Rumour has it that in 1970, when Fernand Nault asked Ludmilla Chiraeff, founder of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, for permission to choreograph a ballet for the company set entirely to the music of the Who, the grande dame of Montreal dance was skeptical. Chiraieff reluctantly agreed, but allowed Nault only four performances of the rock ballet. Who could have predicted that the company would go on to perform the work 300 times to often sold-out crowds over the course of a two-year tour? Tommy, as the ballet was titled, rocketed Les Grands Ballets to international renown. According to Lucie Boissinot, a longstanding member of Montreal’s dance community, the work also contributed to the growing sense of emancipation that swept the Montreal dance scene throughout the seventies and eighties. “It was a period where people started dancing in jeans, and out in the streets,” Boissinot remembers. “It was a real breaking of the form.” These decades of change brought Montreal dance onto the international scene, and the city earned a reputation as a fertile ground for innovation in contemporary dance.
These were big changes for dance in Montreal, but they didn’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, they were shaped by tastemakers, those privileged insiders who have enough influence that they can guide the field in different directions. It used to be that the old-fashioned critic, the philanthropist, the artistic director, and the producer wielded the most power in decision-making. But today, Montreal’s dance community is populated by so many voices that it’s a bit harder to distinguish where new trends and movements originate.
As always, those who control the money have a big influence over who achieves success and who doesn’t. Without money, says Boissinot, a choreographer “won’t have what they need to survive in the creation process.” For Montreal dance organizations, Boissinot explains, the major source of funding is the government. Choreographers and companies look not only to the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, but also to the Conseil des arts et des letters du Québec and the Canada Council for the Arts. These groups do distribute government money, but, thankfully, politicians aren’t the ones who decide where it goes. As far as dance is concerned, peer juries make the final decisions about who gets funded and who doesn’t. That means that any given request for funding is evaluated by dance professionals. Boissinot says that this is about as democratic a system as anyone can hope for, and also notes the authority it gives to the dance community as a whole. “The way the juries are composed is very crucial,” she remarks. “Even though [those who select the juries] are very careful, sometimes someone does have a strong influence that really affects how the whole organism works. It can get personal; we’re a small community.”
Davida takes this concept one step further, arguing that in Montreal, the dance community has become a tastemaking body in its own right. She credits the approval and interest of the dance community as a big factor in how successful any individual artist is. “A kind of a buzz or consensus about somebody’s work being extraordinary, exciting, or necessary can develop, and because [fellow dance professionals] are on juries and they talk to one another, it will have a profound affect,” Davida notes.
But before anybody’s work reaches the point where it can be seen onstage by the rest of the dance community, it needs to receive the approval of one very important person: a programmer. Programmers select which choreographers and companies will be able to show their work at a particular venue. “In Québec,” Davida explains, “we call ourselves the ‘Group of Six.’” Four members of that influential group are based in Montreal: Les Grands Ballets, which presents high-end, international companies, Danse Danse, which often features popular and established contemporary dance companies, L’Agora de la Danse, which is known for supporting smaller-scale Québécois work, and Davida’s own Tangente, “the experimental, innovative engine that could.” Boissinot adds other presenters into the mix as well – DanseCité, Studio 303, and the Cinquième Salle are mentioned – making it clear that, as Boissinot says, “It’s hard to say that any one of these [presenters] is really giving a clear trajectory to the way dance is forming. There is a lot of dance happening, and there are many creators with strong points of view.”
That each presenter has a distinct mandate gives the Montreal dance scene the feeling of being its own little ecosystem: yes, the organizations do sometimes overlap in who they put onstage, but, more often, their specific purposes support and compliment one another. There is room for a range of different perspectives in this system – a credit to the tireless efforts of emerging artists who often have to carve out a place for themselves in an already populous community. And while the Montreal scene benefits greatly from groups like Tangente that support new voices, the reality is that, in Boissinot’s words, “these organizations could always use more money.”
Of course, the scene is always expanding. More choreographers than ever before are applying for funding and looking for performance space, and in Montreal, the fringe remains active. “Whenever there is not enough room, people spread out,” Boissinot points out. “At the moment, people are going to a lot of unorthodox places to show their work. We’re always looking for new grounds. That’s what a metropolis is – art has to happen, has to find a place.”
Indeed, in the eyes of the dance world, Montreal is a metropolis – and a prolific one at that. There are scores of companies and choreographers working here, and Montreal-based groups have been touring internationally for years. Many insiders say that Montreal dance professionals have a distinct attitude and approach to even the most basic things, like training up-and-coming dancers. In fact, education is anything but a small matter. Boissinot, who directs the prestigious contemporary dance school Les Ateliers de Danse Moderne de Montreal, says she feels a definite responsibility for shaping future generations of Montreal dancers and choreographers. “I have the ultimate task of making sure that [the future Montreal dance scene] will be diverse in shapes, races, genders, tastes, and strengths,” Boissinot says. “I want my students to reflect society.” Although it is tempting to infer that in a sense she, too, becomes a tastemaker, Boissinot resists the label. “I certainly don’t try to impose upon the students my personal tastes,” she says. “I want them to be exposed to as many people’s tastes as possible.”
Already, this philosophy differs greatly from that of dance communities elsewhere. In a profession where a person’s ultimate success is often tied to what her body looks like and where she has been trained, Boissinot’s perspective is refreshing. It’s also indicative of the Montreal dance scene’s values. The word on the street is that dancers flock to Montreal because they don’t want to be stuck in the mentality of being “trained dancers.” Just like you don’t want to see an actor acting, audiences here are interested in seeing a person dancing, not a dancer dancing. That attitude is cited as part of the reason that artists here have an unusual degree of freedom. Dancers are able to approach their work from an intellectual perspective, are able to ask important and valuable questions through movement. Davida, of Tangente, agrees. “This word ‘quality’ that is mentioned all the time, I don’t think it applies as much to what we’re seeing here as conviction, strong vision, and work that gets people thinking,” she remarks.
So what do these tastemakers think is the big thing in Montreal dance right now? The answer is unanimous. Dave St. Pierre and Rubberbandance Group are the ones to watch. But knowing Montreal, by this time next year there’ll be a whole new group of bright young things vying for the spotlight.