Thirty years of existence in a dance company’s life is more than a notable marker; it’s an achievement to celebrate and a time to pause and reflect on how the company’s dances are resonating with younger generations. Ginette Laurin’s O Vertigo hit this milestone this year, and delivered the world premiere of Soif to an appreciative hometown crowd. If the choreographer needed reassurance about the impact of the work, then the lusty response from the kids in the bleachers — there were over 250 high-school students in the audience on opening night, as part of Danse Danse’s outreach efforts — sent the message home that Laurin is still working her magic.
I remember Laurin’s first forays into choreography, even before the company was formed in 1984. Those were heady days, when Montréal’s contemporary dance scene was finding its legs, and talents like Laurin’s were emerging with kinetic and vital work. She was among a handful of choreographers instrumental in defining what became known as the “Montréal style” of dance. Her work was risky, physically demanding and a fresh, visual feast. The visceral, vertiginous qualities in her early repertoire connected with audiences, and I remember people leaving some of those performances in a state of rapture. As with most things, reaction to the performances became more polarized over time. But don’t cry for Laurin: success eventually extended beyond the stage to the screen and museum installation.
In Soif (French for thirst), Laurin empowered each of her dancers (Audrey Bergeron, Sophie Breton, Charles Cardin-Bourbeau, Caroline Laurin-Beaucage, Louis-Élyan Martin, Robert Meilleur, James Phillips, and Stéphanie Tremblay Abubo) with a catalogue of thirty everyday actions, asking them to mine the possibilities of a movement’s genesis and, as she says in the program notes, “its momentum in the moment when the body is propelled by a specific intention.” Happily, Laurin’s eye for detailed intimate movement, writ large for an expansive stage, captures her wonderful performers’ equally delicate range of inflections and evokes glimmers of feelings between them. It’s a tightly produced concoction, highlighted by Laurin’s mastery of lifts and the potent possibility of the thrust and volley, or as she says, the “attack” in her well-calibrated duets.
Her expressed desire that, through these actions, the dancers “plunge into action” is well-established; but the emotional force of the performance is best captured by lighting designer Martin Labrecque’s collaboration, which, as in much of Laurin’s oeuvre, is integral to the production. His contribution to Soif is extraordinarily imaginative, revealing the passions of the dance. The play of shadows and light pick the dancers out of the darkness and etch them in space. Backlighting is phenomenal, giving volume both above and around the performers. Labrecque’s conception helps to illuminate the emotional shifts Laurin is seeking, but also breathes life into the dynamics of the movement. The energy coming off of the lighting design adds force and precision to the piece.
At the suggestion of composer Michel F. Côté, Laurin chose John Cage’s 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776, which was created for the American Bicentennial. The material for Cage’s composition is derived from anthems and congregational music written at the time of the Declaration of Independence. Disparate musical phrases and harmonies blend and there’s often a meditative quality to the various motifs. No one style predominates, and in fact, there’s no through line — as such it is reminiscent of an urban apartment building with its windows wide open — and that multiplicity of possibility makes it a good match for the piece. Côté, for his part, ramps up the volume of his own score, which often sounds similar to a coffee percolator’s rumble. I had reservations about his overlay of sound — the remixing, sampling and collage — combining his score and Cage’s. It’s edgy, but it has competing intentions, and tends to overwhelm the dancing and blunt the physical force of the movement. The movement also seems to demand silence, at least occasionally, but that comes in rare doses.
Laurin’s penchant for having the dancers mouth silent streams of thought is ever-present. In solo sections, they’re often standing at the edge of the stage and directing this action to the audience. At other times we hear only a murmur, or sometimes a shout nipped of its intensity. It’s a head-scratcher as to why she’s used this device, and what she really wants to express with these muted “revelations.” Indeed, the development of internal connections and their outward expression is not particularly well orchestrated, and the engagement that she expresses as the intention for the piece is muddled. Further, while many well-crafted elements are in place (sound, lights, costumes), and there are structural imperatives for the work, the unity of intent and action doesn’t form a cohesive whole. The repetitions and accumulation of the movements over the course of the seventy minutes are, well, mind-numbing, and the thirst that the title evokes is only partially quenched. One final note about the coda for Soif, in which the dancers are upstage, bathed in chiaroscuro and nude for the first time: it’s pointless, but the students in the gods shrieked with glee.