Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

First We Take Manhattan

From its ballet company to its emerging choreographers, Montreal is pushing North America’s dance envelope

Recently, a piece by critic Gia Kourlas entitled “How New York Lost Its Modern Dance Reign,” appeared in the New York Times, in which Kourlas declares that New York has lost its creative groove and Europe is now the hot spot of innovation. Risk-taking in the Big Apple, she says, is not what it once was. “Most [NY] producers continue to support the status quo in programming that does little to shift or expand the concept of dance.” Meanwhile, the formation of the European Union, she argues, has brought about a climate of creativity where “innovation flows like water from one country to the next.”

Perhaps Kourlas could also look to Montreal for reassurance that a North American city can seek inspiration from both within and outside itself and push the envelope. The Montreal dance scene has long incorporated influences from not only Europe but also the US and far-flung continents, combining them with its own homegrown talent to build one of the most diverse—and daring—contemporary dance scenes in the world today. Thanks to such presenters as Tangente, L'Agora de la Danse, the recently defunct FIND (the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse) and others—which for years have brought the experimental and the obscure into the city—Montreal choreographers, dancers and audiences often expect and create the unexpected. And when Montreal dance takes its works abroad, it often plays well.

The city’s Les Grand Ballets Canadiens is the latest example of Montreal dance to mark its distinctiveness south of the border. While no stranger to the US, its five-year transformation under the direction of Gradimir Pankov may just now be paying dividends, at least in terms of critical praise. Making its second appearance at the grande dame of dance festivals, Jacob's Pillow (in Massachusetts), the company brought its program of TooT and Les Noces, choreographed respectively by Didy Veldman and Stijn Celis, two dancemakers mentored by Pankov back when he was directing Geneva’s Ballet du Grand Théâtre. Indeed, the reviews coming out of Boston and New York seemed to praise Pankov for the pieces he commissioned as much as it praised the artists who choreographed them.

Karen Campbell of the Boston Globe wrote that the two works were “riveting original additions to the contemporary ballet repertoire,” and singled out TooT, calling it “a revelation. Entertaining and visually stunning … a powerful statement on the conflict between conformity and individualism.” Theodore Bale of the Boston Herald, comparing Mikko Nissinen’s directorship at the Boston Ballet with Pankov’s at Les Grands, said, “one hopes that some day Boston Ballet will have striking dances by Veldman and Celis in its repertory as well.”

If that recognition wasn’t enough, Les Grands also got a coveted New York Times thumbs-up from new chief dance critic John Rockwell. Like Bale, Rockwell saw fit to consider Pankov’s directorship, which in his view has yielded “breathtaking results.”

“Starting with what was once a classical ballet company, and apparently a slightly tired one at that, Mr. Pankov set about turning the troupe into a bastion of contemporary European dance … The current company still dances the few remaining pieces in its repertory that require toeshoes and classical technique, how well I cannot say. But their rangy bodies and vivid personalities suit to near perfection the two works on display at Jacob’s Pillow.”

One former Les Grands dancer I know rather objected to the pre-Pankov-era being labelled as “slightly tired” and it’s unclear whether Rockwell was simply reworking an angle established by his Times colleague, Jennifer Dunning in her preview of Les Grands (“A Montreal Troupe Kicks Off Its Dusty Toeshoes”), or whether this is a conclusion reached after years of watching the troupe. Having myself known the company only under Pankov’s direction, I cannot comment. Nonetheless, Rockwell is absolutely on the mark when noting that the TooT/Noces program shows the company to advantage.

Les Grands is Montreal’s official ballet company, and under Pankov it has come to complement, rather than stand in opposition to, the city’s contemporary dance scene. Its repertoire is now dominated by living, European choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Nacho Duato, Jean-Christophe Maillot and Israel’s Ohad Naharin, all of whom make works that are often profound, well constructed, decidedly contemporary, but definitely suitable for classically trained dancers ... and a small budget.

As a consequence, though, classical ballet beyond The Nutcracker is pretty scarce in the city: diehard balletomanes make do with the annual Gala des Étoiles, touring companies and trips to Toronto. And yet, considering limited funding sources and Montreal’s love for the unconventional, one cannot wish for the impossible—a prohibitively expensive Sleeping Beauty with all the trimmings—while begrudging the repertory riches, such as TooTand Les Noces, that Les Grands specializes in now.

The Little Dance Piece That Could
Just days before Les Grands’ acclaimed Jacob’s Pillow performance, newbie Montreal choreographer Christiane Bourget’s Jachère was wowing the critics at the fFIDA International Dance Festival in Toronto. The piece, a solo for dancer Nicolas Cantin, had already earned strong reviews from La Presse and later from me at Maisonneuve, and was heralded in the Toronto press as one of the standout performances in a festival that featured the works of seventy-nine choreographers. Toronto Star dance critic Susan Walker wrote that Bourget had “found the poetry in the dancer and made it move,” while Paula Citron of the Globe and Mail saw fit to not only include Cantin in her “Honour Roll of Dancers” but also give the choreographer the Paula Citron fFIDA Award. Recommending the piece to his readers, the National Post’s Michael Crabb noted: “Jachère stands out for its originality, intelligence, odd but entirely gripping movement vocabulary, richly suggestive imagery and poetics sensitivity. It amounts to a mini epic of the human spirit, at once profoundly discomforting, yet also inspiring.” No faint praise considering these critics generally panned the festival as lacklustre—their headlines ran from the politely critical “Too Many Dances Had Recital Feel” (Toronto Star) to the downright mean “Don’t Forget to Bring the Novocaine” (National Post).

With her Toronto slam dunk, Bourget joins not only Les Grands, but also choreographers Dave St-Pierre (with a European tour of his La pornographie des âmes) and Daniel Léveillé (with New York performances of his La pudeur des icebergs) in taking Montreal dance outside the city limits and into critical acclaim during the 2004–2005 season.

Now that September has come and the 2005–2006 season is about to begin, the question is not when but who in Montreal dance will make waves abroad in this brave new year. Stay tuned.

For those in New York who are as curious as Rockwell to see more of Les Grands’ “compelling dancers,” here’s your chance. At City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, the company will perform excerpts from Ohad Naharin’s Minus One on October 1.

In Montreal, see Les Grands in a new original work,
The Beast and the Beauty (yes, you read right), by Paris Opera Ballet star Kader Belarbi, October 20–22, 27, 29 and November 4–5 at Place des Arts.

Christiane Bourget’s
Jachère will show again this coming November in Portugal at the Video Dance Showcase of the Almada Dance Festival. In Montreal, her newest work will be presented at Tangente, March 23–26, 2006.

Nicolas Cantin will premiere his work,
Glass*house Fantaisie baroque, at Tangente, September 14–18, in the Danses Buissonnières program featuring other up-and-coming choreographers.

Kena Herod is Maisonneuve’s dance critic. Read more columns by Kena Herod.