Sunday, May 8, 2011

Gina and Pina

Maybe it's because I have just been writing about her, but O Vertigo's La chambre blanche, which closed DanceHouse's third season in spectacular fashion last night at the Playhouse, reminded me of Pina Bausch: both aesthetically in terms of its mixing of dance and theatre; and thematically in its exploration of various states of confinement, not least those that subtend oppressive and antagonistic gender roles.

Originally created by O Vertigo Artistic Director Ginette Laurin in 1992, La chambre blanche underwent a complete choreographic revisioning in 2008. One thing that remained consistent, however, was the piece's iconic set, which, like Bausch's famously memorable mise-en-scènes, establishes the overall expressive tone and at once enables and constrains the movement patterns that will be explored within it. In the case of Laurin's work, the set is single room of a turn-of-the-century asylum or sanatorium, complete with high concrete walls, black and white tiled floor, ceiling-level windows, floor-level heating grates, and a single doorway upstage centre that opens onto a corridor containing a working faucet and a stack of buckets.

The dancer-inmates (6 women and 3 men) enter, clad only in white underwear and black street shoes. One of the men begins a sequence of movements near one of the women, who remains motionless and unflinching as he proceeds to cut, jab, and thrust at the air immediately around her, a series of potentially violent blows clearly directed toward her vulnerable and exposed body, but also just as clearly failing to find their target. And, indeed, it is the woman who finally initiates contact, blocking one of the man's would-be punches (precisely cued to Nicolas Bernier and Jacques Poulin-Denis' pulsating music) with her hand, which is the signal for the other dancers, until then lying still on the floor, to join in the fray.

And join in they do, walking, running, jumping, spinning, falling, crawling, sliding, and colliding in patterns that physicalize both the compulsive repetition and the resignation that is tied (quite literally) to the spatial and social extremity of their situation: bound within and to this enclosed and confining room and, as a necessary but perhaps unwelcome consequence, to each other. As such, the group contact between the dancers throughout La chambre blanche alternates and escalates (often quite rapidly and dramatically) between the twin poles of tenderness and aggression: one dancer is helped to scale the walls to look out one of the windows, while others are pinned against them; bodies supported and embraced one moment just as quickly get shoved aside or deliberately knocked down.

And in all of this, exhaustion provides no means of escape. The pace of this piece is as relentless as its emotional assault. Pauses are worked in to the choreography to allow dancers to switch into a version of black evening dress, don bunny masks (shades of The Shining?) and, in the case of the women, to slip on pointe shoes; but otherwise quiet, private moments, where the dancers can retreat from the intensity of the group, are few and far between. One exception occurs when different dancers break off from the physical hurly-burly to lean against and whisper into either of the miked heating grates, their amplified voices seeking to express fragments of their personal narratives that have otherwise been subsumed by the dizzying group movement. But even these snatches of individual lucidity and attempted self-differentiation eventually give way to the primal sounds of the group: screams, moans, groans, pants, giggles, laughs, and screeches replace intelligible--and individuated--speech as the evening wears on.

La chambre blanche ends with an image both gorgeous and haunting: one of the women dancers, clad in a white bodice-cum-straight jacket, flits on pointe centre-stage, the long sleeves of the jacket tucked into chinks in the asylum walls on either side of her. Laurin has stated that she first created the piece as a reaction to Marc Lépine's 1989 murder of 14 women at Montreal's École Polytechnique. In its reimagining for contemporary audiences the work has necessarily taken on additional cultural meanings and references (not least, as Carolyn suggested to me afterward, Abu Ghraib); however, this closing presentation of a defenseless, vulnerable, objectified, and institutionally immobilized woman still retains its Bauschian power.


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