Meena Murugesan’s “Aval”
A combo of two intriguing solo works, presented at the Festival Transatlantique Montréal, jumpstarted the new season. Both dances are stripped back in terms of production values, but the richness of the artistic visions more than compensates for the restrained budgets. Meena Murugesan is a relatively new name on the Montréal dance scene, and she works in an Indo-contemporary stream. As an emerging artist, she is someone to watch. In “Aval”, she explores issues of fragmented identity, sexuality, and suppressed voices. The title of the piece itself is a marvelous play on words: aval means “she” in Tamil, and “swallow” in French.
Born and raised in Montréal’s South Asian community, dancer and choreographer Murugesan, who is also pursuing a career as a filmmaker and community arts organizer, moved to the city with her family early in her life, and for twenty-five years was trained as a bharathanatyam dancer, under the supervision of Vasantha Krishnan. In her experience, the pressures of immigration, the limits of the unfulfilled visions, and the inhibiting loss of power that one generation experiences and often transfers to the next, were obstacles to overcome. With different dreams and aspirations than those of her elders, and now placing the more rigid aspects of traditional life behind her, she has chosen to pursue a contemporary career that nonetheless incorporates traditional elements as source material.
“Aval’s” opening is a stunner. A couple of saris, suspended horizontally across the back curtain of the stage, serve as a projection screen for a montage of slide and super 8mm footage, shot by José Garcia-Lozano, that evoke a shifting landscape from rural subcontinent communities to a contemporary North American reality. Murugesan, meanwhile, moves from a crouched position and begins a path, a stream of light opens before her, as she progresses forward along the edges of a square. Dressed in a sleeveless T-shirt and cargo pants, she walks in bare feet, the gentle tinkle of her fine ankle bracelets keeping pace with her movement. Occasionally she speaks, in both Tamil and English, in short phrases or single words. She moves along deliberately, dropping pebbles along the square’s outer edge. The stones serve as markers delimiting her performing space.
Once having placed the pebbles and parsed the space, she rises and stands hovering, slowly extending one arm outward. On the soundtrack — an electronically based tapestry of sounds and music sources — we hear Murugesan’s voice, saying, “Not being Indian enough; not being white enough.” She moves from positions invoking the influences of bharatanaytam — involving arms and legs, or a foot hitting the ground — and there are slight undulations of her neck and head. Her gaze is directed, and her lovely understanding of suspension adds to the theatricality.
The pace of the movement quickens, and as the piece unfolds, her shifts between being a solid technician and a contemporary performer crystallize. Her wide eyes, staring out, drew me in. “Adjust,” we hear her utter, as she stands downstage in a pool of amber light, moving through a quick succession of positions. Super 8mm film footage plays at the same time: a collage of travel shots, planes, buildings, and the like whips by on the mock screen. The soundtrack picks up on the word “adjust” that she has just spoken, and weaves it into a larger collage of distorted sounds and repetition.
With nods to her traditional influences, Murugesan shifts into adopting hand gestures and facial expressions that indicate compliance, fear, desperation, while the clanging of metals in the score suggests a closing in, or a jail cell. “Good girl, bad girl,” she says, and the soundscape composition by Pohanna Pyne Feinberg, re-emphasizes the words, as well as a host of others (“shh”, “you should be ashamed”) in a fast-paced edited sequence that loops. The inhalations, as well as the swallowed breaths, are especially evocative, signalling an inability to articulate, or a lost voice. The overall lighting design, by the recently deceased Éric Belley, keeps the space darkly-lit, reaffirming her “hidden” world.
The personal and social transformation evident in her dance also speaks to the realities that immigrants bear witness to. Murugesan asserts herself in a poetic and determined manner, creating movement informed by her interdisciplinary vision and abilities, indicating all the while that boundaries are to be bypassed and reconsidered. Though she was initially introduced to dance as a kind of cultural preservation or enhancement, what began as cultural hobby has developed into something much more important. Commentary on the status of women and contemporary culture clash filter in as constant undercurrents in the piece. I look forward to watching how Murugesan’s practice will evolve as she develops as an artist.
Chanti Wadge’s “One Hundred Returnings”
Chanti Wadge, performing the second-half of this Festival Transatlantique Montréal bill, is simply one of Canada’s best dancers. Watching her is a thrilling experience. Based on my chats with some of the audience members prior to the performance, for many in the crowd that evening, “One Hundred Returnings” was an introduction to her talents. Wadge has an uncanny ability to transform from animal or insect to human and then back in a flash. She literally bounds on to the stage from the wings and drops to the ground. Wearing a fur hat on her head, attired in shorts, her breasts taped with white tape, a back bare, these accoutrements blunt any identification that this form is specifically human. But what she presents is an expansive, extending creature, traversing the space with a supple presence, articulating and de-articulating her body. Small pulsations awaken in her limbs. One moment, she’s on her hands, balancing, positioning, then darting across the stage. The movements are yoga-inspired, at least in part. Because her head is obscured and masked by the fur, to me she appeared like a hard-backed beetle. Her fingers curl up and out. The lighting in these sections, by Lee Anholt, shifts from an antiseptic blaze of bright white to a warm orange, and in the final moments a pale icy blue.
In one section, Wadge morphs into an aggressive barking dog; the slow evolution of her vocal “ruff, ruff” is a bit overdone and predictable, though her final howl is chilling. When her pants legs on her shorts come down, with the hat off and her hair free, she transforms into yet another form, this time human. Her wild, long, straight mane swings, not with a celebratory Margie Gillis sense of “ta-da, here I am”, but a full physicality that erupts from somewhere deep within the presence that is before us. Round and round her head swings, engaging the upper body. After a couple of quicker beats, she slows down and ultimately her hair covers her face. She is bathed in a spot of white light, and quietly asks, “Can I have some powder?”
She covers her body with the talcum, butoh-like, sending a perfumed cloud through the theatre. (She should have tried cornstarch.) She begins reciting a story that develops in a stream-of-consciousness-style poem, part haiku, part commentary. The piece ends abruptly in the wintery blue light, with Wadge seated, her talcum bottle phallicly puffing out waves of powder. Apart from some wobbly structural issues, it’s her physicality that trumps everything. Wadge manages to tap into a raw visceral current that sustains the piece through its more deliberate and affected sections.
Similar to a postscript, she tacks on a twelve-minute video, “Dawning” from 2004, which essentially covers similar material. It’s a distracting choice. As a caption at the start of the sequence tells us, it was recorded the same day her boyfriend, David Kilburn, died in a tragic bicycle accident while she was waiting for him to come to the studio. The screening adds pathos, and frames her full body nicely, but it also revisits much of what was just presented live on stage, albeit from an earlier process. These quibbles aside, the Murugesan/Wadge program definitely registers.
Patterson and Ward’s “Man and Mouse”
Studio 303’s Summer Residency Program for emerging artists is a yearly event. This past summer, dancers Peter Trosztmer and Audrée Juteau and choreographers Thea Patterson and Katie Ward, under the banner “The Choreographers”, were selected, along with Montréal dancer/choreographer Jessica Serli, to participate. Serli produced an intimate multi-media piece called “Entre-Deux”, about a couple who flirt and snipe at each other, and show degrees of tenderness and passion too. “The Choreographers” began developing what has become a low-budget/no-budget production, “Man and Mouse”. Since I first saw a fragment of this work at a Short & Sweet event this past spring, the piece has evolved, in terms of developing characters, theme, movement material, and timing. Patterson and Ward were ultimately responsible for the direction and order of the sequences.
Based very loosely on the Lennie and George characters in John Steinbeck’s novella, “Of Mice and Men”, about migrant workers: Trosztmer is Lennie, tall and grounded, described as “a giant of a man with a child’s mind”, and Juteau, petite and light as a feather, is George, Lennie’s caretaker. Trosztmer, and Juteau, couldn’t be more opposite. But they are a perfect, playful combination.
This Montréal-based quartet has its fans. And if the laughter and applause coming from the audience was any indication, the full-to-bursting crowd at the show loved every minute of what they saw. I have to admit that I find partisan audiences hard to deal with, if only because they force themselves to laugh at everything, or giggle (sometimes uncontrollably), and they lack distance in reacting to the work. But a critic can’t control reactions.
There was a lot to enjoy: the active comic engagement by the performers in the structured improvisations, the pure physicality of the piece, with lots of balancing (him on her back, she on his knees, she on his feet and the like). Another golden moment: when Trosztmer pulls out a book to read aloud (he needs to work on pitch: there’s a difference between shouting and reading), we see that it’s Doris Humphrey’s “The Art of Making Dances”. Even though he reads another text that has nothing to do with the classic modern dance bible, the visual gag made a choreographer nearby and I chuckle appreciatively. No one else noticed; no matter. The use of recycled tin cans as lighting devices, evoking Depression-era California, was another beautiful touch. The original music, by Mike Feuerstack – featuring banjo and guitar, and a muted twang – was stirring. The evocation of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, as I saw it, when Juteau brushes her hands over Trosztmer’s face and gently rolls his dead body, was handled tenderly.
Totally surprising was the performers’ ability to shift from a playful (sometimes overly playful) mode into a beautifully handled dramatic sequence that speaks to the loneliness and despair that was certainly central to Steinbeck’s tale of tragedy. It’s impossible to escape the ragged edges in the piece, with too much tearing about on stage and some over-the-top emoting; but there is much to appreciate, particularly in terms of the duo’s improvisation skills and the overall tone. Given the limited resources, the piece still seems new and needs time to mature. The show will be featured at the St. John’s Festival of New Dance next July.