PS: One week in and I’m feeling both the exhilaration of what’s burbling up at the Festival TransAmériques — the Montréal festival devoted to the best in contemporary dance and theatre — and the slump of over-stimulation. Integrated media is first and foremost the greatest focus of many of the shows that I’ve been seeing at the FTA. Choreographers are looking to technology to support their movement ideas, some keen on letting computer generated images, many of which originate with plain old pencil or charcoal drawing, fill up big chunks of time. The artists are plumbing the depths of interdisciplinary forms, context and audience. These productions underscore collaborative working methods and how artistic endeavor can be disseminated in a collage-like mix.
On show are investigations inherently linked to broader cultural and artistic movements in performance and the visual arts, with references to popular culture and graphic design. Remix is the buzzword. Working with film and media is not new, but what I find most intriguing is how drawing has taken centre stage. Whether it is drawing through means of computer-generated images or more rudimentary 2D charcoal and paper renderings that are projected, the interest seems to be in integrating action and altering not only how dance is experienced by the audience, but how it transforms the performative nature of the dancing experience, with disparate elements integrated into the overall show.
The festival opened with Danièle Desnoyers’ “Là où je vis”, featuring an energetic and lively bunch of young dancers who eat up the space, diving into the luscious movement sections, slicing the space with an arm or leg, and whipping round, tangling and untangling, with precision timing. One American presenter commented to me afterward how wonderful it was to see dancers not hiding their technical abilities.
Desnoyers has formed a strong working relationship with Nancy Tobin, the sound designer, over the past number of productions, and it’s that essential connection that drives this show too. The rumbling, scratchy, static of an electronic composition is the foundation for the score. Manon de Pauw is the on-stage media manipulator, working with basic materials like big white sheets of (crepe) paper, or manually cutting round circles and placing them on a drawing table which doubly serves as a kind of overhead projector. She is stage-left with a camera positioned to capture her every mediated move, and we see these images projected on a huge white floor-to-ceiling screen upstage. De Pauw at one point picks up a piece of charcoal and draws a circle. There’s a lovely simplicity to the graphite rubbing the surface, making a circling motion, and I suspect many people in the audience remember doing just the same thing in elementary drawing class. Other times, she’ll place a bead or stone or some other cutouts on the projector table and we’ll see the results. Oftentimes the dancers (Clara Furey, Alan Lake, Pierre-Marc Ouellette, Frédéric Taverini and Catherine Viau) will be helping her with these visual manipulations, pulling sheets of paper, placing objects on screen and the like. Desnoyers gives lots of time to de Pauw to do her thing, but the integration with the dancing bodies is spare. A standout among the performers is young Furey with her tomboy look, hard-edge strut, and dark good looks. She has a fine singing voice (she sings one of her dad Lewis’ old songs), and terrific range as an actor. Her powerful monologue about alienation stokes the show. It’s an indication about Desnoyers’ generosity, in handing over sections of stage time to her multi-talented collaborators; but it’s also a measure of her uneasy grasp of fully harmonizing the components in her work to fully support her movement ideas.
The most satisfying show all week has been the delightful Benoît Lachambre-Louise Lecavalier collaboration “Is You Me”. Both of these artists are seasoned professionals, and their simple, and delicate interpretive skills add resonance to the overall proposition. Working with the equally talented visual artist Laurent Goldring and the electronic composer/sound designer Hahn Row, the team creates magic. Lachambre and Lecavalier appear as computer generated images that morph and dissolve, with herky-jerky movements, their faces and bodies most often obscured by the hoodie-jumpsuit combos they sport. There is nothing showy here, no big moves, no attitude; everything is about the subtlety of the gestures. Their heads bob, and their shoulders hunch and shake, or flat on their back they wriggle across a bevelled, elongated rectangular white “canvas”. Goldring, who is at the computer deck, draws squiggles that resemble dinosaurs and birds, that appear and disappear at will, and he also washes the screen with swaths of computer-generated paint, subsuming his live subjects, so they become one with his palette. Eventually he adds colour to the mix (everything prior was in black and white), and the sudden vibrancy is heartening.
There is softness to the entire production, and its unforced use of the mediated material makes the entire work seamless. Adding to the pleasure of watching are the two intelligent, generous performers: Lachambre in playful mode, and Lecavalier just sublime, fine-tuning accents on the tiniest of gestures – a tilt of her head or the movement of an arm – giving them added resonance. These are gesture-driven inkblots that I’d watch endlessly.
Someone like Marie Chouinard, whom I interviewed in a public forum on Saturday afternoon, is also deeply interested in the possibilities of media in the development of her work. She spoke of the joy in editing sequences furiously with split second results on her computer terminal, suggesting the possibilities of still working even if the dancers are not present in flesh and blood.
On a whole other register, I enjoyed Noémie Lafrance’s “Melt”. Celebrated for her site-specific works, and recent Feist music-videos, this ex-pat Canadian, now living in New York, strapped her four female dancers on perch-like seats attached to the cement wall of a staircase leading to the underground concourse of the city’s main arts venue, Place des Arts. The audience of about one hundred festival-goers was herded down the flight of stairs to look up at them during the short-and-sweet fifteen-minute performance. Dressed in skimpy near see-through dresses, dripping with melted beeswax, the women shimmered in the light, swayed to the rumbling sounds emanating from the speakers, moving gently as if in silent contemplation, or just engaged looking out onto some far horizon. Watching the watchers, in their varying states of interest and disinterest, was great fun, perhaps even more than the piece itself.
Dana Gingras’ Animals of Distinction presented the Montréal premiere of “Smash Up” last night, and I’ve got lots to say on that show, and how it explores creative environments, but I’ll pass the torch to you.
MCF: Indeed, Philip, at one week in, I am a blur of contradicting emotions — excitement and disappointment in what I have seen, eagerness to see more and the feeling of already having seen too much. It seems that the festival has found a cruising speed in this second edition, with a little more bustle than last year, that is, more performances, and some organized off-festival activity. Perhaps because I have just undertaken several important personal transitions and feel slightly out of phase, I have been struck by a feeling of novelty around the event of a performance and this has left me consistently wondering: what I am looking at?
Indeed, as you mention, the live, multimedia collaboration almost seems like the subject matter itself in both the Desnoyers and Lachambre performances. In Desnoyers’ “Là où je vis”, the program indicated the dance was about the body as home. As the dancers committed themselves with great verve and drama, taut as elastics whipping everywhere, and as the video artist played a layered “find the circle” game with her multiple live projection screens, I had the feeling of unresolved tension. Furey’s singing and monologue evoked a certain desire and existential angst, but I kept thinking there was a sexy undertone to the movement vocabulary that the dancers didn’t quite appropriate and that didn’t mesh with the live production of quite simple moving pictures. Moments stayed with me — Frédéric Tavernini slowly falling into the ground, seeming suspended by his large hands, and Furey, lifted over Tavernini’s shoulder, his hand around her neck. And I was moved by the big, bold dancing. Desnoyers was risking something in this explicitly collaborative work, which I appreciate, but I am not sure exactly what was on the line.
“Is You Me” of Lachambre and Lecavalier and Goldring (and Rowe), in my experience, integrated different elements with more success. When Lecavalier walked out, lay on the angled stage and wiggled her hips back and forth beside a projected, animated, bobbing black puppet, when she wiggled gently across the stage into a sea of black particles raining in the white all around her, when Lachambre bobbed out in his white pants and hoodie, the beauty and subtlety blew my hair away. Then, as large and busy visual vignettes followed one and another, I had difficulty staying focussed and was often relieved when Goldring would end one series of live MacPaint etchings on the screen/stage (with cursor flying about, giant-sized, in full view) by returning to a white page. Lachambre and Lecavalier looked and moved like fiery animated characters. Over the course of the hour, the front lighting of the projector flattened some of the movement and I longed for something three-dimensional. The live-ness and the play of the work resonated as a strong artistic proposal, as all of the artists where creating on the spot, including the very talented Hahn Rowe, a New York composer who has an uncanny talent for building a musical climax and bringing it down again and again.
I saw these performances alongside “Maybe Forever”, created and performed by Meg Stuart (Brussels) and Phillipp Gehmacher (Vienna), a touching piece that risked evoking the complexity of relationship and succeeded with an impressive whole of movement, text, live music, set, costume and collaborators. We all might have something to learn about collaboration from these two artists. The festival program also hosted two performances by the acclaimed German-French choreographer and performer Raimond Hogue. I saw one of the two performances, “Boléro Variations”, and remain in great admiration of the scope that his minimal dance encompasses. Two other shows completed the international (read European) dance portion of the festival, “Chambre Blanche” by the Belgian Michèle Noiret, and “Akabi” by the Turkish Aydin Teker. The first was a very conservative interpretation of feminine creativity, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, and the latter, a tedious exploration of dancers perched on very high platform shoes performing movements that continuously strained their lower legs and knee caps (I had an excellent view of the bones twisting from my third row seat). I remain mystified as to why those two shows were selected for the festival.
Fortunately, I fell right back in to my initial sense of novelty with Paul-André Fortier’s “Cabane”, a collaboration with magical interdisciplinary québécois artist Rober Racine. As a continuation of Fortier work “Solo 30×30”, presented in a handful cities all over the world, “Cabane” explores itinerancy and wandering. A small, modular shed, built by Daniel Vallée, anchors the movement and sound interventions, enhanced by projections of birds and some unlikely instruments: naked box springs as percussion and harp, harmonicas perched on tripods and a steel cable as a double bass. Two roadie-like techies inhabit the space with the performers, lighting the set and props with transparency projectors and neon lights, courtesy of lighting designer John Munro.
I feel that you and I, Philip, were lucky to see this performance on a damp afternoon in a hangar on Montréal’s old port (the show was also presented in two more conventional theatres and in a salon at Windsor Station). In this setting, Racine and Fortier really did seem like vagrants, despite the formal shirts and ties. I knew of Racine’s work, having read about it, but I was unprepared; this man is reckless and genuine and compelling and beautiful. He cries like a bird and a lost soul into a loudspeaker, he sings and plays a Beijing-opera style song on the bedsprings, he launches himself towards an imaginary football, he challenges Fortier to arm wrestle and wins. Beside him, Fortier’s signature vocabulary of flicking fingers, swishing limbs and stern goings-about finds a touching and sometimes bittersweet, sometimes humorous poetry. So many images and metaphors are presented: around home, around birds on wires, but also around container and content, around inside and out. I hope to see this work again to further delve into its riches.
Following the festival theme of collaboration, my next stop was “Smash Up” by Dana Gingras’ satellite company to The Holy Body Tattoo, Animals of Distinction. A note that I was seated in the first balcony thanks to an insider tip; this performance is best viewed from a certain height. “Smash Up” is dance in a pop-arcade-animated-boxing-ring-jungle. Whoa. My favourite vignette remains the opening. Gingras and the fierce and beautiful Sarah Doucet lay splayed on the narrow white strip that runs up the middle of the floor and onto the upstage scrim. As an electro-pop song starts up, an animation of a fly and its flight path squiggle onto the floor between the dancers. Suddenly, the fly becomes a tracing of the silhouette of Gingras, who has just slammed herself into a different splayed position. The dancers roll and throw themselves into contortion, trailed and led by their projected animated forms, which radicalize their simple, repeated shapes. When they launch themselves briefly up from the floor (before crashing down again), my perception of vertical space is skewed by the quickly moving animations on the floor. It wraps up with both dancers rolling around a black and white psychedelic swirl. Then ensues a series of animated dances interwoven with some beautifully crafted videos in which an image of a hand holding a pen draws moving circular lines that generate electronic music. The music (concept by Roger Tellier-Craig with samples of Radiohead, among others) is loud, the lights are bright — some even organized as large Lite-Brite machines under the risers and the animations are loaded and layered, sometimes with Pac-Man ghosts, sometimes with colour, sometimes with quickly-moving stylized silhouettes.
In her solo, Susan Elliott brings a certain movement sophistication to Gingras’s extreme GO!STOP!GO!STOP! choreography. The final number is a duet with Elliott and Vancouver dancer Shay Kuebler — a virtuosic mover who almost makes the spinning, upside-down lifts and balances look too easy. Their wild acrobatics begin in a beautiful pattern of white throbbing squares of light and I was disappointed when the animations began for a second, more frenetic round of dancing, punctuated by a mysterious vigorous scratching theme. At the end of the performance, the acquaintance sitting beside me said, appropriately, “I feel like there is a ringing in my eyes”. The interventions of the many artists in “Smash Up” exhilarate Gingras’ work to create an immersive and undeniably high impact show. The sensory overload may be too much for some.
Back to you Philip, in this last leg of the FTA.
PS: By week’s end, I needed inspiration, something unpredictable, personal, articulate, and yes, wild. Happily I can report that I was exhilarated by the risk and experimentation in the Fortier show that we saw in that old shed at the Old Port. It seemed like the perfect accompaniment, in the form of a raw working environment, that Fortier has honed over the last couple of years performing his “Solo30x30” all over the world in open and public places and spaces.
Once again, Fortier raises the bar, and is at the height of his creative power. He is moving the discussion about the body much fur her, and in many ways strides ahead, of many of his younger colleagues. He is not only able to exploit his rich history in dance-theatre, but he does so with curiosity, always embracing the possibility of what being in dialogue is all about. Mental agility is part of his engineering, and that excitement transfers to the audience.
Although Fortier is making non-narrative dances, and while he’s considering space and gesture in this duet, there’s immediacy to an emotional content that I find subtly subversive. I loved the half-bird-half-human themes he and artist/writer/performance artist/musician Racine played with. The birdlike motions and sounds (yes, those incredible sounds that emanate from Racine!) weave a textured landscape of memory — a sense of place is evoked, or a time that’s linked to a larger topography. Fortier and Racine show us how the body is unpredictable, and how movement patterns, which are grounded in repetition, become strategies to negotiate an environment.
What is completely pleasurable is the degree to which nothing is sacrosanct. I loved the way the stagehands were present in the performance area, the use of everyday overhead projectors, how props become opportunities for expression (as you so keenly describe), and how there is a wry correspondence between music and dance. Again, “Cabane” is full of high-jinks, intelligent invention, surprisingly funny elements, and methodical choices that are also full of craft.
“Smash Up” turned out to be a smorgasbord of overlapping elements with a “the sky’s the limit” sensibility to its collaborative conceit. The colourful animations (original hand-drawn art in multiple manipulations), by James Paterson and Amit Pitaru, conjured up psychedelic landscapes, fanciful cartoons, and streams of collage-like mixed-media images and sounds. Gingras is stoking a collision of artistic sensibilities that did indeed bump up against her movement environments. I understand that when the show first played in Vancouver it was an installation-based concept, where the audience moved around the larger space, leaving one universe and entering another.
I wish that had happened at the FTA. Instead we were plugged into our seats, and the show moved from one chunky sequence to another. The first section, for me, succeeded in terms of the drive (plunging and slamming into the floor) of Gingras’ choreography, her playing a cat-and-mouse game, with Gingras and Doucet chasing the animated images, working in fractions of time. While I admired their stamina, after a while it was wearing to watch them having to constantly hit their mark. In subsequent sections, the ‘conversation’ wasn’t as lively — the underwater sequence with Sonja Perreten in flippers and mask, for instance, was flat. Part of the issue throughout is that the animation overwhelmed the movement. Curiously, it was the final section, with Susan Elliott and Shay Kuebler, that soared. For most of the dance, there was no animation, just glaring white light at the start, and two highly in-tune and tuned bodies, working with a kind of unafraid physicality. Their trust in each other is phenomenal. They work with stillness, and then a gathering speed; one is a mover, one a catcher, working on the vertical and the horizontal.
Marie Chouinard’s “Orphée et Eurydice” was a big, inflated dance that exhibited Cirque du Soleil playfulness, Las Vegas entertainment values, and in the end was a well-designed frolic. Inspired in her process by the myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice”, about the pain of creation, the production just felt creatively redundant. As the myth illustrates, the descent into the underworld is a marker for the confrontation with the unknown. Once there, anything goes.
The use of non-electronically altered, contorted voice elements, babble-talk, gold pasties on everyone’s nipples, bellowing screams and exhibitionist abandon, were the order of the day. Even the strap-on erect penises for the men, all in high-heels, all in a line, while a knock-out image, unfortunately didn’t add up to much. Normally, you can bank on an orgy to get the audience going — although, if the guy behind me was any barometer, some felt the orgiastic embrace more than others — but the simulated sex and sexuality seemed overwrought and posey. Lucie Mongrain climbing into the audience, folding over seats and scampering through the rows, served as the interactive portion of the show, but it seemed forced and very much à la Dave St-Pierre. Some of the performers simply seemed ill at ease, or hesitant, with what they had to do. But a couple of her dancers were terrific. Manuel Roque is a short fellow, with a gymnastic background, and he is totally game and a joy to watch, ready to dive right into what ever Chouinard throws his way. When he opens his mouth in a silent scream, his open gape seems to fill the space; when he cavorts, bouncing on a prickly bouncing ball, he is a rubbery plaything. Carole Prieur, who’s been with Chouinard for more than a decade, is another highlight, capturing the audience’s full-attention with a glance, or commanding the space in full vocal fury. These performers go full out, and it makes the world of difference.
As the curtain closes in on the cast at the end, when they’re all grinning and waving to the crowd, I thought I was at a Momix performance. The audience rose to their feet en masse, Montréal-style, in dutiful appreciation of what was a quite popular, though hardly heady, outing.
Martin Bélanger’s “Grande Théorie Unifiée” (GTU) is fueled by a non-conformist approach. He likes to mix and match styles and ideas. The overall feel of the show is slack. Using the concept of a united front, or a coming together, in performance GTU is a grab bag of ideas and styles, and it’s uneven. At two hours in length, it can be surprisingly droll, or as organized disorder, just plain flat. He seems to relish the ability to throw a lot on the stage, and see what sticks.
By and large, the show felt a playful theatre sports night, with the focus set on a fun and lively evening. The chance factor in theatre sports is all-important. The audience never knows what will happen next, and neither do the actors. The rules are such that the ‘athletes’ are given a very fixed prescription of theme, the configuration of the team, and duration. And the improvs run anywhere from two to twenty minutes. In the theatre sports system, the actors perform solo or in groups, and they have mere seconds to build a theatrical strategy on the themes. Whether this process produces good theatre is debatable. But the competition is real. And the springboard is the actor’s imagination.
Nothing was quite so explicit in GTU. With Bélanger’s piece I was never sure if the performers — Katie Ewald, Claudia Fancello, Anne Lebeau, Peter Trosztmer, Stephen Thompson and Bélanger himself — had already rehearsed their ‘lines’, or if they’d prepared something beforehand.
The show opened with the engaging Julie-Andrée T., as host/entertainer, singing to the assembled crowd, seated on either side of the stage area. Jean-Sébastien Durocher, who created the sound design, and Jean Jauvin, on lights, expertly augment the creative team, and are active in the performance area as well (though generally behind their consoles). Talk, movement, live commentary, and an off-beat wit, make the piece click, all part of the artistic/social communion in the moment. At intermission, ‘fans’, as in actual audience members, have the chance to mingle with the performers, and have a few words with their ‘heros’.
In a bit of comparison-shopping, in the arena of sex, I’d say Bélanger trumps Chouinard hands down. He’s ballsy and he flaunts every sexuality going. It’s part of the running commentary, and he’s unafraid of excess. He’s confident enough to tie his genitalia with a string and then pull. No simulation there. Nor is there any dictating of what is ‘enough’ or ‘too much’.
What he’s got going is a large dose of healthy respect among his group. They seem like friends having a good time, who enjoy being together. What they’ve come up with, at least for this outing, is not riveting (nor is it meant to be, I suspect), but there were laughs, and hints of what larger ideas could be if they were followed through, though that wasn’t the point. Nor were they clear in what they wanted to say. Clarity and power are not part of the construct.
If I talk about an artist’s signature style, I’m not sure I can name what Martin Bélanger’s mark is; but I imagine that he’d probably enjoy that it remained un-named. As this was the show that closed the festival for me, I have to admit that I left the theatre fulfilled, in the sense that I generally had a good time, and I hope the performers did too. I’m completely supportive of the non-hierarchical structure he’s set up, though I shrugged, unmoved by what was on display.
MCF: Well, I am not sure that “Smash Up” would work as an installation-based show. I felt there was an intensity in the opening duet very much related to the fact that the two dancers were laying in the space, waiting for us all to come in and sit down. The impact of that number arose, in part, from the surprise. The show as whole suffered, I think, from too much of one thing — the animations were exciting but after fifteen minutes, I had tasted the full palette of what was being offered and after, the dance/animation fusions became redundant. Perhaps the movement of both the performers and the video would have benefited from a range broader than urgency or suspension.
Interestingly, I saw Martin Bélanger’s “Grande Théorie Unifiée” before the Chouinard extravaganza, and I did not feel that it was “flat” and I did not once doubt that the interpreters had rehearsed what they were going to say and that the moments of improvisation were cued by a slew of specific parameters. The title is ambitious and a lot was referenced in the two hours, from pretentious art criticism, to trivia on all of the performers, to current scientific and societal preoccupations, to cheerleading, contemporary dance, ballet, hip hop and to money, power, style and sex. I was watching a portrait of ‘now’, and I enjoyed how that involved getting intimate with the performers — like learning that Claudia Fancello is from Sherbrooke or that Anne Lebeau’s mother was an opera singer. The vignettes were all staged specifically — split focus between the endearingly grungy and lax hostess and the dramatic, medieval tableaux constructed by the dancers of bodies entwined and limbs reaching; an elated Stephen Thompson prancing wildly quite close to the audience while his cohorts staged different gymnastic groupings behind him, or several performers dressed in multiple layers of varied costumes, stripping in an alternately confident and then victimized fashion. The attention to the space and to the bodies was almost scientific, as Bélanger and his crew very seriously broached a grand unifying theory without taking themselves seriously. The tongue-in-cheek tone seduced me. As Julie Andrée T. scratched her electric guitar to a persistent electronic beat and sang “I’ve got no money/I’ve got no power/I’ve got no style/But I’m a sex machine”, the performers built a train, entwined in various combinations of crotches and mouths, and wiggled themselves through space like a machine.
Oh, how I missed this carefully crafted casualness in Chouinard’s “Orphée and Eurydice”! She is a master of stunning images: women laying arched back over men’s bent knees, the men gently plucking small sounds of pleasure from the women, touching their spines in various places — neck, chest, abdomen; a parade of dancers with sinewy snakes sliding out of their mouths; a chorus of women flicking about with little golden bells strung to their hands, as other little bells roll in from the wings on the floor around them. As you mentioned, there was an impressive and consistent use of voice, voice as poetry, voice as orgasmic scream, voice as a horse race commentator … Chouinard did touch on the mystical she evoked in the program; however, many moments were not anchored or seemed incomplete. Lucy Mongrain made a big show of coming into the audience (as you mentioned, in a very Dave St-Pierre fashion) but her return to the stage was lost in a sea of entrances, exits and circus-like activity on stage. Mongrain plucked Carol Prieur’s voice out of her body quite emphatically for several minutes and then they both trailed off as other dancers entered. The orgies involved bombastic heterosexual mock intercourse and a hodgepodge of cartwheels and high leg kicks. I wished for more precision in the overall assembly, and I think some of the dancers did as well, who struggled to sustain the high energy that was set up at the top of the show. Nonetheless, this closing-night festival performance was greeted by a lengthy, enthusiastic ovation, in fact, the warmest audience response I saw all festival. Chouinard’s formula is popular.
My initial novelty at the beginning of the festival shifted over time as the initial hub of activity I sensed on opening night depleted over the course of two weeks. I was inspired by the accent on collaboration; though not a new approach, some of the artistic co-creations really allowed work to breathe in different directions. I wonder what your general impression were?
PS: I think that my final impressions rest on the clarity of the curatorial choices, at least in terms of the Québec and Canadian work. Since last year’s edition, and the FTA’s first outing as a combined dance and theatre festival, dance has found its footing and, if nothing else, is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the theatre component. (I’m not reviewing the quality of those productions, but just noting the visibility of the dance shows vis-à vis the theatre offerings.) As you say, collaboration was key, as was the emphasis on mediated images. Some productions were stronger than others, but overall there was great quality, certainly in terms of the technical aspects (lights, sound, sets, costumes). As to the international fare, I would have preferred a greater diversity, in all interpretations of the word. In a world where there’s so much to see, and pick from, I was honestly disappointed in not being introduced to works that expanded my sensibilities or surprised me to consider things in a new ways. In a coming edition it would also be encouraging if the organizers could include a younger generation of artist in the mix, not for a gig at Place des Arts, but certainly on a platform that would attract audiences and presenters. The OFF.T.A. worked its magic, but sometimes the margins need to be brought to centre stage. Thanks for your perspectives, Marie-Claire, and the chance to bounce around some ideas.