Between the years 1923 to 1930, photographer Tina Modotti scoured Mexican streets in post-revolutionary Mexico. She affirmed her social and political consciousness with her painterly eye, capturing the strength and vitality of southern women and men. All the while, she soaked in what the Mexican artistic avant-garde of the day had to offer.
This uneducated working-class girl from turn-of-the-century Italy was already famous as a Hollywood actress, playing roles as the femme fatale, not to mention muse and lover to American photographer Edward Weston, posing for him in a series of erotic nudes. She was featured in the murals painted by Diego Rivera. Later, among other activities, she became a relief worker in the Spanish Civil War. Ultimately deported from Mexico because of her alleged involvement in a murder and a subsequent assassination, Modotti remains both infamous because of her involvements, and much in demand as many of the negatives for her prints have been lost or destroyed.
Choreographer Louise Bédard’s deep respect for Modotti has inspired her new production, “elles”. It would have been easy to take a literal approach to her subject, to play with the still-life aesthetic of Modotti’s photographs (Aztec mothers and their infants, or the sea of sombreros of Mexican workers, for example). Instead, Bédard burrows into a series of her own tableaux, mainly duos, with the intention of showcasing herself and Sophie Corriveau and their individualities as women in their forties. Sometimes the movement is lyrical, at other times one senses constraint, whimsy and, alternately, simplicity to the movement and complexity from the point of view of space, line and form. Bédard doesn’t rely on one physical state or statement; she delves into a charged, deeply felt physicality throughout. These are intimate encounters – the dancers’ pale faces, for instance, at once revealed and remote, openly vulnerable and introspective, recall the portraiture in Modotti’s work.
Bédard seems to have sensed the mask of death behind the vivid personalities she inhabits on stage. (For what it’s worth, the photographer’s female subjects are stripped of the kind of portraiture that could be found, say, in Weston’s pictures. There is nothing exotic about the women Modotti photographed; the works convey, in a grounded but evocative way, their actions and movements.) Bédard, in one section shifts gear, and chooses to drop the Western contemporary dance aesthetic – the pelvis is invoked, movement in the hips stirs and the dancers come to life in a totally new way. One thing is certain: Bédard and Corriveau are engaging movers, have stage chemistry, and their masterful skill as dancers – beautifully adept at precise supple movement – fits the choreographer’s compositional beat. The performances are honest and prosaic in a straightforward way.
Angelo Barsetti’s costumes – wooden hooped skirts, crinolines, draped cloak dresses he’s fashioned – echo the drama that Modotti conveyed so well in her work. Michel F. Côté’s acoustic score rounds out Mexican composer Ana Lara’s evocative, often melancholic music. Pierre Hébert’s black-and-white scratch films, projected on a large wall-sized backdrop, play with the retina as the uninhibited lines and swirls create stimuli in the form of reveries, even hallucinations. The film images, as the ‘other’ physical presence, fulfil a different kind of storytelling, an emotional demonstrativeness that isn’t necessarily seen in Bédard’s dance, but which never subordinates the personality of the performer that is there.
“elles” is a long evening, almost eighty minutes, and the ideas Bédard has amassed – the lightness and joy countered with the darkness and depth of the tragedy of life – lose their potency and become overwrought as the piece proceeds. But the work as a whole succeeds because of moments of transcendence: Bédard’s ability to make an isolated individual in movement, at least for a short time, the focus of all one’s energies and unqualified attention. The dancer’s art is motion; that is fundamental. The magic is in making ordinary gestures, as Bédard often does, become a poem.
A Canadian tour is planned, as are dates in Mexico and Europe, during the winter and spring of 2003.
“elles” runs at Théâtre la Chapelle, 3700 St-Dominique, Montréal, through Saturday Nov. 30th.