by Victor Swoboda 

Balloons. Hugs. Heartfelt speeches. At Théâtre Maisonneuve on May 25, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal paid homage to 79-year-old Gradimir Pankov following a performance of his last program as artistic director. It marked the end of an 18-year era at Quebec’s largest dance company.  

The triple bill was characteristically Pankov. Two works by old friend Jirí Kylián were local premieres. First, the sweet folksy Evening Songs (1987) set to Dvorak’s live choral music, then Falling Angels (1989), whose eight female dancers ably executed Kylián’s thorny, precision choreography set to the syncopated sounds of Steve Reich’s Drumming, splendidly played live by four percussionists. The closing piece was Stephan Thoss’ psychologically fascinating Searching for Home, first seen here in 2011. Sharply and with verve, the dancers executed its many entries and exits, symbolic of the way that conscious and unconscious thoughts play in our minds. 

Pankov leaves the company in excellent shape. Sold-out local shows. Many successful foreign tours. An achieved $600,000 goal at its recent fundraising gala. Impressive new studios near its performing venue at Place des Arts. Unfortunately, because of a construction strike, the studios’ official opening on June 5 was postponed until September when Pankov’s successor, Ivan Cavallari, will preside. Cavallari’s first season will largely continue in Pankov’s European vein with works by Uwe Scholz, Edward Clug, Bridget Breiner, Étienne Béchard and Colombian-born Netherlands-based Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. But whereas Pankov typically hired and coddled young dancers, Cavallari’s first hire is Stuttgart Ballet’s Montreal-born principal Myriam Simon Mechaiekh. Will the Stuttgart star fit into Les Grands’ non-star culture, or will that culture change? 

Ballet BC presented its own wide-ranging triple bill in Montreal, revealing many merits. Artistic director Emily Molnar’s 16 + a Room (2013) was a skilful agglomeration of off-balance moves, imaginative body positions and long extensions. But dancers rushing on and off the stage seems overused nowadays, and handheld signs like “This is a beginning” and “This is not the end” appeared too coy.  

With Ballet BC dancers in body-hugging white suits, Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s 2010 Bill was eye candy inspired by the couple’s extensive background in Israel’s nightclubs, featuring choreography with a fashionably pop appeal.  

Ballet BC’s gem was Solo Echo made by Crystal Pite in 2013 for Nederlands Dans Theater. Brahms’ early, youthful cello sonata suitably accompanied the vigorous initial half, leading to a dancer resisting what looked like the inexorable pull of death. The second half to Brahms’ more sombre, late cello sonata had a more deliberate tone. The cast finally exited, each in turn bidding farewell until one last person fell to the floor and lay still. They seemed to make peace with mortality. Such a life/death vision was profound art. 

Cai Glover of Montreal’s Cas Public has forged a dance career despite being virtually deaf. [See Dance International’s Summer 2017 issue for a profile on Glover, “Breaking the Sound Barrier.”] Inspired by Glover, who is a splendid dancer, company founder  Hélène Blackburn 

created 9, an ensemble work to re-orchestrated motifs from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. To contrast sight and sound, Blackburn used visual ploys — tiny chairs, a scurrying toy car, blackouts, sign language — and audible ones from the dancers — grunting, barking, shouting. Made with humour, her point was clear enough, but overall the work was stylistically baffling. At times, under cones of light and gesticulating madly, the five dancers brought to mind the style of Édouard Lock. A sequence in which young spectators were invited to sit onstage generated little interaction. 

Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard returned to the stage for the first time in 15 years in a new solo, Le chant des sirènes. The simple set — a slightly inclined bench and a leaning pillar — suggested a world slightly askew. In everyday clothes and with a benign look of innocence, Émard was everyman, casting about for a place in the universe. At times, videos flashing across the pillar implied life’s inevitable turmoil. Émard’s hand and arm gestures expressed his relation to this world as he moved in and out of shadowy corners created by André Rioux’s lighting. With video images flowing across his body, Émard seemed at one point about to fade into oblivion. But big, bright lights behind him suddenly blazed, resurrecting him. A touching figure, Émard was perhaps too relaxed to leave a deep emotional trace. 

Another Montreal veteran, Ginette Laurin, collaborated with Dutch choreographer Jens van Daele in Tierra, a work for five female dancers. A crane-mounted spotlight went slowly around the perimeter of a circular stage, putting the dancers under scary scrutiny. From an initial military style lineup, various groupings followed, which suggested that marching in formation requires no imagination, whereas making decisions in unpredictable circumstances demands strength of character.  

Among the dance offerings at the annual Festival TransAmériques (FTA), May 28 to June 8, was Brussels-based Mette Ingvartsen’s ode to sensuality, 7 Pleasures. Before the start, loud, incessant drumming made an annoying prelude for no apparent purpose, after which several audience members, including the woman next to me, abruptly rose, nonchalantly doffed their clothes and walked naked to the stage. For the next 20 minutes, nude bodies literally rolled as one mass across a couch, table and other objects of the living room décor. One can only imagine the rehearsals. For the next hour, the group simulated sexual desire in many forms, investigating potted plants in sexually charged ways, exploring body parts in couples and threesomes, shaking violently in “orgasm.” The movements’ stylization allowed viewers to contemplate this suburban orgy with some degree of objectivity, removing the stigma of a purely voyeuristic spectacle. It wasn’t porn, but it wasn’t emotionally moving or revelatory either. 

Sensuality was also at the core of Principle of Pleasure, a solo by Gerard Reyes, a former dancer with Compagnie Marie Chouinard. A slim, bearded man in a transparent bodysuit and stiletto heels, he strutted like a runway model in his personal version of voguing. With calm authority, he invited the audience of 70 men and women standing in a circle to express their own sensuality. One woman pawed Reyes’ thighs during a lap dance. A man enthusiastically sprawled with Reyes in an impromptu dance on the floor. More suited to cabaret than theatre, Principle of Pleasure managed briefly to unite people of all sexual stripes.   

Also at FTA, France’s artistic collective (LA)HORDE assembled 11 dancers in To Da Bone featuring jump style, a dance form that over the past decade has grown throughout Europe online. Dancers jump on a supporting leg and weave patterns with their free leg, at times slapping and tapping the floor. The group’s ensemble patterns were impressively co-ordinated. Soloists shone, too, with rapid leg changes. But patterns tended to repeat in predictable ways, begging the question whether jump style is sufficiently adaptable to support a wide emotional range. The sole woman, Quebec’s Camille Dubé Bouchard, was a solid addition in what is a male-dominated style. 

All three FTA shows and Émard, too, featured a long moment when the performers stood staring into the eyes of the audience. Does this staring contest really create an audience-performer bond?   


DI FALL 2017

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Jirí Kylián’s Falling Angels
Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko