Culture | Pleasure and pain, dancing cheek to cheek

Dance choreographer Helene Blackburn addresses a troubling philosophical question

What if pleasure and pain were so intrinsically tied together that the only way to find pleasure was to be immersed in pain? Nietzsche asked this question in his 1882 treatise Le Gai Savoir. Now, in 2008, Montreal choreographer Hélène Blackburn, the founding artistic director of contemporary dance company Cas Public, is attempting to provide an answer through her newest work, Suites Cruelles.

Blackburn established Cas Public in 1989, and she has since become widely recognized for her bold artistic choices and, most importantly, her participatory approach to artistic creation. Her collectivist stance evolved through an interest in human behaviour, and her studies of subjects as varied as ethnography and theatre. Blackburn’s creative process involves collaborations between choreographer, dancers, and artistic staff. She is also constantly re-evaluating and re-energizing her choreographic process and style of movement.

It’s hard to predict what Suites Cruelles will look like. The company’s rehearsals have been closed off from outside observation. On the whole, though, Blackburn’s style has certain hallmark elements. Blackburn’s dances are often marked by the juxtaposition of powerful physicality with moments of whimsy or extreme subtlety. She also frequently plays with sound in unconventional ways. Her dancers speak, stomp their feet, slap each other or themselves, whistle, and breathe loudly. Music is interspersed with silence, and through it all, the movements wax and wane.

Blackburn’s dynamic style seems perfectly suited to the subject she has taken on: the irrepressible search for pleasure and the discovery that it is intrinsically linked with pain. The work’s theme seems suited to the frenzied, even violent duets between dancers that are an central to Blackburn’s aesthetic. Moreover, an exploration of the dichotomy between pleasure and pain, and the realization of their ultimate interdependence, cries out for a type of dance that combines disparate elements. And this convergence is really what makes Blackburn’s work beautiful. Because even though her style is always a little bit different, she never fails to place fierce, passionate moments alongside those of overwhelming delicacy. In effect, the reality behind each perspective shines all the more brightly when it is placed next to its opposite. Because of this, Blackburn’s response to Nietzsche’s famous question is sure to be stunning and eloquent.

Suites Cruelles runs from Jan. 24-26. For more info, visit