Magazine #5: Shifting Perspectives
Dance in Montreal - a fulcrum for powerful invention
by Philip Szporer
Montréal, one of the world’s largest French-speaking metropolises roundly recognized for its cosmopolitan character, is a welcoming place of unbridled creativity. Long dance traditions in New York, Paris, London, and Berlin might eclipse Montréal in historical terms, but the city’s evolving reputation and status – rooted in artistic renewal, shifting cultural identities, and vibrant social dynamics – makes it a fulcrum for powerful invention. For these and many other reasons, Montréal is a magnet for artists drawn to the city’s hotbed of activity.
The roots of Québec dance are rich and deep and extend to renowned artists such as Jeanne Renaud and Françoise Sullivan, who both forged pathways during their vast careers. (Sullivan, incidentally, is celebrating her 100th birthday with a fall exhibition of new work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.) Other less widely-known pioneers, yet no less important figures, occupied central positions in the city’s historic dance space. Elsie Salomons, a much-beloved progressive modern dance teacher and choreographer, and Ethel Bruneau, a still-active octogenarian tap dancer and pedagogue extraordinaire, to name just two, were working in the margins, inspiring generations of professional and aspiring dancers. Over the last forty-plus years, Québec-based choreographers have developed a concentrated, unbridled imaginative language that has ignited audiences. Montréal blasted forward as a center of contemporary dance in the early to mid-1980s. In these initial years, the city’s diversity of voices including artists ranging from Margie Gillis, Édouard Lock, Marie Chouinard, Daniel Léveillé, Ginette Laurin, Paul-André Fortier to Jean-Pierre Perreault were gaining recognition. Large established companies like Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal continued to occupy centre stage. Various platforms developed, providing Montréal audiences a window on the dance world, from the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse (FIND) to current entities such as Festival Transamériques and Danse Danse, as well as regular programming and events at venues such as Montréal, arts interculturels (Mai), Agora de la danse, Usine C, and Studio 303, among others.
That seminal heritage, with its ‘no holds barred’ experimentation, purged dance of its narrative line, and took the form well beyond the realm of ballet or traditional dance. New expression flourished in those prosperous times in the eighties, extending the city’s renown and its artists well beyond its borders, when touring was the norm and ideas of “new dance” were evolving. During a period of a few short years, these bands of exciting and contrasting bodies also began defining what people would soon call “Montréal dance”. Inspiration flowed between dance and the visual arts, and collaborations between dance artists and musicians. Shifts in the political and social sphere indelibly altered the realm of performance, and new preoccupations developed with expanding generations of new voices. Other forums emerged, in concert with those changes, including degree programs at Montréal’s universities, and the emergence of full-fledged college-level (Cégep) dance departments.
Montréal is now home to scores of professional dance companies and countless independent artists, creating jobs and opportunities that attract even more dance talent to the city. While it's important to note that some of the aforementioned historical names are still active and producing work, there are currently generations of Montréal dance artists making waves, while an appreciable cohort are waiting in the wings. Creative talents such as Dana Michel, Stéphane Gladyszewzki, Mélanie Demers, Claudia Chan Tak, and Alexandra “Spicey” Landé, are advocating and giving new definitions to the understanding of what “Montréal dance” can be. Farther outside the usual venues and traditional presentation formats, joy is often found in community building. One recurring cornerstone event, Short and Sweet, curated by Sasha Kleinplatz and Andrew Tay, generates a space where local posers, punsters and experimenters all share the stage in bite-sized works. The communal ethos also exists at DLD, with its artistic director, dancer-choreographer Frédérick Gravel, creating spaces where audiences and artists engage and collaborate. Other organizations, such as Danse à la Carte (DAC), bring together and support professional dancers and choreographers from the classical, contemporary and urban dance communities, around research and creation, professional development and production support. Likewise, the Regroupement québecois de la danse (RQD), based in Montréal, is another community builder, representing all dance artists in helping to improve practices in the field.
Decades ago, Québec dance artists once prided themselves as being somewhat distant to postmodern currents and more formal modern dance codification, and respectfully that perspective is perhaps viewed today as an innocent stance or an affectation compared to current realities. As a current crop of innovators veers readily to places such as Vienna’s Impulstanz’s research and workshop programme for a vital transference of ideas and inspiration, in many ways those occasions feed a desire to move away from single creative visions and previous modes of leadership and navigation.
Without question, dance artists have been presenting personal visions of the world seemingly forever. The unique dance vocabulary of each of the invited group of Montréal-rooted choreographers to this year’s DANCE festival in Munich – Catherine Gaudet’s The Pretty Things, Marie Chouinard’s « M », and Andrew Tay and Stephen Thompson’s Make Banana Cry – bears witness to just that. Gaudet, in her work from last year masterfully shapes space with mathematically precise geometry. The repetitive formations and patterns she devises are demanding on the performers, and some might view this exactness as brutal or the use of exhaustion as beside-the-point, but the evolution of character, and an exploration of resistance and nuance in the performance is winning. Gaudet deftly directs her dancers to new depths. Chouinard’s influence remains strong. The renowned, multihyphenate dance artist is uncompromising, yet still has always operated with a sense of wonder, transforming herself, along with the audience, in the process. Her large-scale canvases typically evoke the intelligence of the body. Chouinard prioritizes a moving diaphragm, the breath expanding and travelling throughout an energized body, creating “luminescence from the inside.” This time, in « M », she’s reconciling the vibrations emanating from the cycle of breath and by extension voice, through patterns of repeated, wordless, utterances. The almost-vertiginous harmonic incantations by her community of topless dancers, wearing fuchsia-saturated wigs and neon-coloured pants, exudes what she’s previously proposed as “the pulse of (the body’s) cells and energy circuits.” This is a disruptive, ambitious piece, invoking an inward and rather fantastical voyage for the spectator. Andrew Tay, a hybrid performer, choreographer, dance curator, and DJ, and since 2020 artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, built his contemporary dance experimental practice in Montréal, with influences from nightlife club culture and fashion. He and interdisciplinary dance artist Stephen Thompson co-created Make Banana Cry, questioning concepts of “Asianess,” examining stereotypes, while dissecting signifiers and fetishized images, and unlocking a reimagining of other ways of understanding contemporary identities and engaging with shifting boundaries of performance. Context is everything here, and layered motifs and movement ricochet in the space.
This welcome restless performance vitality from our fair city is suggestive of a regeneration of performance pathways, which frankly in this uncertain post-pandemic world is deeply needed and restorative. The artistry is indelible, and the plurality of styles on view dictates that nothing can be neatly packaged and labelled. In Montréal, there’s an environment of dedicated creativity that holds a multiplicity of possibility where exchange between dance artists, and audiences, leads to transformation.
Where is dance in society today? It’s everywhere, and in everything we do. Montréal, for instance, is a hub for tech-savvy innovators, leading the way in developing techno bodies in multi-faceted universes. The dialogue is deep, and for artists of many stripes it summons up an excitement borne from a complex interplay of perceptions, testing limits, and an urgent questioning of whether dance, as we’ve known it as an artistic form, is enough. Forced to look more closely,these transformations are alive and urgent, and invite, I would suggest, a great many Montréal dance artists pathways for making sense of our ever-increasingly complex world.
Philip Szporer is a Montréal-based writer, film-maker and lecturer.