Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal's (BJM) return visit to Vancouver hasn't revised my opinion about the company. When DanceHouse programmed them in 2013, I found the repertoire to be mostly flash, with very little substance, and often reinforcing some very troubling gender dynamics (I wrote about that performance here). To give the venerable 44-year old company its due: it is comprised of a roster of incredibly talented and technically accomplished dancers, whom Artistic Director Louis Robitaille astutely showcases via a successful formula of fast-paced, physically demanding commissions from an array of celebrated international choreographers. But judging from last night, Robitaille also appears to give very little thought to the representational politics of the work.
Chief case in point is the first piece on the program, Rouge. Choreographed by Rodrigo Pederneiras, the director of the Brazilian company Grupo Corpo (also a DanceHouse favourite), the piece features an original score by the German electronic duo The Grand Brothers that references Inuit throat singing, among other Indigenous musical influences. Indeed, Rouge is meant, according to the program note, to be "an ode to resilience, a discreet tribute to Indigenous peoples and their musical and cultural legacy." However, that it features a mostly white company clad in buckskin costumes (complete with fringe), wearing war paint on their faces, and with several dancers' hair styled into 80s-era faux-hawks, tells you something about the completely tone-deaf aesthetic and cultural ideologies governing the piece. (Co-extensive with these ideologies is the fact that the one dancer of colour in the ensemble is cast as an unleashed force of libidinal energy, at one point bending star dancer Céline Cassone at the waist and thrusting her forward across the stage from behind.) Not only is there no discernible nod to any specific Indigenous tribal dance traditions (save for a troubling sequence in which the dancers, alternately expiring and reviving themselves on the floor, perform a kind of Ghost Dance), but arguably Pederneiras' deracinated contemporary dance vocabulary does further violence by refusing to acknowledge that Indigenous dance and song is tied to cultural property. There are specific protocols around sharing that property across different First Nations, let alone among predominantly settler-colonial performers, presenters, and audiences. Which brings me to my main question about Rouge and its programming. Instead of inviting Robitaille to present Pederneiras' take on Indigenous dance traditions, why not ask a local First Nations dance company to be part of a DanceHouse season? As Dancers of Damelahamid Artistic and Executive Director Margaret Grenier put it in an article in the Vancouver Sun yesterday relating to the start next week of the tenth edition of the Coastal First Nations Dance Festival, more dance presenters need to get on board with the fact that Indigenous dance companies are also contemporary dance companies, just ones with different and far older movement vocabularies--and with a very specific story to tell about their connection to the land and identity. Given that DanceHouse acknowledges in its program that its performances take place on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, one would have thought that greater care might have been given to how a piece like Rouge might read here.
I freely admit that my negative reaction to Rouge ended up influencing my reception of the other two pieces on last night's program. That said, Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili's Mono Lisa, set to a score of typewriter sounds, and danced by Cassone and Alexander Hille, was a largely acrobatic exercise in traditional partnering, with Cassone, now in point shoes and looking decidedly nonplussed, once again being thrust into successive poses that demonstrated her hyper-mobility and impressive extension. Kosmos, by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadkis, was a large group piece that featured some amazing sequences. However, I felt it went on far too long and that it failed to cohere around a central choreographic idea, with the final trick of lighting appearing as a somewhat gimmicky summation of a concept of worlding and galactic interconnection that had previously failed to register.