I leave the theatre after Catherine Gaudet’s Au sein des plus raides vertus needing to move on and to be alone. The same feeling befell me following Je suis un autre, her 2012 piece, which shares many of the same structures and compositional elements. However, the effect of this new piece on me is much darker. It’s as if I have just witnessed an incomplete exorcism.
Watching the opening vignette, where the cast sits in a dark corner, topless and in jeans on a square of grey parquet flooring, an unsettled feeling grows over me, a kind of loneliness. Like the looming planet growing larger and larger in the sky in Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, Au sein is overshadowed by a sense of impending doom.
Montréal choreographer Gaudet uses physicality to create collisions between incongruous qualities. Performed with monstrous virtuosity, the dancers remind me of the Greek gods, at once gloriously beautiful, but capable of terrific atrocities. Caroline Gravel is an Artemis, goddess of the hunt with a killer smile. Francis Ducharme gets drunk on attention with Dionysian potency. Annik Hamel, whose high cheekbones blush as she curses like a hag, is an apt Aphrodite. Dany Desjardins cuts the figure of an Adonis and manages comic relief through perversion.
Between the dancers’ minds and bodies, Gaudet coaxes a Cartesian separation. The dancers’ faces are often cherubic, creating sweet and seductive expressions while they make grotesque contortions of their entire bodies or drag demon dinosaur breaths through their inner organs. Whether aggressive or sensual they remain catatonic to each others’ touches. It unsettles and upsets me. I am suspicious of every smile, every kind word spoken on stage.
The gaze of the dancers returns always to stare through the heart of the public or to disengage from us on some other slant. The dancers see no one, least of all themselves. Meanwhile, they grope and paw at each other with literal disregard. Much of what they do must feel unpleasant, but the other spectators and I are transfixed, in paralyzed fascination.
This is all unfolding in gut-wrenching contrast to Howard Helvey’s choral O Lux Beatissima, which they sing in angelic harmony at the outset:
O Light most blessed,
Fill the inmost heart
Of all thy faithful.
Without your grace,
There is nothing in us,
Nothing that is not harmful.
This is true foreshadowing.
There is a physical-theatrical exercise, developed by Meg Stuart of the Damaged Goods performance company, that has a performer treat another’s body as a corpse. (On a side note, Stuart acted as a mentor for Gravel in her master’s studies). In so doing, basic human behaviours and states are revealed. I sense a commonality to this kind of practice in Gaudet’s rigorous transmutations of the body in her last two works. Gaudet focuses on disembodied states, disemboweled voices.
As opposed to the individual states of insecurity and perversity dragged into the open in Je suis un autre, this new piece seems to work on the institutional level. Out of a mire of dirty Québécois language, the pure heart of ecclesiastical symbolism is conjured.
A question is repeatedly posed by the dancers, as they do disturbingly inattentive things to one another: “qu’est ce que ça te fait quand je fais ça?” or in English, “What does it do for you when I do this?” At some point, they dislodge their bodies from one another and begin to pose for the public, repeating the question for us. The subtext seems to ask me if I’ve acknowledged the darkness that possibly lurks beneath my role as public witness. The spectator-public is just a stand-in for the macrocosmic public body.
There are deep criticisms here of those who would avert their eyes from the darkness around us or inside ourselves, who would ‘throw up their hands’ as the dancers do. Who is at fault when a blind eye is turned on misdoings? The question howls out to me. It’s a testament to Gaudet’s sorcery that I feel as if I’ve bitten into a rotten apple, glossy on the outside with poison at its core. The four demon-dancers have no virtue in them, yet each smiles like Snow White.