In “S’envoler” Estelle Clareton is in full flight. Definitely going against the current of most local dance productions, the work simply soars when the dancers are engaged in full-throttle movement. Subtitled Epsilon 5/24, the fifth and most recent installment in her Furies series is passionate and unsettling, all about the entanglements of the group and individual preoccupations. Clareton, with an extensive background in both theatre and dance, seems to be grappling throughout with issues related to the deeply instilled longing and perhaps emotional dependency that marks many contemporary lives. The piece, produced by Clareton’s company Création Caféine, opened the Agora de la danse’s 20th anniversary season, and was a jam-packed event. The evening began with speeches by Agora artistic director Francine Bernier, board president Florence Junca-Adenot and other well-wishers, who offered honorific greetings, taking the better part of forty-five minutes to salute the venue and its personnel’s achievements.
The actual performance finally started to the whimsical sounds of tweeting birds, before Alexandre Parenteau, with wide eyes and a few hesitant steps, enters and exits quickly. Soon a tightly packed crowd dressed in somber-coloured costumes (by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt) swells on the white stage, offset by its black curtains and with the now pulsating score (by Éric Forget). If the performance sounds dirge-like, it’s not. The mass of bodies, with the action at its own unhurried pace, is living sculpture, with “truths” divulged about our relations and connections that are easily digestible. The piece is a study with a profound sense of what it means to be human, using non-stylistic movements, emphasizing the fragmentation that can envelop us. The almost cellular configurations are delicate, and the movements – an arm jutting out, or a grasping of a leg or neck – small. The balancing of weight is passed through this structure. Clareton is the ideal person to explore these intimate, existential vicissitudes. As has been discussed in many interviews surrounding this production, she gave wide berth to her performers to invent and give definition to her ideas. By her own admission, she loves to engage her performers through laughter and camaraderie, no doubt building on the relationships forged during the creative process and giving them plenty of room to explore the situations she introduces to the group. The dozen dancers were Dominic Caron, Raphael Cruz, Noémie Godin-Vigneau, Marie-Ève Lafontaine, Sylvain Lafortune, Julie Marcil, Frédéric Marier, Mathilde Monnard, Brice Noeser, Parenteau, Esther Rousseau-Morin and Jamie Wright.
While Clareton has worked with fury and rage in previous Furies productions, this time a lighter tone, for the most part, predominates. She’s confident and certain with her material, from the shuffling masses to her gaggle of humanity resisting individuality. But there’s misdirection, too. There’s a lot to look at: for instance, when a duet is danced, there is so much else happening in the assembled grouping upstage that the viewer’s focus is split, and the intention of the scene is lost. The muddy lighting (by Martin Labreque) doesn’t help matters, and sometimes it’s difficult to discern the performers’ often hyper-serious faces.
One of the reasons “S’envoler” succeeds is because of the impressive work Parenteau does in his expressive and yet haunted and wistful performance. He is a complete original, and utterly in his body. In his brown Capri pants and jacket, his jaunty gigues and spins seem to take him by surprise and to give him great pleasure. Imagine, watching a dancer whose delight is palpable! It may seem odd to single out one performer above the larger group, but Parenteau perfectly expresses a sense of humanity throughout – whether in the group sequences or in his memorable solo turns – and his body is a flickering vision of humanity, identifiably kinetic, loose and emotional from head to toe. Other highlights include convincing moments by Wright, who in the driving, fully-danced sequences (Clareton throws a lot of punch into them) moves with fluid, soft ease; the pliable and delightfully acrobatic Cruz, who bounds with instinctive eagerness; and the reliable Lafortune, doing a nice job with the bulk of the heavy lifting.
Others are engaged in pulling off the comic yet melancholic shuffling, and they certainly know what to do with their bodies and where to hit their marks, taking their cues, moving from here to there, but their eyes betray them: they look but they don’t see, more often appearing uncertain, not fulfilling Clareton’s choreography. They connect on stage, yes, but at some level it appears tactical. Eventually they all slide across a slippery wet patch on the stage. It’s a rambunctious rumble, and Clareton stages it broadly, more like slapstick; the audience laughs easily, as if somehow they couldn’t before. When she introduces into the flock a wolf – embodied by different dancers at various times within the sequence sporting a wolf’s head – the payoff is muted. These normally anxious, ferrety “birds” seem undaunted, unafraid, hardly vulnerable flesh and bone, rather teasing and impervious in their choice to linger. When Monnard, who is one of the group, does succumb, or more accurately transform, she howls her imposture.
The mid-section of the piece is zapped of energy, weighted and slow-moving. Motionless languor is one way to go, but it needs to be snipped. Clareton loses sight of the potential of the cluster she’s created. Think Simone Forti’s famous “Huddle” and her moving bundle of humanity, an ebbing and flowing community, and you get a sense of the element of wonder that could be tapped. Clareton’s mound doesn’t always achieve the same “rightness” with her group; it’s more hit-and-miss, but that tells me it’s something that can come about in future performances. What stays with the viewer in “S’envoler” is Clareton’s conception that trust matters. It’s an inviting proposition, and we are pulled in, entranced, and even when she sometimes draws back from her choreographic proposal, leaving the audience in the cold, or at least lukewarm, she’s able to bounce back and cultivate joy.