Compagnie Marie Chouinard: 20 Years

June 12, 2011

Théâtre Maisonneuve,

Théâtre La Chapelle
Montreal, Canada

April 5–May 18, 2011


Lucie Mongrain in
Étude No 1. Photo by Nicolas Ruel.

No one makes movement like Marie Chouinard. Her technique is an elastic synthesis of sources in dance, theatre, visual art, performance art, and yoga. Over 35 years, she has investigated the mechanics of the spine and rhythms of the breath like none other. This spring, the Quebecoise rebel gave her hometown crowd a chance to revisit the repertoire of her company as it marks its 20th year. Renowned for the intensity and originality of the solos she produced for herself throughout the 1980s, Chouinard showed five company dances this spring. The retrospective affirmed her stature and her most consistent preoccupations: breath as source of gesture and sound; and the stage as crucible of the imagination.

Étude No 1
(2001), made originally for company dancer Lucie Mongrain, who performed it here again, exemplifies Chouinard’s rigorous take on the solo as pressured form. Étude begins as James Viveiros, appearing briefly as stagehand, scatters steel balls across the stage and lifts Mongrain—wearing tap shoes and a small, silver cone as hairpiece—onto a blue rectangular, amplified floor. When Mongrain balances at one corner—leg extended, arms outstretched behind her, her two index fingers pointing back—she is pure antenna, radiating contact with some higher power as she prepares for a propulsive take on the dancer as sound machine and fetish object.

Across five sections exploring different stages of performance, including preparation and rehearsal, Mongrain storms her way through a range of moods. These include a wonky act, all crossed legs and bent knees, shaky hands and oddball grimaces, made with a wild sense of momentum; an extraordinary tap section, with 180-degree leg extensions that smack down with a child’s sense of will; a mapping of the perimeter, where Mongrain performs a variety of funny walks, then returns to the corner to “mark” the movement of the previous section with miniaturized gestures and mock expressions. Different characters appear briefly—the boxer and the sylph, for example—as tap meets ballet meets theatre. Mongrain, a commited performer, renders familiar postures beautifully strange.

Les Trous du ciel
(1991) is Chouinard’s evocation of an Inuit understanding of the stars as “sky holes” or celestial windows. Twelve dancers, expanded from the original seven, come together in a search for home or family, dressed in leather with blue fringe and booties. They enact flocks of birds or packs of wolves or procreation itself, as dancers pair off, face each other and, without direct contact, pulse their bodies, arms raised in ecstasy.

Made a year after the Mohawk standoff at Kanesatake near Montreal brought the concerns of indigenous peoples to national consciousness, the work emphasizes universal poetics rather than land claims and human rights issues. It’s early work, corny in its politics and its appropriation of Indian aesthetics. But the development of a sound score based on breath and vocal work arising out of each dancer’s movement is striking. For instance, a dancer steps carefully, pauses, and squeezes raised arms together for a sharp pulse of breath. Here, gesture is the impetus for all sound, and dance moves to the center as a pre-linguistic source of meaning.

Orphée et Eurydice
(2008) revisits similar concerns with better results. It’s an exhilarating retelling of the story of the musician whose talent allows him to travel to the underworld to save his love. The gnashing rhythms and thrilling volume of the score (by longtime collaborator Louis Dufort) drive a pageantry of scenes. Carole Prieur appears to swallow a silver bell only to squeeze it through her body and out from between her legs. Elsewhere, the men perform a slow, sinister dance in darkness; their bodies are silhouettes, made strange with hoof-like heels and large dildo strap-ons. And there are many ecstatic, unsync-ed dances for the whole company, wearing fur hats and baggy pants, stomping, shrieking, and laughing wildly. It’s a trip through hell, left mostly unexplained until one dancer yawns and moans his way through the story—its text projected onstage for clarity. Life is an ordeal, the dance winks, but en route there is much fun to be had.

The season also included a final solo, Des Feux dans la nuit, performed by Manuel Roque to live piano by iconic Quebecois composer Rober Racine. Roque animates a slow accumulation of simple vocabulary—his arms extended and held out before the body, palms and arms displayed upwards—then turns, as if recalling an old magic trick. Then come unexpected additions: a modified head stand, a B-boy’s worm, a final profoundly satisfying rollerblade. Throughout, Roque’s serpent-like spinal variations, deep breathwork, and the play of his hands in space seem to manipulate energy or perhaps reconfigure the chakras themselves.

Here, finally, stood the essence of Chouinard: theatre iconoclast and movement omnivore, returning potent images of the body—small, sacred, epic, transgressive—to the center of the proscenium stage.