A staple in performance is the capacity to engage, and even if the observer is coolly distant from the proceedings, it’s all about pulling the audience into the rigorous discourse set forth by the choreographer. Once that happens, a world of possibilities opens. Ghislaine Doté creates work emphasizing a hybrid sensibility, infusing her dance vocabulary with contemporary, ballet and African influences. On stage, she is a magnet in performance, radiant and grounded. Just on that score alone, I’m game.
At the start of her new two-act work, Merry Age (a play on words –- in French “marriage” almost sounds like “merry age”), Doté is front and centre as she recounts, in equal measures of French and in English (a surprise, given the language sensitivities in the city), her attraction to the institution of marriage and the bumpy road she had in getting hitched with the man of her life. The two have been together now for five years, and she tells us each succeeding year has been a progression in terms of their relationship. In just a few minutes, with her relaxed, storytelling manner, she reveals an openness of spirit and a charming personality, extolling her life’s views –- “Life is as strong as death!” she tells us, with an illuminating smile.
She’s pretty much got the audience in the palm of her hand. Yet the opening monologue immediately sets into question what kind of show we’re about to see. As her multi-racial cast of six (Jenny Brizard, Fernanda Leal, Xavier Malo, Mohamed N’Diaye, Francois Richard and Émilie Tremblay) surrounds her and starts singing a stick-in-your head little “ding, dong, time to marry!” ditty (composed by Doté), the questions become louder: is it going to be theatre with a little dance thrown in, and no, it’s certainly not musical theatre, or is it all a bit of an indulgence? I’d be negligent if I gave the impression that Doté remains in the piece after the opening –- she’s doesn’t and that’s one of the unfortunate missteps in the show. Her impressive interpretation skills are much missed.
Merry Age reminds me of an old-fashioned kind of entertainment, where the cast are able players willing to do just about anything thrown at them, akin to an Andy Hardy routine of “let’s do a show!” Couples evolve into various states of togetherness: in hostile zones of active combat (verbal and physical), capitulation, or more comforting retrenchment. As much as she can project tenderness and playfulness, Doté is probing antagonism here, and these sections are probably the best. We see the energetic dancers staking out their physical territory in a string of successive vignettes that reveal the recklessness of love. I don’t think her intent is to expose a raw, scorching tone in the piece, and the action never quite reaches a brazen pitch. Instead we get unsatisfying stylized sequences, the performers in various heterosexual couplings, with revolving partners. There’s a lot of caustic interaction, in which they throw up their arms, shout at each other, or, once things calm down again, sing an a capella rendition of the recurring refrain (if they were all strong singers this element might be more resonant). But it feels like stock emotion, and there’s a depth of expression lacking.
In the first act, called “Enchantment”, Doté sets up a marriage ceremony, sourcing passion and innocence, with white dresses and black suits. She has set fluid gestures on her barefoot dancers – sometimes in unison, sometimes in pairs -– transmitted with wide, expansive ballet arms, undulating torsos and deep pliés. Form isn’t her strong suit, and with a sketchy structure to the piece, we’re not attached. While at times she seems to be veering in this direction, she never achieves a full sensuous exploration of movement. Still, the athleticism and focus among this ensemble shows promise. At times she stresses insistent contradictory rhythmic shifts in the choreography, and these mirror the narrative Doté’s laying down, in which the dancers repeatedly face-off.
The second half, “Disenchantment”, has a richer, more contemporary feel and, perhaps reaching beyond her normal concerns, the staging is more abstract. There’s an impressive African-influenced section, a highlight of the piece, using the cumulative motion of clapping hands and shifting, stamping feet. The rhythms buoy the bodies, and it’s in these moments where Doté scores. Probing the often-turbulent differences that exist between men and women, we hear about the contrasts and confrontations in gender relations in the text, and see it through physical actions such as women lifting men, or beating them away. There’s nothing terribly new in this terrain, but there is a strong penultimate sequence set on a table in which fighting dissolves into tenderness, and a fragile harmony is achieved. In the final image, we see the couples walking head-on as if into battle, men and women as soldiers ready for action. Is that ambivalence the effect of our time, or is Doté aiming for a happy ending?