Danièle Desnoyers’ new work, “Play It Again!”, is detached from narrative. Well mostly: there’s the resonance of tough guy Humphrey Bogart’s famous line in the film classic Casablanca, indelibly linked to tinkling the ivories. By incorporating a piano as the main object in the work, and in close proximity to the dancers, who also interact with the instrument, Desnoyers is setting up a parenthetical structure, with possible layered references. She has created a kind of take-it-or-leave framework for the piece, with its own form of intelligence, and so there’s little or no chance for the viewer to project his or her own stories onto the images in the work. I chose to let myself go.
One immediate thought I had in walking into the hall and seeing the baby grand piano standing alone upstage right was, “what would the polarities of the instrument and the performers be, and how would the choreographer work with theme and variation?” With an instrument on stage, I’m always curious to see how it is used as a passage to other worlds.
Desnoyers apparently chose composer François Laporte, who is known for his multi-disciplinary approach to music, because of the visceral connection he creates in his listening audience. That kind of physical resonance is what Desnoyers has been seeking in her last number of dance concerts with her company, Le Carré des Lombes. In a sense, she’s been treating the stage as an installation in which the resourcefulness of the artists, in collaboration, creates abstractions that link sound, movement and image.
For Desnoyers, the pursuit of beauty might be a happy result, but that’s not foremost in her mind in this work. In interviews, she talks about the formidable and exquisitely tantalizing appeal of the “adventure” of dance invention, how the mingling of the intelligence of her dancers and her other associates makes for satisfying research.
In “Play It Again!” that’s the extent of the research: she creates sequences that connect one person with another, and throughout the work the piano becomes the conduit through which the performers focus their attention or spin out in other mappings on stage.
The stage is free of clutter: there is a large screen at the rear, hanging microphones and a large ottoman downstage. Lucie Bazzo’s lighting design emphasizes the clean and spare aesthetic. The windows lining one wall of the Agora stage are open to light of the night sky, free of black curtains. The other wall is also curtain-free. In the opening sequence, a woman (AnneBruce Falconer) enters and sits on the ottoman. She’s wearing a hat pulled low down over her eyes, and in heels, she’s quite fashionable and feminine. She shifts, her shoulders slouched and legs somewhat splayed, and then she crosses her arms. She shifts again, and then turns her back to the audience. Finally, she lays flat in a sleeping position.
Laporte composes for the prepared piano — wherein the piano’s sound is altered by placing objects between or on the strings. Martin Ouellet — billed as a musician, not as a pianist — walks on stage. He doesn’t sit on a bench, but kneels and adjusts something underneath. In a kind of distracted way, the piano top is off. The piano will be his arsenal, and for the most part rhythm, harmony and melody are distant cousins in his music-making.
The vibration of the piano strings ripples, then Falconer shifts again. She walks off. He adjusts and starts manipulating the strings with what looks to be a horn. Another woman (Sionèd Watkins) casually walks to the piano. She leans in and smiles at him, bends one knee, then rises on her toes. With one hand on the piano, she shifts her leg back and forth and then does a kind of reinvented Charleston, just shimmying with her knees. A man (Pierre Lecours) with long limbs comes forward in a jacket and t-shirt. He seems distracted. Partnering begins with quick turns. He cradles her momentarily. She snaps her fingers. Arms scoop space, rotating and moving into faster rotation. Another fellow (Ken Roy) comes out and looks at the two.
The percussive pulls at the strings reverberate and, in and of themselves, they generate excitement. Set against the raucous jamming, Watkins quivers her limbs, knocks her knees and sickles her feet. In the course of a couple of minutes, she adds a layer of coyness, flirtation and eventually another few steps of the Charleston. The movement invention isn’t particularly rich, but Desnoyers is not working with notions about technical perfection, rather a feel. The sonic statement doesn’t match the tones and textures of the dance.
The ottoman is used for resting and other accents in the movement. Three dancers sit. One cradles a foot on the upper thigh. One flicks about, flinging her leg back. The gaze is not confrontational, but the two others watch, almost fearful it seems, as they appear to shiver and recoil as she gets close. One dancer then lies flat on the ground, another slumps on the ottoman. The third looks at us.
Meanwhile Watkins looks colt-like, hovering about the piano, she walks on her toes, her legs the feature attraction. Doop, doop, doop goes the piano. A flick of Sophie Corriveau’s foot on Watkins’ ass gets a laugh. One bumps against the other, then more hovering and another flick on the ass. It doesn’t get a laugh this time. The timing is off. At another moment one of the women sits, and misses the ottoman. Ouch. Someone in the audience chortles, “ho-ho-ho”.
At another point, Corriveau gets close to the musician. He doesn’t acknowledge her. You know in an instant where this is going. She seems intent, but uncertain what to do. Her elbow hits the keyboard. She sits on the keyboard. There’s still no reaction or acknowledgement. She runs her ass up and down the keyboard. Still nothing. He’s busy rubbing his fingers on the amplified strings. She ends up lying down on the keyboard. Ultimately, she taps on a key, he finally looks and she walks away. Then he tap, tap, taps on the key as she’s almost offstage. It draws her back. Her knee flicks and the leg spirals back. She moves and always looks back at him.
Soon after, Watkins comes on stage in high heels and crouches, while Lecours and Roy are flicking and flopping on the ottoman. “Martin,” she says, to the musician, “I may have broken something. Désolé (sorry).” She’s out of her heels now. He begins to play “My Favorite Things” from the musical “The Sound of Music”. Watkins goes wild. “I’m so happy,” she shrieks, cartwheels, and jumps onto him. “Dog bites,” we hear her wail. She runs off stage and we can still hear her yowling in delight. OK, it’s cute, and it got a laugh. Again though, there’s something awkward about the timing.
The dance proceeds in fits and starts — a trio of dancers windmill their arms forward as they wiggle diagonally across the stage in fast-forward mode. A duet for the two guys focusses on the upper body, as they twist around each other. Desnoyers also explores more folding of the legs, which then splay out. There’s some unison movement thrown in at a certain point.
Desnoyers has clearly given herself and her collaborators permission to create the kind of show that they find pleasing, playing with colour and spark at their discretion. The results will captivate some, while others will find it elusive or indulgent and will leave wanting for much more. “You must remember this” was part of the refrain in the famous theme song from “Casablanca”. I’d say that’s wishful thinking in this context.