”, Gutierrez is making reference to the obsession with youth and beauty. In putting subject matter upfront, with words, he gets into our system. It makes for unexpected, demanding and entertaining viewing. The substance of this section insists that we confront the codes of watching performance and identify (or begin to) the absolutes we impose upon ourselves in terms of our resistance to what we know and don’t, as well as underlining the contractual negotiation that’s constantly at play in a theatre.
The monochromatic music is loud and insistent (“Turn up the bass” is the chief lyric, and up it goes), and the punchy, aerobic dancing, at least in the extended spirited opening section, is rigorous and performed in unison, accumulating with time. They strut, they kick, and they vogue and pout. Which all seems very old-fashioned and formulaic, but it works. The two men exert themselves, and I found myself settling in admiring the stamina required to meet the demands of the choreography. In contrast, they later simply stand, holding hands, while in another section they flail about, bodies slamming into the floor, thrashing about, both individually and with each other. Throughout, Gutierrez looks at the audience, clearly and directly, while Mahar’s gaze is much more subdued in terms of his “looking out”. The piece ends with an inconsistent (auto-tuned?) song, performed by Gutierrez, but he seems to be in a place that he’s enjoying. Once that is over, he kicks the audience out, saying, with a big smile on his face, “It’s over. You can leave now. Seriously, go, you can leave now.” I left, but I heard he threw water on those who didn’t.
The piece seriously touches on the relationship between creative imagination and creative energy, and the insistence of the male principle and the need for a strong sense of will. But however ironic or pessimistic the approach, and beyond all of the fabulous posturing in the piece, once we leave the theatre, we are all confronted by the harsh reality of today’s breaking news. Faced with our turbulent era, with its repression and conservatism (a nod again to Blake), debates about age and beauty and reflections on queer movement pale by comparison. No matter how you spin it, our artistic foibles and Western preoccupations seem meaningless, or at least less defensible, when compared to the plight of gay men executed by decapitation or thrown off of buildings, courtesy of the ISIS militia, simply for being gay.
The Israeli dancer-choreographer Arkadi Zaides is demanding of our attention. He tackles politics head on, in this case the conflict in Israel and Palestine. He is questioning place and space, and how aggression and tension accumulates in the body as a repository of that lived history. For Archive, the Tel Aviv-based Zaides accessed film footage from the archives of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which since 2007 has distributed small hand-held video cameras to Palestinians living in high-conflict areas. The project aims to provide an ongoing documentation of human rights violations and to expose the reality of life under occupation to both the Israeli and international public.
Those short films are projected on a large screen upstage left-centre. Zaides reenacts the physicality seen in the footage in front of those documents. We see a selection of films, for example, of settlers burning fields, heaping abuse on the Palestinian population, throwing rocks, a settler confronting activists, screaming “Nazi!”, and Zaides replicating a pose for a given film (the swing of an arm, the raising of a fist, etc.) The movement is not inventive or virtuosic, but merely a replication of what we are seeing projected. The images feel cyclical, repeated and relentless. He shapes and fragments corporal and vocal gestures from these images of brutality, and measure by measure, these elements seem to invade his body.
In his public talk, Zaides never shied away from stating that he is an Israeli, and in so doing he subverts expectations that perhaps he is disassociating himself from his country. In Montréal, members of the audience were leaning in throughout the piece, heated, almost hungry, for the next damning image. That he presents footage of, as he says, “ourselves” (i.e., Israelis and settlers) is provocative. His claim is clear: he states he could not incarnate the physicality of the Palestinians, as it would be ethically wrong to appropriate their gestures. He admits that for some Israelis these images, and the mirroring of them, are not easy to face.
What Zaides is offering is a point of view, and he is essentially directing the audience’s gaze, but he leaves space for interpretation. Yes, the work is ostensibly about the political moment in the Middle East; but it also reflects incisively on the ways in which each one of us has the capacity and the propensity to dispense with civility and humanity, and in an instant can devolve into physical, emotional and emotional repression.
Sensorial vision is at the heart of the Belgian dance company Les Ballets C de la B’s production of Tauberbach, based on the true story of Estamira, a Brazilian woman with schizophrenia who lives in a garbage dump. Amidst this post-apocalyptic setting (some 3000 kilograms of clothing piled onstage, with the sound of flies buzzing), an arguably spiritual wasteland, nourishment can be seen, on the one hand, as physical indulgence, or on the other as a search for freedom. The piece has the potential to fall into a mystical dark night of the soul, but in Alain Platel’s world the contraries (love and hate, need versus want, etc.) seem to hover close to an attainment of equilibrium. These wanderers, portrayed by the cast, all appear to be states of the protagonist’s mind, portrayed by the amazing Dutch actress Elsie de Brauw. They are not only wayward souls, but on the edge of “ecstasy” (from the Greek meaning ‘to be out of one’s senses’). “I was conceived like this. I was born like this. I am perfect,” de Brauw speaks aloud.
There is a constant reminder of revolution throughout the piece — a changing environment, in which the occupants (again reflections of her mind, or otherwise) react in terror, delight, fright and with dignity. They fight, cajole, jostle about, strip and engage in simulated sex scenes. Platel invokes through the second voice of denunciation (a sonically manipulated cool, masculine-sounding version of de Brauw’s voice) intimations of life amidst deterioration, ideas of sufficiency with revelation (“There is no shortage of food,” we hear), and all this in a “garden” of waste, which can further dehumanize. Reverberating throughout the piece are glorious Bach chorales, recorded, or sung live by the sublime cast.
If you’ve known anyone with macular degeneration, they’ll tell you, for example, that they see a grey pall over most everything, with an occasional dot of light providing clarity in their peripheral vision. This inability to witness and engage leaves sufferers at times frustrated and wanting. Viewing Hyperterrestres, created by local legend Benoît Lachambre and France’s Fabrice Ramalingom, I was plunged into a similar miasma. Brief flashes of form, obscured by a darkly opaque screen accompanied by occasional rumbles or gaps, make for an indeterminate spectacle. I think that’s where they’re headed with this piece, breaking with the idea of activity, and propelling the viewer into unknown places. Over time, in that extended prelude, I was overtaken by the stillness and slow pace, and I settled quite contentedly into a blur-induced trance.
The artists infuse Hyperterrestres with a sci-fi feel and that’s alluded to in the work’s title. The performance was informed by somatic practice and a desire to achieve what Lachambre has termed “the fusing of the senses in the environment.” (Lachambre is renowned for his ongoing research into physical presence, resonance, and sensory experience and this piece certainly is a part of that approach and evolution of approach.) As mentioned in the program notes and a roundtable discussion, the duo’s travels to Hawaii and their transformative experience of swimming with dolphins grounded the research in terms of communication and aural transmission/frequencies for the piece. Ultimately, increased visibility when the screen is lifted, allows the audience to see what is developing and the connection between the men, in their grey hooded costumes, is less satisfying. The performance appears as twitchy as their spasmodic movements, and the injected moments of comic invention, whether the vocalized gurgling sounds, or their slippery, shifting positions, let’s call it noodling around, felt forced. These more playful moments within the structure of the piece never appear intuitive or fully realized. Hahn Rowe’s music adds to the idea of metamorphosis, but his continued presence on stage, downstage right, felt restless. The artful design, however, in particular the sweeping semi-transparent fabric ceiling/screen, was entrancing.
Only when Lachambre shouted “Pause”, as in, let’s take a break, and proceeds in a stream of consciousness monologue about reality, reorienting in the moment, and spiritual connections, did I really sit up. But it became a rambling moment, and the piece never gained momentum and petered out.