Confrontational and contained, Dominique Porte’s Exit, features music compositions by four Canadian composers – James Harley, Nicolas Gilbert, Michael Oesterle and Howard Bashaw – with Véronique Lacroix of the Ensemble contemporain de Montréal directing the live performances of percussionist Philip Hornsley and pianist Pamela Reimer. Two years ago, Porte and Lacroix created a successful tribute to John Cage at the Salle Pierre-Mercure in Montréal.
The choreographer, who also dances in this piece, skirts her favored use of technique and structure in this group work. Facing the music, literally, she deconstructs the architecture of the body, leaving it to designer Jonathan Inksetter to alter the physical space the dance occupies. Playing with our perceptions of proximity, distance and resonance, he has placed the musicians on a platform high at the back of the theatre. He has also strategically removed seats where the audience normally sits, creating a pyramid shape.
Porte’s desire was to heighten the encounter, and Inksetter’s design has the audience right on the stage, ringing it on three sides, so that the dancers come in direct contact with the assembled crowd. Throughout the work, they move into and exit from the area that usually contains the audience seating. Three huge white screens are placed behind the seated spectators. What plays on those screens is a slightly out-of-focus edited video sequence in which we see people entering a theatre, climbing over seats to sit and watch a performance perhaps, or us.
In terms of lights, sets and costumes (slacks and t-shirts), beige and khaki colours reign. They don’t really stimulate our senses, but maybe that’s the point. At the heart of the production is the connection between the music and the dancers and a concern for how syncopation develops (or not) in the space. The four contemporary compositions chosen by Porte and Lacroix evoke a tone that sculpts the gesture. In fact, it feels that the music creates certain zones, which activate certain impulses and motivations in the viewing, listening and moving.
The dancers are confronted by the music. Certain harsh percussive sounds stir our emotions. The music affects the texture of the piece, informing the way the movement is interpreted and explored, and guiding how we decipher the whole. Most of the compositions, played by Hornsey and Reimer from their perch, are dark and dissonant, with the exception of the third composition on the program (by Oesterle), which is by measures humorous.
Porte’s movement seems to branch out of her dancers’ intelligent, loose and responsive bodies. At the start of the piece, Sara Hanley walks into the dancing space, close to the surrounding audience, and assumes a crouching position, while Porte and Bernard Martin move in slow motion through the seating section. Jean-François Déziel echoes this slow movement in an upper-level seating area. Martin walks forward with quick jabs of his arm, reaching around, while Hanley foldsat the knee. Her leg swivels, her feet rise, she spirals around and then tilts and leans to the side. Porte removes her jacket and approaches.
The dance has a bit of a wait-and-see approach on the dancers’ part, each of them checking the other out. They melt into the floor or, in other moments, fall into chairs and flop forward or to the side over the hard-backed seats, at times rolling over them. It looks painful and slightly dangerous. In other sections, the partnering is crisp and there is surprising weight play, all in a non-presentational style. In the process leading up to the performance, Porte devised certain ideas and framed certain sequences to allow the interpreters – always fully active and engaged – to improvise within them, while other sections were very structured.
The form and the dynamics of the dance are ever-changing: directional changes, a question of centre, movement that is alternately filled with tension and relaxation, superb coordination in a play between balance and imbalance, and a back and forth shifting of focus for both the performers and the audience. The dancers are splendid, with an absolute alertness to detail. But, while the spatial design might be challenging to the dancers, for the audience the experience of being so close to the action – apart from seeing the sweat on their brow, hearing the inhalations and exhalations and fathoming the dancers’ enormous effort – is not particularly risky or overly revealing.
Moreover, while the musicians rhythmically confront the dancers, the actual connection or co-existence with musicians – in what I’m assuming was an essential link for Porte – is curiously missing. One predicament is that the musicians are placed too far from the dancing, disconnecting the elements of music and dance. Porte is justly not glued to the music (she prefers to avoid any direct syncopation with the music) The dance has a life of its own, but the resulting ambiguous movement feels too repetitive. Certain movement ideas from any given section could have been tacked onto any of the musical compositions. Regardless of Porte’s skill and intelligence, the excitement never peaks, and the investigation is too bland.