The poet William Butler Yeats once asked, How do we separate the dancer from the dance? The question came to mind earlier this winter at Centre Pierre Péladeau, during an intimate performance of two solo works by Venezuelan-born dancer and choreographer José Navas, both pieces meditations on the dancer’s world. The first, “Abstraction,” suggests that dance springs from the emotions of the dancer, with music merely reflecting that drama. The second, “Solo with Cello,” tells a different story: dance is born out of a collaboration with music, which here literally shares the stage.
The opening-night full house testified to Montreal’s regard for one of its contemporary dance luminaries. Navas, thirty-eight, now a Canadian citizen, has become one of the eminences of the city’s rich dance community. He began his studies at the Escuela de Danza in Caracas before moving to New York in 1988 to study at the Merce Cunningham Studio. While there, he learned, as he puts it, the “structure, technique, discipline, mathematical order, and rigour” that underlie his often extravagant, imaginative choreography. Navas’ budding career took a new direction when he met choreographer William Douglas, originally from Nova Scotia. The two formed a fruitful professional and personal partnership and eventually moved to Montreal, where Navas performed for William Douglas Dance. Douglas’ “While Waiting,” a solo choreographed specifically for Navas, earned a prestigious Bessie Award. They continued to collaborate until Douglas’ death in 1996.
In 1995, Navas founded Compagnie Flak in Montreal and embarked in earnest on his own choreographic career. Flak has performed widely—at Vienna’s Im Puls Festival, London’s Dance Umbrella, the Holland Dance Festival, the Venice Biennale—its expressed mission to “encourage hybridization between cultures, art forms, and generations.” As artistic director and star dancer of the multicultural troupe, Navas seeks in his choreography a place without borders. Navas has ten dancers at his disposal, but his solo work is probably the most renowned in the company’s repertoire.
“Abstraction” opens on a bare stage with a small, confining grid of light on the floor. Dressed in blue pants and a flowing, open shirt—a vivid embodiment of first the “sound environment” of dripping water and heavy breathing and then later a Chopin nocturne—Navas employs a series of multiple inward turns, often moving one leg through ronde de jambe before snaking into passé, arms spiraling in. Such patterns suggest the introspective and lyrical nature of the piece. But this expression of self is uneasy, however lovely the movement can be. Twice, Navas ends a series of movements by seemingly flipping off the audience while gazing out beyond it. The first time he turns his fingers into his eyes; the second, he simply drops his hands, walks to the center of the stage and places his hands as if on a wall that divides him from the audience. Navel gazing to be sure, with a post-modern twist, but surprisingly effective.
If “Abstraction” suggests a dancer dancing with his emotions, that self-enclosed world breaks open somewhat in “Solo with Cello.” Navas conceived the piece with American cellist Walter Haman, whom he met in 1999 at the Banff Centre for the Arts when Haman approached the choreographer with the idea of collaborating on a piece that would feature a dancer and musician as subjects. The curtain opens on a stage bare except of a few chairs, the silhouette of a seated figure with instrument—in this performance, Czech cellist Katerina Juraskova—and a beam of light dividing the stage. Navas, clad in black, dances upon the beam, the profile of his body recalling figures found on Grecian urns. He caresses the air, pulls it to his heart and ends crumpled on the floor … until the cellist begins to play, which effectively revives him.
Stretching out, Navas strongly resembles in his sensual moves the animalistic Nijinsky and Nureyev, particularly in L’Après-midi d’un faune. But unlike his predecessors’ fauns, who must make do with the nymph’s discarded scarf, Navas crosses the distance between himself and the object of his desire, ultimately leaving behind the narrow space to which he had earlier confined himself. When Navas reaches the musician—her playing in this context seems as much a dance as his—he moves his hand from her shoulder down and across her décolletage. He smells her hair and “feels” the aura around her head, gathering it into his body. Cheesy, perhaps—the pottery scene from Ghost comes to mind—but it succeeds in reinforcing the essential connection between music and body.
The eroticism of the piece—at one point Navas and Juraskova partially undress, at another he “blindfolds” her, covering her eyes with his hand as she plays—was present in the original performances with Haman. Gender, then, seems to matter little in this work. Even the barrier of language seems inconsequential when two artists such as these collaborate. In the silence between the two musical pieces (Allan Hovhaness’ “Yakamochi” and Benjamin Britten’s Suite #1 for Cello), Navas speaks to Juraskova in Spanish, and she answers in Czech. No doubt many in the audience were ignorant of one or the other language, or both, but no matter: the audience’s attention never flagged. By the time the last note sounded and Navas finished in a tight fifth, arms stretched out above his head, forty-five minutes had gone by.
Great artists in dance (as well as other mediums) often begin with classical technique and graduate to styles antithetical. I couldn’t help noticing how often in these works Navas employs the seemingly unremarkable fourth and fifth positions. These balletic postures, the fourth a wide stance, the fifth a closed version, help ground the dancer and involve the whole body’s vertical axis—head, spine, guts—turned out through the hips, down to the legs and feet. From these positions, working through plié and relevé, a dancer can launch out powerfully in any direction.
So where does a dancer go who’s got the world at his feet? The second edition of Compagnie Flak’s highly popular choreographic seminar takes place this August. Navas brings together dancers, choreographers and composers from a variety of styles, backgrounds and nationalities, and challenges them to create a piece in twenty-four hours based on a given theme, and perform it publicly. Like similar artistic seminars held in Banff and Vancouver, the audience is encouraged to participate in a question and answer session with the artists afterward.
Performance, choreography and public initiative: Navas is a true innovator of the dance.