A friend emails after seeing a Québécois choreographer in San Francisco: “No irony, just good old fashioned Modernism, the way God intended.” The unexpected aptness of the response—a reaction to Marie Chouinard’s supernatural Rite of Spring—reminded me that any mix of movement techniques and curious source materials becomes abstract from a certain distance. Seeing the post in postmodernism depends on where you are in the theatre and in the geographic landscape.
Ditto for the aesthetic of this June’s Festival Transamérique (FTA), the international festival of dance and theatre held annually in Montreal and curated by Marie-Hélène Falcon. Now in its third year, the FTA demonstrates the profound connection between Montreal and Europe, a city in many ways closer to Paris and Antwerp than Toronto or New York. I saw work united disciplinary confusion, prodigious technique, much financial support and—never a given—good ideas. But, if the FTA 2009 seemed unified by a crazy-ass level of bravura, it was the arch political vision underpinning much of the work that kept me coming back for more.
Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder raised the bar on aesthetic wonder and real-time relevance with Singular Sensation, a riveting dance for five, distinguished by its high degree of movement invention and refusal of choreographic cliché. At times elegant, at others awkward, Eran Shanny danced an astonishing opening solo: all spasm and kick, grimace and tongue. A collection of nonsensical actions and fake emotions, cheesecake poses and dramatic episodes, the work careened onward: a motley congregation of beautiful losers, love machines, heat seekers, star fuckers. The big impact lay in the mix of convincing individual performances with ecstatic, sensuous play that included a Schneeman-like “Meat Joy” moment—gleeful, collective wallowing in paint balls and Jell-O molds—and a horrific torture scene that had me momentarily looking for the exits. While you were out doing your excellent thing, the dance seems to say, the collective was up to no good.
The downside of the daily pursuit of happiness turned up elsewhere at a festival that made the power of and over bodies its central point: Jan Fabre, for instance, linked shopping, racism, sex, and torture in nutty but great work, L’orgie de la tolérance. Rarely seen in North America, Fabre is like royalty in Europe: famous, admired, and wildly prolific in dance, theatre, and visual art. But, his work can be puerile: he’s a pissed-off kid, telling the parents where to go with the broccoli. In Orgie, too, he is all big carrot, big stick: for instance, Orgie begins with a sporting competition—armed coaches and players dressed in white underwear, hard at the game, and the game is masturbation. It goes on for minutes. Then Jesus walks out with a cross.
Here we go.
But then, Jesus becomes a supermodel, and must balance the cross on his palm like a “Cirque de Soleil performer.” When this kind of humor is followed by jarring imagery—for example, the Abu Ghraib photographs restaged—Fabre forces a stunning reseeing of the daily news. The closing scene draws us in again before the entire company gathers on stage for an over-the-top curse out of the usual and not-so-usual suspects, abbreviated here: “…Fuck the Jews. Fuck the Arabs. Fuck Obama. Fuck the performance artists… And fuck you, Jan Fabre.” The silliness of hatred exposed; long live the boy king.
From another part of the galaxy, the dancers/choreographers Lee Su-Feh of Vancouver and Benoît Lachambre of Montréal presented Body-Scan, an uneven but beautiful dance that is maybe about transience and loss, maybe about sex and healing. A company of six gathers on a dark and cluttered stage to manipulate large, unzipped sleeping bags—second skins, portable homes—but the night belongs to Lee and Lachambre. I loved seeing an older, naked Su-Feh stare down the audience, and I loved her martial arts solo. I hated watching Lachambre’s intense manipulation of mouth, throat, and stomach repeat, become narrative, reduced to acting, as opposed to the deeply mysterious eruptions they had first been.
Early projected imagery of doctors handling bodies promised a more rigorous engagement with the visual classification of sickness, but the culminating montage of the dancers felt strangely literal and flat. More promising was the pair’s exploration of touch: of torsos, breasts, penises, and more—actions that admitted the sensual and the communal into the realm of concert dance. The final indelible moment? All six dancers on stage, tossing the sleeping bags high into the air, and watching them float back to earth, in a quiet celebration of play and the possibility of the human body.
Here, where you’re from matters: European haute-culture, à la Québécois—the old world and the colony—in dialogue with “contemporary” dance and “performance.” However described or defined, the aesthetic on view at FTA remained focused and consistent and seemed to argue for dance’s political consciousness through a rigor of imagery neither innocent nor glib. If Brazil’s Grupo de Rua maintained the clichés affixed to concert hip-hop—street sounds, guys fighting—choreographer Bruno Beltrão pushed against the reduction of such moves to singular narratives or add-on tricks. His very simple walking duet distilled the quotidian energy of city life into a stylized pacing of the stage’s perimeter, punctuated by idiosyncratic ticks in what struck me as an elegant portrait of mobility as freedom. Here, abstraction is radical once more.