Marie Chouinard performed her first solo, Crystallization, in 1978: it was an hour-long “study of geometrical movement” inside an art gallery, set to the sound-scape of musician Rober Racine scraping a metal grill. Other solo works involved Chouinard urinating into a bucket (Petite Danse Sans Nom (1980)) or reaching nirvana while banging a pair of cymbals overhead (Earthquake in the Heartchakra (1985)). Unsuspecting Montreal audiences didn’t know what to make of this twenty-three-year-old powerhouse of provocation and primal movement vocabularies. Because Chouinard has never been terribly interested in pliés and tendus, and while she cites Simone Forti as an influence, dance lineages do not spur her creations. Instead, her obsessions range from visual art, to poetry, to—most of all—the architecture of our bodies. Since she founded Compagnie Marie Chouinard in 1990, the Canadian performer-choreographer has refused to be pigeonholed, composing works that replicate Henri Michaux’s India-ink drawings (Henri Michaux: Movements (2005 – 11)), physicalize struggles with freedom (bODY_rEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS (2005)), and reimagine Greek myths (Orpheus and Eurydice (2008)), among other things. As part of Martha Graham’s 2015 – 16 season, Chouinard choreographed Inner Resources, a work just as visceral, rigorous, and daring as the fifty pieces that span her nuanced career. Chouinard spoke with the Rail’s dance editor Stephanie Del Rosso about what inspires and riles her, and how the personal and political blend.
Stephanie Del Rosso (Rail): Can you talk a bit about your process, both in regards to Inner Resources and your work at large?
Marie Chouinard: I’m a worker. I’m researching, trying this and that. The basis of what I do is really concrete, kinetic, and material. I’m constructing, elaborating, exploring. I’m very much like an architect. Or like a kid building a sandcastle. So there is a game and playfulness, too—and at the same time a kind of mathematics. For [Inner Resources], it was also about meeting the [Martha Graham women] and seeing how I can make them happy. I can tell you that it was a wonderful experiment to work with those women. It was so rich, so full of humor and discovery. It was a joy creating that piece—although the piece is not so joyous [Laughter.]
Rail: I couldn’t help but consider the piece through a feminist and political lens—
Chouinard: Of course I am a feminist. For me, it’s impossible for any intelligent woman aware of the situation not to be. It’s like humanist. Of course you are a humanist. These are such basic things—it’s like breathing. Of course you want equal life for people. That is not even a question for me.
Rail: I find it exciting that a great deal of your work seems to be changing and challenging how we view female bodies on stage. In Inner Resources, I noted this in the jagged, staccato movements of your choreography, or in the costume choices—especially when the dancers faces are hidden from the audience. Are you interested in reimagining the world’s perception of women?
Chouinard: I’m not exactly thinking in those terms. I’m trying to construct something. And in my way of organizing and receiving the world, of course a woman is full of power and intelligence and possibility—for me that’s obvious. In this case, [the dancers] had mustaches. And I thought they were beautiful. I felt a connection to something very peaceful and complete. So I’m making more choices from the standpoint of beauty. But where I find beauty is maybe not where someone else finds it.
Rail: It’s interesting that as a viewer I assumed that you were launching some kind of political agenda—
Chouinard: Anything you do is political, so I will not deny that there is something political there. But as a creator I’m more interested in opening the mind and the heart and stepping into new landscapes. It’s just my motivation. Politics are a byproduct. When the piece was completed I realized: oh my god, there’s a political statement here. And I was totally agreeing with it. But that was not my first intention; that’s not what I was consciously looking for from the beginning.
Rail: Speaking of beauty, you once told an interviewer that you were compelled by “violence in beauty and beauty in violence and the paradox of life that beauty and violence can occur together.” I find this profound and accurate. Can you expand on this notion?
Chouinard: Sometimes beauty is so immense that it can create a pain inside me. Maybe because it comes from a place of longing or missing. Even the beauty of a sunset—sometimes you can have tears in your eyes. Sometimes happiness can be performed as violence. For me, life is so violent. Just think of the sun: it is an infernal, violent thing that’s happening all the time.
Rail: In addition to pieces that you’ve created for proscenium performance venues, you’ve also composed work for spaces outside of traditional contexts: Action performances, installations, and even an iPhone app. I’m curious why you are interested in these different performance models and what spurred you to involve technology in your work.
Chouinard: All of my work is usually around the realm of the human body, but I’m also using many different things—a book of poetry, for instance—[to help me]. Again, I’m an architect, so I just take whatever I need. Technology was providing me with some tools. For example, the app I created: I needed to use the details of the face—the tongue, the nose, the mouth. I wanted to make something ever-changing according to the choices of the people performing. So I thought: I have to create a program for that. I look to kids because I do feel it is a game. And people think only kids can play but it really is a game of our lives—a game of creating.
Rail: You’re based in Montreal, but you’ve also lived in New York, Berlin, Bali, and Nepal. Does place impact your work at all?
Chouinard: I feel that life impacts my choreography rather than place—being alive. That’s big—for me it’s really big. And very temporary. I’m still creating from that starting point; there is a residual vibration.
Rail: Looking forward: What is the future of your own company and more broadly, what do you hope for the future of the world of dance? Is there anything you want to change about the current dance climate?
Chouinard: I would change nothing in the world of dance, but I hope there will be a change in the genetic code of the human being. Something is really not functioning because we are killing people and we are creating misery for others. So I would want a change at that level. But I have no idea how to get there. There is so much suffering. Dance has no problems—we have problems, human beings.
Rail: Do you believe that dance or art has the capacity to invoke social change?
Chouinard: No, no, no. No way. Give me an example. I don’t believe in that. I think it can bring a sense of unity, a sense of beauty, a sense of longing that is satisfied somehow, a sense of completion, a challenge—many, many good things. It can have many, many effects. But I don’t see any social change happening in art. Maybe there is, but I don’t know about it.