Van Grimde Corps Secret’s latest production, “Vortex 1”, is just the latest in a series of Montréal dance concerts that have featured live musicians onstage, and in close proximity to the audience. For “Vortex 1”, the audience rings the four sides of the stage, in rows of two and three. Much is made about the physicality of dancers, but let’s be clear that musicians are also incredibly physical, and here they are just as physical as the dancers.
Isabelle Van Grimde has done wonders warming up the Agora de la danse’s otherwise somewhat sterile, cold theatre. Working with soft warm tones, cocooning the space by sealing the windows with material (also serving the acoustics, no doubt) and placing dark beige scrims on two sides, she has created a welcome, intimate, even cozy, atmosphere. A red line frames the stage, giving further definition to the environment. An ambient electronic synthesized composition (by Thom Gossage, in collaboration with Andrew Watson) plays from the speakers. The sound is akin to the warbling of thrushes. That extra texture brilliantly fills in the usually dead performance “air” at the Agora.
“Vortex 1”, is based on philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco’s idea of the “oeuvre ouverte” – an open form of creation. Five dancers and six musicians share the boards, exploring performance and emphasizing the notion of interface in the space. The dancers have learned set movements but function using a more chance-like method, making on-the-spot selections of what they will dance – albeit in a highly rehearsed manner.
The musicians of the world-renowned Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, dressed in casual basic black, play the set score under the baton of Artistic Director Lorraine Vaillancourt. French composer Gérard Grisey’s contemporary music creation “Vortex Temporum”, played to the letter by the NEM, is a rich, intense and complex composition. (But I’ll leave the musical review to other colleagues.)
When the dancers start moving, there’s lots of play with their heads. They touch their eyes, tilt their heads, rub their hair, and then shift and twist their upper bodies as their hands scoop inward. They are all dressed in pants, with singlets for the women (Erin Flynn, Esther Gaudette, Ceinwen Gobert) and long-sleeved crew-necks for the men (George Stamos and Pierre-Marc Ouellette).
While one group of dancers is on stage, the others are off in the outer quadrants of the performing space, watching, waiting. Cues to enter (or exit), or for certain sections to evolve, seem triggered by shifts in lighting (by Éric Belley, apparently working from a concept developed by Philippe Dupeyroux). The dancers’ bodies are light and springy. The movement is fluid, even soft. We see the dancers hop in place and jump; an arm swings, and at other moments sensuous hands move up and down the stomach, ultimately coming to rest on the solar plexus. There are lovely moments: watching the gorgeous extension of Flynn’s legs, or the moments when Stamos seems to be trotting in place. Each dancer appears to have a variety of movements that he/she can choose from, and the selection is repeated at will, perhaps in concert with whatever they seem to feel suits the mood or the moment. What appears to happen is that one dancer picks up a phrase and runs with it, and then introduces it into the space of another dancer. And so it goes.
Some theorists have referred to this approach as “bricolage” – a French term for arranging. Here, the dancers are not just reproducing the set choreographic score, with Van Grimde’s precise indications, but are working as partners in a creative processing of ideas. Emphasis is placed on the execution itself, and how the artists interact with their surroundings, in this case the music and the live musicians and also, by extension, the relationship that exists between the overall work and its impact on the audience. “Vortex 1” taps into a what’s-on-your-mind impulse, exploring how things fit together, and bonding what is engineered with what is gathered in the moment.
In interviews, Van Grimde has asserted that the open structure of the work totally changes her relationship to the dancers: she is no longer immobilized by having to make indications to the nth degree. What shows is that the dancers have been extremely well- rehearsed. They are clearly versed in each other’s physical, and possibly emotional, presence. There is not a lot of obvious partnering, but there’s a tremendous amount of listening and watching, at conscious and unconscious levels. What seems to fire the choreographer is the freedom of choice she’s allocated to the dancers: we see all the wonderful extensions and spirals of their agile bodies, the waves of movement that seem so well-tuned to the musical component. The lighting supports the evolving composition,often creating corridors for the movement.
The musicians never wander into the larger dancing area, but the dancers do slip behind the musicians in their quadrant, not to dance, but to wait and watch until it’s time for them to re-enter the fray. The precision of Vaillancourt’s conducting is riveting, as is the equally alert playing of the musicians. A good number of audience members seemed to be shifting their gaze from the musicians to the dancers, who were creating darting and energetic fields of activity, and back again. I’m not entirely sold on the ping-pong effect of such a back-and-forth focus, but it’s something I’m grappling with as an audience member.
In Van Grimde’s concert last spring, “Les chemins de traverse”, three distinct musical ensembles, including NEM, joined Van Grimde’s dancers onstage for three separate performances. What makes these recent ventures so seductive for Van Grimde is the possibility to investigate visceral physical and elemental impulses. She provides the dancers with decision-making power, requiring them to think on their feet in front of an audience, and triggering in them a state of inspired renewal, but she never loses control over the essence of what she wants to achieve in the work.
There is no need to discern themes in “Vortex 1”. Van Grimde and company are offering multiple perspectives on a single event. The result is formal and mastered. The overall conceit is high-brow, artistic; and yet it’s also subversive in the sense that she allows the audience to let go, to enjoy the sight of motion and let it create within us our own references and understandings.