To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
—Macbeth, act 5, scene 5.
When I saw the name of Estelle Clareton’s newest work, Furies Alpha 1/24, created for Montréal Danse, I was intrigued. A title invoking the Furies suggests intensity in both emotion and movement, while the “1/24” refers to the piece as the first in a series. But beyond this I wondered “where” the work would be set—Furies in Greek mythology were avenging forces which pursued their hapless victims for trespassing the moral code. This myth of punishment is also about the personal demons that torment us from within.
The stage presentation Furies Alpha 1/24 brings together the violence that people inflict upon one another and the forces that battle within the self, suggesting that the inside and outside are one and the same. In other words, Clareton has created a catharsis though dance: a journey not only to some distant place where terrible things happen to other people but also into the darkest regions of our inner selves.
Location, the saying goes, counts for everything, and it is worth acknowledging—as Clareton remarked in pre-show interviews—that part of the inspiration for Furies came from her visit to NAZI concentration camps. You wouldn’t necessarily have needed to know that when walking into the auditorium of L’Agora de la Danse—if Auschwitz didn’t come to mind, thanks to Clareton and Francois Vincent’s design (amplified by Eric Forget’s eerie and relentlessly booming score), any number of banal yet horrific places where atrocities happen surely would have.
Along the stage’s edge, strips of chicken wire dangle, through which the audience is forced to watch the action. Large windows line the back wall and one side of the stage, offering no view beyond a uniform black. The walls themselves are a sickening yellow-grey hue. To one side is a chair; on the back wall leans a ladder next to a picture of a white-haired man in jacket and tie, evoking the stolid portraits of authoritarian leaders.
It is in this institutional setting that three men and three women (Benoît Leduc, Frédéric Marier, Peter Trosztmer, Maryse Carrier, Annik Hamel and Elinor Fueter) are dressed in grey and busily traversing the stage: walking or running heavy-footed; crisscrossing paths from one side to another, back and forth, on diagonals, in circles; pausing for some moments before changing direction and setting off determinedly again. Yet, for all of their steps, these people appear to have neither a real destination nor any connection to one another.
Stationed in the middle of the stage, amid all this pointless to-and-fro, is a door that appears freestanding. Each of these grim people take turns holding the door, often bracing all their weight against it, while from the other side come sounds of knocking—sometimes tentative rapping, other times full-out pounding or kicking. Occasionally, and rather startlingly, along the door’s top edge a searching hand appears, grasping at nothing. These desperate attempts by the dancers to prevent the door from opening (on one side) or to pass through it (from the other), along with their insistent pacing, return again and again throughout the remainder of the piece. The door, it appears, is a metaphor for both our exclusion of others in society and our endeavours to keep our most repugnant inclinations at bay.
Still, for all the dancers’ efforts to keep these threatening forces locked up, some ugly emotions escape. What I found most uncanny was the sense of alienation that accompanied the disturbing behaviors enacted onstage. In one vignette, while a man performs off to one side something of a mindless jig, a woman demands repeatedly that he stop (“Arrête. Silence.”) until her quiet irritation escalates into screaming fury. Meanwhile another woman stands between the two, eating a banana and watching bemusedly.
In another scene, two men bind a third man’s legs and arms tightly to his body with tape; one of the women eventually comes to his rescue with a pair of scissors, but cuts through the tape matter-of-factly, offering no comfort—indifference here seems almost as monstrous a crime as the more active displays of ugliness. The sense of engaged concern—even tenderness and trust—that the dancers show one another during partnering sections does not dissipate the distant chill in the air felt from the beginning.
Yet, Furies contains plenty of dance sequences that are anything but cold. Clareton has devised choreography for some sections that in another context would feel almost exhilarating with its fast pace, fleet footwork, and soaring jumps. The floor work too was quite heated, even dizzying to watch—in one sequence, the men crawl and slide in-and-out and over-and-under one another in nonstop motion, their legs flinging out over their bodies. In fact, I so enjoyed Clareton’s intricate patterns of duos and trios, performed expertly by these fine dancers, that at times I nearly forgot the menacing atmosphere.
What I certainly didn’t forget was one of the last images, that of the formerly bound man. With tape still clinging pathetically to his back, he slowly makes his way to the ladder and up it, spreading his arms out wide while balancing on one leg, the other raised behind. The image alone might have suggested transcendence from meaningless suffering—at least it did at the premiere.
As haunted as I was by the show (and despite the fact it sagged a bit toward the end), I decided to go to the final performance as well. This time around, Furies felt tighter, and a new element seemed to have been added (or one that I simply hadn’t been aware of before): the wire strips were lit up so brightly in the finishing moment that everything else onstage was obscured. At once, I realized that during both performances I had grown accustomed to looking through the scrim without noticing it. On my way home, I could not help but wonder just how acclimated we become to the barriers we erect between ourselves and others—and to those Furies that not only pursue us from without, but rage within.
Clareton’s Furies may not approach the greatness of the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, but like those works, it is a potent reminder that we must remain ever vigilant: a lesson we unfortunately seem to have to always learn anew.
Kena Herod is Maisonneuve’s dance critic. Read more columns by Kena Herod.