Animal Triste is Montreal-based choreographer Mélanie Demers' take on the evolution of that most melancholic of species, the human. Co-presented by Demers' company, Mayday, and Vancouver's plastic orchid factory, the piece continues at The Dance Centre through this evening and opens with a striking image. Demers' four dancers--Brianna Lombardo, Marc Boivin, plastic orchid's James Gnam, and Riley Sims--are positioned as naked odalisques among the snake-like yellow cords attached to the floor lights that rim the stage. Slowly and methodically as audience members file into the auditorium and take their seats, the dancers wrap long strands of pearls around their necks, pulling them tight so that the resulting chocker looks something like a cross between an Elizabethan ruff and African or Asian neck-stretching jewelry. After this task is complete the dancers begin putting on their clothes, reversing the usual trajectory of the revelation of flesh in contemporary dance, but also telescoping through this simple montage of collective dressing the historical domestication of the human animal.
Once dressed, the quartet of dancers gathers in a horizontal line upstage right, stretching and jumping in place, a series of preparatory calisthenics preceding the subsequent physical striving that seems to constitute each member's attempt to define his or her relationship to the others, and to the group as a whole. This mostly take the form of individual bodies twisting in place, with the dancers' bent torsos, splayed knees and crooked arms adding up to a strange family tableau. Albeit one in which the human invention of binary genders is for the most part played with and resisted. In this respect, while one is tempted to read Boivin and Lombardo as the parental figures in this quirky brood, Boivin, despite his imposing size, remains a rather passive paterfamilias (at least to begin with). By contrast, the compact and muscular Lombardo's physicality seems far more intense and explosive, with her body shooting forward from the line at various moments, the restiveness of her limbs seeking to be freed from the torpidity of her male confrères' movement. Gnam is deliberately channeling an androgynous presence, both in the long tunic he wears and in his sinewy and languorous locomotion across the stage. And Sims seems to be pure id, the child whose impulses derive from pure instinct and polymorphous desires.
Certainly in the program notes (accessible through plastic orchid's website) Demers makes no secret that her dancers function as allegorical figures, and many of the sequences in the piece have a distinctly ritualistic feel, especially when one pair's tribal-like movements are purposely framed by the bodies of a second pair, often arranged in a still Sphinx-like pose. But there comes a moment when the mythical and the untamed aspects of all of this energy seems to be brought under the thumb (or, more precisely, hand) of patriarchy. This happens when Sims sheds his t-shirt and Boivin, hitherto shirtless, dons his own. All of a sudden Boivin starts to corral the various members of his wayward family, bringing them in close to his now powerful and centrally positioned body. To be sure, they chafe against this, with Sims in particular twisting and fighting to be let free. However, Demers seems to be suggesting with this final image that what makes the human animal most sad is not its poverty of means for real communication despite its acquisition of language (as demonstrated in an earlier sequence in which the dancers spout tired maxims and various pop memes gleaned from song lyrics and other empty cliches), but the (hetero)normative organization of its kinship relations.