The Montreal Dance Scene

Head north and cross the border to Montréal and you’ll find a place of unbridled creativity. Ardent travelers know that this bilingual city resonates with both the style and charm of Europe and the bright-lights allure of a North American hub. Long dance traditions in New York, Paris, London, and Berlin might eclipse Montréal in historical terms. But the city’s current boom, which is rooted in artistic renewal, shifting cultural identities, and vibrant social buzz, makes it a fulcrum for powerful invention.


Montréal blasted forward as a center of contemporary dance in the mid-’80s. Its diversity of voices included large established companies like Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, as well as artists ranging from Margie Gillis, Édouard Lock, Marie Chouinard, and Ginette Laurin to Paul-André Fortier and Jean-Pierre Perreault.


Because the Québécois are proud of their artists, financial support from government agencies and arts councils kept apace with the burgeoning dance community. This has resulted in a stimulating environment with a strong sense of continuity over the last nearly 30 years. Many of the city’s dance artists have not only established ties within the borders of Québec and Canada, but also across the globe.


Before the boom, there were perhaps a handful of professional dance companies. According to the Regroupement québécois de la danse (RQD), an umbrella advocacy organization for professional dance practitioners, Montréal is now home to about 30 professional dance companies and dozens of independent artists, creating jobs that attract more dancers to the city. Another enticement comes from the RQD, which, through its training reimbursement fund, subsidizes dancers by paying a big chunk of their class costs.

Major Companies
After more than 50 years, the still-potent Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, under the direction of Gradimir Pankov, has a rich European repertory. Choreographers like Jirí Kylián, Mauro Bigonzetti, and Stijn Celis are drawn to the versatile dancers’ musicality, virtuosity, and imagination. The 36-member company is truly international, with 13 dancers from the U.S. It has lots of projects on the go including a countrywide contest for emerging ballet choreographers. The company is a favorite at Jacob’s Pillow, and an exchange with the Houston Ballet will see them perform in Houston next month (Houston Ballet performed in Montreal last spring).


Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, now known as [bjm_danse], has evolved with the times, shifting from a cool jazz bent to a more sensual and energy-driven contemporary repertory. Its excellent dancers (three are from the U.S.) shine in delicious concoctions from the likes of Vancouver-based Crystal Pite and rising star Aszure Barton (see cover story, April).


Édouard Lock’s company, La La La Human Steps, is known for its daring physical extremes. In his oeuvre, the contemporary, postmodern, and balletic traditions collide. His latest pointe-based work, Amjad, comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November.


For decades Marie Chouinard and Ginette Laurin have hypnotized and invigorated audiences. Chouinard makes sexually provocative group pieces like Orphée et Eurydice, which courts Cirque du Soleil playfulness, Las Vegas entertainment values, and in the end is a well-designed frolic. Laurin’s O Vertigo company has developed a highly poetic vocabulary that plays with perception. Both dancemakers recently moved into new state-of-the-art studios.


Montréal Danse, with its contemporary repertory, has a long history of inviting choreographers to work with its theatrically engaging performers. It recently premiered British Columbia–based dance artist Sarah Chase’s new work, On the Ice of Labrador, involving highly intimate storytelling.


Independent artists

In terms of Montréal’s stars, few attract the kind of allegiance that Margie Gillis and Louise Lecavalier do. Gillis, celebrating 35 years of dance creation, is a major draw, and continues to inspire audiences. Her repertory includes her well-known solo pieces, as well as works featuring a range of performers from opera singer Jessye Norman to rising dancer/choreographer Emily Molnar. Lecavalier, La La La Human Steps’ luminary for nearly two decades, with her muscular, pumped-up body and her fearless physicality, challenged gender lines and conventions. Lecavalier retired from the company in 1999 and has since developed her own projects, including working with Crystal Pite and the innovative improviser Benoît Lachambre.


Outside the mainstream, Paul-André Fortier (Fortier Danse Création) continues to raise the bar and, at 60, is at the height of his creative powers. His projects question the rituals of dance itself: How do we use space? How do audiences watch dance?


Andrew de Lotbinière Harwood, one of the pioneers of Contact Improvisation, is a respected teacher and the founder of AH HA Productions. Due in part to his influence, there is a strong Contact community in Montréal and the rest of Canada.


Belgian-born choreographer Isabelle Van Grimde (Van Grimde Corps Secrets) set down roots in Montréal because she found something fresh in comparison to what she knew in Europe, where she felt there was a blasé attitude. What she encountered in Montréal were people who were enthusiastic and encouraging of enterprising artists. The same could be said for dynamos Los Angeles–born Victor Quijada and Venezuelan-born José Navas. Quijada, with his Rubberbandance Group, bridges elements of b-boying and ballet. Navas and his Compagnie FLAK create “abstract” pure dance with a Cunningham-esque edge.

The Next Generation
Doors are open and change is afoot, especially for an extremely mobile younger generation of choreographer/movers like Dana Michel (Band of Bless), Sasha Kleinplatz/Andrew Tay (Wants & Needs), Hinda Essadiqi, Jean-Sébastien Lourdais, Frédérick Gravel (GravelWorks), and Katie Ward. None of them works on the scale of a Chouinard or Lock. But they are creating links and networks, locally and internationally, quite independently of any preordained circuit. Dave St-Pierre,who pushes the limits of physical dance-theater with raw energy, nudity, and chaotic sensory overload, has European presenters hot on his heels.


In fact many Montréal artists aim to work for stretches of time in Europe, not only for artistic affinities, but also because producers there invest in dance with services and cold hard cash. Some companies could not survive without these commissions and touring possibilities. There’s simply not enough touring in Québec, or in the rest of Canada.

When the pioneering choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault—renowned for his landmark piece, Joe, with a cast of over 30 trench-coated, black-hatted average Joes—opened his choreographic center in 2001, he was intent on providing artistic residencies for choreographers both nationally and internationally. Unfortunately the center closed its doors in 2004, less than two years after his death.


That closure prompted reflection, and things started percolating. The multidisciplinary Studio 303, which presents a monthly dance series and workshops throughout the year, also has hosted a Canadian-European exchange and an annual NY Artist Exchange with New Dance Alliance. Circuit-Est, founded in 1987 by a group of independent artists who wanted to share resources, moved into Perreault’s former center this spring and offers an eclectic roster of workshops.


Festival TransAmériques, devoted to the best in international contemporary dance and theater, inaugurated its first season last year, and serves as a springboard for local dancemakers. A smaller festival, Transatlantique Montréal, is a gutsy fall event that democratizes dance, bringing performances to nontraditional venues outside the downtown core.


Place des Arts is Montréal’s grand hall, with five theaters. Dance is presented throughout the year, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens is the resident dance company. The more intimate Cinquième Salle is where the Rubberbandance Group is in residence.


The singular dance presenter Danse Danse has an international scope, welcoming Geneva’s Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre, Akram Khan (with French star Juliette Binoche), and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui this season. Other well-attended spaces devoted to dance include the Agora de la danse, Espace Tangente (run by American-born Dena Davida), and Centre Pierre-Péladeau. Many of the big names, the hottest young choreographers, and everyone in between, got their start at Tangente.


The Montréal dance field is dense with artists of every stripe and season, and the dance card is filling up, in part because the schools and universities keep pumping out new graduates. But the terrain is fertile because dance artists from all over Canada and across the globe come to Montréal. The city is an entryway to ideas, connections, and new possibilities—a place where imaginations are evolving.


Philip Szporer is a Montréal-based dance writer, lecturer, and filmmaker.

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