Walking into France Geoffroy’s Oiseaux de Malheur (rough translation: “Birds of Discomfort”) last Thursday night, I didn’t know what to expect from a show described as integrated dance. Informants had told me that the term refers to the integration of able-bodied dancers and dancers with disabilities. The morning before the show, in an interview with France Geoffroy – artistic director, dancer, and founder of the Corpuscule Danse company – I expressed a keen interest in understanding more about the experience of a disabled dancer (Geoffroy is a quadriplegic woman). How is the performance transformed with the integration of a disabled person? And fundamentally, how do disabled people dance? Looking back, the direction of my questions seemed naive. Geoffroy was more interested in talking about the performance itself – a theatrical interpretation of themes of animals and obsession – and about the choreographer commissioned for the piece, the esteemed Estelle Clareton. Geoffroy insisted: “Just wait ’til you see it. You will understand. Just wait.”
I didn’t have to wait long. On that blue-lit, black-box stage, the four performers were all just characters telling a dramatic story through the visceral movements of their human bodies. The show opened with an energetic and dynamic routine by dancer Luca “Lazylegz” Patuell – who has athrogryposis, a disease that limits joint motion – and continued to showcase the variety of uses for the human body in the main piece, Oiseaux de Malheur. Geoffroy was more of an actress in this piece, allowing Marie-Hélène Bellavance – a double amputee – and Annie De Pauw, and Tom Casey – both able-bodied – to move the audience with their corporeal poetry. Throughout the piece, the movements of each of the performers was driven by their anxious fixation on something they could not take control of: one of the dancers was unable to touch her foot to her head, another kept obsessively moving an industrial-sized fan around the floor, and another incessantly repeated a verse from a song until she was smothered into silence by a pillow. “Through simple images, you understand many things,” Geoffroy explains. Using very few props, an empty set, and dramatic lighting, the focus of this piece is bodies and the immaculate poses the human body – disabled or not – is capable of.
Clareton’s choreography challenges any preconceived notions of the advantaged versus the disadvantaged. In one of the show’s more dramatic moments, Bellavance lifts Casey, turning around on her wooden legs with the large man in her small arms. When Casey returns to two feet, he lifts Bellavance, whose prosthetic legs are held and removed by De Pauw. It is only in this moment that we see that Bellavance’s body ends somewhere beneath her beautiful floral skirt. De Pauw takes Bellavance’s prosthetic leg and attaches it to the tip of her own foot, and with her newly-extended limb is finally able to complete her pose and touch her head.
The equipment, including wheelchairs, crutches, and prosthetic legs, transcends its utilitarian purpose to become a series of ornamental accessories in the piece. Casey, an able-bodied dancer, actually entered the stage in a wheelchair – subverting the distinction between able-bodied and disabled dancers that the viewer is discouraged from making in the first place. Casey used the wheelchair as a metallic dance partner, enhancing the visual harmony of his performance. “The subject of the piece is not the disability,” asserts Geoffroy. “The poetry arrives once you can look past that.”
Geoffroy, who is now 36, has been a quadriplegic person since she was 17. At that time, she had dreams of being a dancer. “Sure,” says Geoffroy, “the disability has an emotive charge. People think, ‘If that happened to me, I would die!’ But you really have no choice. You just carry on with your life. I wanted to be a dancer, so that’s what I did.” The reality is that her work is not so much inspirational as it is inspired. The emotiveness of the performance is less a result of the disability of certain performers, than it is of the quality of the art presented. Like any good dance performance, it showcases the power and potential of the human body.
Contemporary dance fans won’t want to miss this innovative collaboration of Danse Cité and Corpuscule Danse. And if you’ve never experienced contemporary dance before, this is a moving introduction. What is a genre-twisting statement of movement for the dancers is, for the viewer, a visual spectacle that redefines the limits of contemporary dance.
Oiseaux de Malheur runs from March 24-27 at Studio Hydro-Québec du Monument-National (1182 St. Laurent). Visit corpusculedanse.com for more information.
In the original version of this article, France Geoffroy and Luca “Lazylegz” Patuell were both described as amputees. In actuality, Geoffroy is a quadriplegic and Patuell has athrogryposis, a disease that limits joint motion. The Daily apologizes for the errors.