by Kathleen Smith

Montreal’s ninth Festival TransAmériques (FTA) ran May 21 to June 4 and was the first under new artistic director Martin Faucher. The lineup, presented in spaces across the city, was as eclectic and polished as ever. Some of the works were more provocative than others, but I was happy that many displayed the kind of engagement with ideas and society that makes for exhilarating theatre.

Brooklyn-based Miguel Gutierrez presented his duet, Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-career Artist/Suicide Note Or &:-/, a queer take on growing older and keeping the faith as an artist. Gutierrez begins with an off-the-cuff introduction referencing queer theorist José Muñoz and quoting William Blake: “my heart is full of futurity.” Everything that follows is tightly choreographed and performed. Gutierrez danced, mesmerizingly, with collaborator Mickey Mahar, a much younger performer who nonetheless had no trouble holding up his half of the stage. The pair took synchronized movement to an extreme and intoxicating place, utilizing the lexicons of voguing, lip sync, burlesque, ballet and social dance, supported by extremely loud, beat-laden electronic dance music.

Their respective solos were fierce in completely different ways. The boyish and deadpan Mahar grew increasingly erratic and manic, flailing his skinny bone-white limbs and eventually pulling his pants down around his ankles; he slammed his body repeatedly into the floor … hard. The aesthetic might be nightclub gay, but there was also a punk vibe at work here.
The huskier Gutierrez, by contrast, never seemed to lose his aplomb. Wearing a women’s fuchsia bathing suit, he wielded a microphone and sang, embodying some kind of rock star fantasy. Though the subject matter and precision of the choreography are serious, this show never failed to entertain. Even as Gutierrez was shouting at us repeatedly to “Get out. The show’s over — get out!” and we sheepishly rose and shuffled away from this brightly lit party, we were still having a good time.

Another, more ponderous, take on duet dynamics, Daniel Léveillé’s Solitudes Duo, was not nearly as much fun. A sequel to Solitudes Solo (which is still being performed), the work distilled some of the main concerns of the Montreal choreographer’s long career. When married with the performers’ complete lack of affect, Léveillé’s limited and slowed-down vocabulary of athletic lifts, martial arts poses and simulated sex allowed, indeed forced, the audience to examine each of the six duets closely. And this revealed the technical proficiency of the cast to be uneven. Although they all had compelling features of one kind or another, I found it distracting to watch performers I was not confident could hold the pose or demonstrate the requisite control. Once I let go of that expectation, I discovered more respect for the work and its quiet humour and deliberate pacing.

Stéphane Gladyszewski’s gorgeous Phos felt more like a showcase than a show, with no discernible emotional or narrative arcs, but much to offer in the way of beauty and inventiveness. The audience filed into a darkened space in the Place des Arts basement studio of resident company O Vertigo and gathered around two performers (Martin Bélanger and Lucie Vigneault) who were working what appeared to be a mound of clay. They stroked it and shaped it, wetting the material with handfuls of water, carving out channels with their fingers. Eventually, projected colour and movement brought the mound to life as a tiny animated topography of rivers and mountains. We were then seated.

What followed was a series of ephemeral vignettes in which the performers put lighting effects, projections and other image technologies to delicate and magical use. In one sequence, Vigneault carried a large cloth and leapt around in the pitch dark, a strobe revealing her limbs and drapery for brief frozen seconds at a time. It occurs to me these ocular glimpses are reminiscent of early photographs and moving images of Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan in full flight and wonder if it’s accidental.

Technology also informs the duet Hyperterrestres, created and performed by Montreal’s Benoît Lachambre and Montpellier-based Fabrice Ramalingom to a soundscape by Hahn Rowe (an acclaimed New York-based composer and musician who often works with Meg Stuart), performed live.

Post-human (and perhaps also pre-human) communication seems to be the driving idea behind this slow-moving work, which began with the massive stage of Usine C obscured by a large draped scrim. Vague shapes made by an abstracted naked body coalesced and dissolved behind as the light (and the scrim) slowly rose to reveal … two sofas. When Lachambre and Ramalingom finally took the stage in jeans and hoodies, it was as lumbering creatures muttering guttural noises. They rolled around, wandered and eventually interacted with each other, while Hahn manned a sound station to the side of the stage, lounging quietly for the most part, fingers twiddling nobs and buttons (though he did rise to play a guitar solo). It all unfurled at a snail’s pace.

About two thirds of the way in, Lachambre broke character entirely to address the audience, with lights up. He tried to explain what’s really behind the work — ideas about sensory experience, transmission and the space within movement — until Hahn abruptly took the mike from him and the “fiction” began again.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this piece, even now, weeks later. At the time, I found Hyperterrestres silly and pretentious (how is that even possible?), in need of a dramaturg and way too long. And yet, by the end, the commitment of the performers and the severe musicality won me over on some level, and I wanted to turn around and slap the guy booing behind me.

One of the bravest works at the festival was Arkadi Zaides’ Archive. The Russian-born Israeli uses video documentation from the archive B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, as both a starting point for creation and as a crucial onstage element to drive his dance. The archive hands cameras to residents of the region and asks them simply to record. As expected, many of the clips document abuses — Israeli settlers setting fire to Palestinian olive groves, stone-throwing, occupying forces making arrests — but they are not overly violent in the way we’ve come to expect from media imagery from the region. These events are more quietly brutal.

Zaides dissects and mimics the physicality of the people in the videos, in real time. It’s not so much choreography as an absorption and an embodiment that we have been invited to watch. At times, the work felt clinical, a scientific experiment in the mechanics of pushing and shoving or using a slingshot. But this lack of conventional choreographic intent is also a source of Archive’s power.

I remain haunted by the images and sounds of two teenaged Jewish boys, clearly inebriated following Purim celebrations, hurling abuse at Palestinian homes as their parents or other adults physically hold them back and carry them off. Partly, it’s because Zaides’ looping of the clips has burned them into my brain, but also because, over the course of the performance, I learned how to look very closely at the physicality onscreen and Zaides’ reconstruction of it. Adding to the torment, Zaides (coached by sound art and voice dramaturg Tom Tlalim) also re-interpreted sound bites, which also echo weeks later.

Alain Platel’s Ballet C de la B, an FTA favourite, also manipulated documentary materials but, in the creation of the full-length Tauberbach, in a more traditionally theatrical way. The work used the formal setting and grand scale of the Monument-National to great effect, with the stage covered in cast-off clothes, knee-deep in some spots. It replicated the real-life Brazilian garbage dump in which a schizophrenic woman named Estamira made her living, a true story that was made into a documentary film by Marcos Prado.

Dutch actor Elsie de Brauw commanded the stage as Estamira, picking through garments and layering them on, declaiming her rage and her acceptance in response to an offstage voice of God, and dancing occasionally with the company’s all-star performers. I could have watched this actor trying to make order out of that chaos forever.

But, in fact, each performer in this production got an opportunity to shine. Ross McCormack’s tour-de-force solo started with the dancer making the sound of a fly into one of the hanging microphones and turned into an extended riff on ways to die. His movement accelerated and decelerated as if manipulated by fast forward and rewind buttons playing an action film. Over the course of 90 minutes, there were many examples of this quality — an extended erotic duet between Lisi Estaras and Romeu Runa, comic turns by nearly everyone and, chillingly, moments of quiet choral singing that contrasted one of the major sound elements in the production: a recording of Bach cantatas sung by a choir of deaf people, which is taken from artist Artur Zmijewski’s video project Tauber Bach (deaf Bach).

If I have a criticism of this ambitious work, it’s in the sometimes not quite seamless amalgamation of the disparate elements provided by the other artists. On the level of production, I suspect the resulting cacophonous effect and rough edges may be intentional. But the mix felt slightly random to me, a selection of cool projects coming from many different directions and sources. Still, the faith Platel places in his own choices and in the choices of the Tauberbach company members is persuasive, and the feeling of having been part of a powerful and uplifting communal experience is one that will stay with me for a long time.

DI FALL 2015

Lucie Vigneault in Stéphane Gladyszewski?s Phos Photo: Stéphane Gladyszewski
Lucie Vigneault in Stéphane Gladyszewski’s Phos
Photo: Stéphane Gladyszewski