The lazy days at the end of summer are typically not a time of heavy mental exertion. Contemplating a cold beer at the lake is about as much activity as most people can muster. For those dance fans still in Montreal around Labour Day, though, Compagnie Flak's Choreographic Seminar and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' performances of works by Nacho Duato provided a good warm-up for the regular season, giving audiences and artists alike a refresher course in what makes a good dance performance. Think of it as Dance 101.
Fifteen dancers, five choreographers, five composers. Divide by twenty-four hours creation time and multiply by five nights. What do you get? Flak's Choreographic Seminar-the dance equivalent of Trading Spaces-where lighting glitches are part of the evening's program and spectators can openly complain of boredom in public forums after the performance.
The seminar took place at the Studio de l'Agora de la danse over five consecutive days (August 25-29). Modelled on similar events held in Banff and Vancouver, it is the second such workshop organized in Montreal by José Navas, artistic director of Compagnie Flak. The conceit of the seminar is Byzantine in explanation but straightforward in performance; suffice to say, everyone works with everyone else over the course of five days.
To keep chaos at bay, Navas ensured that the five works for each performance started out from the same place conceptually. One evening, for example, had the phrase "What was left behind" as its organizing theme. The choreographers, of course, came up with their own interpretations. Allyson Green's duo involved a man, a woman and an emotionally portentous unravelling of red ribbon. In the ensuing trio by Tony Chong, a man left alone onstage by his two female companions became the proverbial third wheel. André Gingras' witty final piece, a quintet (in case you haven't noticed, the number of dancers is a pyramid scheme), turned a witty take on American Idol into a last-contestant-standing parody of contemporary dance styles.
While the performances were intriguing, the liveliest action really took place in the question and answer periods. These post-performance discussions revolved around diverse issues, but particularly interesting were explanations of how chance and limitation played roles in both the music composition and choreography.
Unfortunately, none of the dancers came out to speak publicly on the evenings I attended. This was a real shame as, at the end of the day, the performances relied heavily on the dancers' improvisational skills. According to composer Alexander McSween, some pieces were more structured improvisation than fully considered choreography.
And the dancers-along with the audience-did have other issues to contend with. Music sometimes had the upper hand. In one piece, soprano Kimy McLaren sang so compellingly that I hardly noticed the dancing. In another, the intentional destruction of instruments by the musicians was so loud and curious to behold that the choreography seemed negligible.
Overall, the choreography was thin, but occasionally some thought-provoking ideas emerged. Watching the rawness of people creating under pressure was reason enough to attend. After all, can we really expect a subtle and powerful dance work to emerge fully formed under these conditions? By the last evening, the definition of a finished work was itself at the centre of hot debate. "Is a piece truly ever done?" asked one composer rhetorically. Ultimately, it was during discussions like this, in which the artists and audience members questioned and elucidated the creative process, that the seminar really succeeded in its purpose. Hopefully, Navas will make this intriguing exercise a regular event.
A few blocks away, in the outdoor Théâtre de Verdure, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal put on two works by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato: "Jardí Tancat" and "Without Words."
One of the pleasures of a Duato piece is seeing how smoothly he combines classical ballet with contemporary dance. Some of his pieces show the fluid frenzy and big, open movements that characterize the work of his former mentor, Jiri Kylián. Even adagios occasionally unfold with surprising swiftness; there's hardly a still moment to be found. Women are often lifted high as they swing a leg open into a spiraling rond de jambe en l'air and, upon descent, barely touch ground before pushing off again into space. Throw in some abdominal contractions that quickly spring the spine and head back, as well as some développés that terminate in flexed feet; add smooth transitions between turned-out and parallel movement; and finish off with a couple of bent elbows with stiffened hands. Voilà, you've got the basic shape of a Duato dancer: beautifully rounded movement that seeks punctuating angularity-passionately Spanish, but surprisingly nonstereotypical.
Duato, forty-seven, is one of the foremost choreographers working today. Acclaimed as a dancer with the Nederlands Dans Theater, Duato was encouraged by his artistic director Jiri Kylián to make "Jardí Tancat" (1983), which won him instant recognition as a choreographer. In 1990, Duato returned to his native Spain to become artistic director of Compañía Nacional de Danza-a company without a strong identity, in a country lacking a strong balletic tradition. Since then, Duato has brought the Compañía to the forefront of the international dance scene, and his works are performed by the most prestigious companies across Europe and North America.
While both "Jardí Tancat" and "Without Words" employ Duato's typical vocabulary, they exist in two very different worlds. "Jardí Tancat" ("Enclosed Garden") is set to songs based on Catalan folktales (delivered with gusto by renowned Spanish singer Maria del Mar Bonet) that recount the harsh life of peasants and include prayers to God to bring water to the parched land.
"Without Words," conversely, is set to a Schubert duet for cello and piano and features four couples. Duato uses the classical ballet style as his foundation for the piece, but at the same time tinkers with it-for example, stretching out his pas de chat so wide that the move nearly loses its distinctive shape. He also includes the non-classical postures and movements of his more earthbound works like "Jardí." The surprise-and delight-for audiences is seeing how well they actually suit the highly refined world of Schubert.
Added to the larger movements of the piece are more intimate gestures. A woman gently touches her partner's face; a man rests his head on his beloved's lap; another places his hands between his partner's legs in a way that, like the piece as a whole, seems more tender than erotic.
While the female cast in the performance that I attended danced with polish and expressiveness, I missed the presence of Geneviève Guérard (who had performed the night before) as Mário Radacovský's partner. Guérard has a lovely, curvaceous body that not only complements her line when she dances solo, but also matches Radacovský's solid, masculine stature when they dance together. I saw the two perform "Without Words" in May and they seemed finely tuned to one another emotionally as well. Their partnership that night proved itself even more exceptional when, during the second half of the program, they performed in a completely different vein, dancing an angry and confrontational pas de deux in Mats Ek's "Appartement."
The night I attended "Without Words," low temperatures on the outdoor stage (a dangerous condition for dancers) meant that the piece was danced with leg warmers and sweats. Duato had designed flesh-toned costumes, which-along with stage lighting and black and white photo-projections of the dancers on the backdrop-are meant to complement the naked emotional vulnerability in the work. But what became abundantly clear during the performance was the optional nature of these theatrical bells and whistles. Ultimately, Duato's choreography contains all that is necessary to communicate the ideas of his work.
The following evening, I headed back to the Choreographic Seminar for its last performance. During the question and answer period, one of the choreographers complained about the resources available (which seemed more than ample) and said that 90 percent of her work involved lighting. One can only hope that she was speaking hastily, perhaps out of frustration at an audience member's complaint of boredom.
Because when the lights come up, what we think about on the ride home is the choreography. However wonderful the effects-costume, lighting, music, speech or whatever else a choreographer decides to add to the mix-the only thing that really counts are the steps, and the conviction with which they have been performed.