When last the iconic Montreal-based choreographer Marie Chouinard came through town with her eponymous dance company--presenting a new work, The Golden Mean, commissioned by DanceHouse under the auspices of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad--I was not a happy camper. I was vexed at having been displaced from our usual seats in the front orchestra section of the Playhouse by the long ramp jutting into the audience that Chouinard had requested as part of her set. And the compensation of being relocated to premium seats onstage with the dancers hardly mitigated my displeasure; from there I could see up close just how underdeveloped was Chouinard's choreography and how overcooked her accompanying theatricality (which, among other things, involved the dancers donning Stephen Harper masks at one point).
Let's just say with DanceHouse's latest presentation of her work, Chouinard has redeemed herself, reaffirming her place in the pantheon of major dance artists in this country and internationally. The evening was made up of two of Chouinard's more recent pieces, each experimenting in its own way with the idea of the dance score. The first, Gymnopédies, is set to the famously atmospheric piano compositions of the same name by Erik Satie. Written in 3/4 time, each with a similar structure and theme, the three works subtly juxtapose dissonant melodies against the harmony, producing an achingly melancholic effect that has influenced ambient music up to the present day (including electronic composers like Moby, who samples Gymnopédies on his blockbuster album Play). Given that the title of Gymnopédies connotes images of nude dancing (which, to be sure, Chouinard plays upon), Satie's music would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for any choreographer. But Chouinard is not just any choreographer and part of the conceit of her own score to Gymnopédies is that she didn't just have her dancers learn a new set of movement phrases; each of them also had to learn to play Satie's music, which they take turns performing live at the grand piano positioned stage left.
That the touch and caress of piano keys is an act of kinesis as virtuosic as the most complex or gymnastic of dance moves is made clear at the start of Chouinard's piece. The lights come up on a clump of draped forms stage right. A lone woman clad in black enters from the wings and crosses to centre stage. She then sinks to the floor in a split, rocking back and forth with her pelvis as she alternately domes and flexes her extended feet. Rising from the floor, she then takes a seat at the piano (also draped in cloth) and without a concomitant stretching of her fingers she begins to play the first of Satie's compositions. As she bends her body over the keyboard, communing rhythmically with the piano in a way that gives new meaning to the idea of a dancer's musicality, we notice the draped forms stage right begin to move, fingers and hands and arms slowly emerging from openings at their tops. One by one the rest of Chouinard's company of dancers reveals themselves, each nude, like a newborn butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. In pairs, the dancers then slowly walk upstage, slipping between a crack in the curtain.
Following this opening our original pianist is relieved by another member of the company, who provides accompaniment to an energetic duet between one of the male dancers and the tallest of the female dancers, whose towering leg extensions and impossibly deep and wide pliés (a Chouinard trademark) are magnified all the more by her point shoes. However, Chouinard is not only (or even primarily) interested in a serious technical exploration of the links between musical and dance virtuosity. This becomes clear when a trio of female dancers comes out sporting clown noses and, via their comically unsyncopated poses and arm movements, the pathos of Satie's music turns to bathos. Indeed, buffoonery and burlesque are key elements of the piece, with couples forming and splitting and reforming, both along and across gender lines; the action spilling into the audience; not one but several false endings; and the live playing of the Satie score being usurped at certain points by recorded versions emanating from portable CD players.
I took the latter bit to be Chouinard's acknowledgement that Satie's music, as beautiful and haunting as it remains, has become something of a cultural cliche, in part via its endless recycling and re-citation (including, as mentioned above, by DJs like Moby). On the other hand, that the archive of any artistic form eventually becomes part of the repertoire of contemporary performance was also made clear by Chouinard's own multiple references to dance history; repeated scenes of solo and mutual masturbation (including, most memorably, on an electronic keyboard) can't help but evoke recollections of another great pairing of musical and dance scores, in this case Vaslav Nijinsky's scandalous short ballet L'après-midi d'un faune, choreographed to the symphonic poem of the same name by Claude Debussy.
Debussy's own work was based on a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, so it is fitting that in the second work on last night's program, Henri Michaux: Mouvements, Chouinard adapts a work by another French poet. In particular, she takes inspiration from a book by Michaux in which a long poem that's all about motility (the "Mouvements" of both Michaux's and Chouinard's titles) is accompanied by 64 pages of India-ink drawings. Looking at these drawings, which take various biomorphic forms, Chouinard had a revelation: she had in her hands a complete dance score. Her task, then, was to create a catalogue of both stilled poses and travelling movements to accompany each of the drawings.
As the drawings are projected successively on an upstage screen, Chouinard's dancers take turns "figuring" with their bodies what we see on the page, their black clad silhouettes sometimes matching with uncanny precision and at other times only suggestively approximating the series of blots. As the images speed up and become more complex, the dancers form architectural duos or trios, various extended and moving limbs or stretched out bits of leotard evoking the multiplicity of Michaux's brushstrokes. Indeed, my favourite part of the piece is when the entire company performs one of the drawings in unison, the more animated and "dancey" the movement the more cinematic and montage-like the images. Indeed, the whole piece has the feel of a flip book of Rorschach drawings brought to stunning three-dimensional life.
Chouinard even takes into consideration the blank white space of Michaux's pages, with one of the dancers crawling at a certain point under the white Marley flooring to read out the central poem of the book, and with the whole piece culminating in a sped up and simultaneous reverse negative, if you will, of the slower and more methodical serial presentation of each of the drawings. I refer to the fact that at the end the harsh white light illuminating the stage cuts to black as, under a single focused strobe, the dancers, now stripped to their underwear, improvise movements based on what we've just seen.
Henri Michaux: Mouvements is a triumph of inter-artistic dialogue, and in a way that makes neither form subservient to the other, nor that seeks to produce an exact match between them. Indeed, Chouinard shows us the utter impossibility of such a task, as with the additional elements of time, space and audience co-presence, what we think we see and what we know we feel will always be pleasurably incommensurable.