Culture  Dancing in the streets

Local dance group challenges spectators to reimagine public space

W hile much of contemporary dance is centred on the stage as performance space, Montreal is now witnessing the arrival of a dance group that contests the fundamental codes and ground rules of this art form. This group is leaps and bounds above the norms of form and safety – literally. Spontaneous Dance Combustion is an improvisation community that brings contemporary dance into the urban public space. The group stages outdoor improvisations at various locations throughout Montreal, creating movement that interacts with the city’s form. After just three short public incursions, this collective of passionate and innovative dancers is working toward reshaping and restructuring community interaction, city space, and the perceived boundaries of the urban landscape.

Michael Watts, the group’s co-coordinator, claims that the inspiration for Spontaneous Dance Combustion came from his reflections on cults and culture; he’s interested in challenging the uniformity that prevails in much of the dance world and, indeed, in life. As he sees it, people are overly absorbed in work life, consumed by those material things that detract from the meaningful moments. He aims to help dancers and the general public to break out of their safe, sheltered, and sometimes alienated existence. Watts explains that this public, improvisational style of dance cultivates intersections between people and place, as the boundaries between dancer and spectator become blurred, and new possibilities are negotiated within the prescriptive urban form. “When you go to see a dance show,” Watts says, “it is closed off. You are safe in your seat – there is a barrier between you and [the performance]. We wish to destabilize people from this protective zone and engage in audience participation to break that barrier. It is important for people to see a foreign universe.”

The group intentionally invades physical and personal spaces that have been distanced from emotional expressiveness. In their first public action, Watts and a community of other dancers (who were still strangers to one another half an hour prior to the performance) found a space where people were on their lunch break, “zoned out,” clad in similar work attire, smoking cigarettes. The group’s aim was to disrupt the normalcy and complacency of this emotional state. Members of Spontaneous Dance Combustion, inconspicuous in normal street dress, blended in with the crowd before erupting into lively dance in this usually safe but stark place. The result was striking. “People, for the first time, appeared to actually be taking a break,” says Watts. The second improvisation was equally stimulating and disquieting; it took place during Montreal’s fashion and design festival. Dancers, dressed up in eccentric clothing, fused a variety of dance styles and played with fashion as they posed on corners, portraying “vogue” culture. It didn’t take long before a huge crowd gathered to participate.

What’s great about Spontaneous Dance Combustion is that in the same way the group dissolves the line between performer and audience, it also encourages connections within the community. The participants transform city space – space that often triggers inner anxiety, a sense of alienation, isolation, and sometimes panic – into a creative environment where individuals are unchained from routine. This is exactly what Watts intends; he emphasizes the importance of his work in helping people claim a sense of self. “It is important to say who you are – individuals should experience an odd new sense of freedom and liberty,” he explains. “Originally, dance was a tribal ritual. It has become so militant – Spontaneous Dance Combustion allows people to show and express themselves,” he continues. The impulsive, bold creativity of this dance form, situated within the urban domain, causes stable sites – and individuals – to become unsettled, and the safe, anonymous homogeneity of the urban form to come alive.