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.
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.
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.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."