Culture  Anything goes

Contemporary dance in Montreal

What is one supposed to think of upon conjuring the image of our city’s dance scene? We’re not talking about the drunken, uncoordinated steps of people jamming to progressive house on a checkered dance floor. Okay, maybe Montreal’s clubs have left behind the checkered dance floor for snazzier, more up-to-date interiors. But you catch my drift. As a cultural hub, where does an artistic form of expression as broad and multidimensional as dance performance fit into the wider picture of Montreal?

To get an accurate idea of Montreal’s dance culture one must, in fact, renounce the very notion of accuracy since, according to Montreal dance critic Stephanie Brody, the city’s dance scene follows an “anything goes” model. In other words, dance in Montreal is not only in a constant state of flux, but it has been liberated from the longstanding traditions of genre or style since the 1980s.

As stated by the prominent local dance company Montréal Danse in their website, their company – and arguably many others – was “born out of the choreographic explosion that took place in Montreal in the eighties.” With the emergence of companies and presenters such as Montréal Danse (1986), La La La Human Steps (1980), and Tangente (1981), the teaching of dance and the production of dance shows was centred on what we now know as the contemporary genre. Ever seen an episode of Dancing With The Stars (don’t worry, you won’t be judged) or So You Think You Can Dance?  You don’t have to be an avid fan or a religious viewer to realize that the episodes are divided more or less according to style or genre, and “contemporary” is one of them. But don’t let those isolated episodes fool you into concluding that’s what contemporary dance looks like. As Brody notes, contemporary in the context of dance is a wide-ranging term that encompasses varying influences, but ultimately is descended directly from ballet.

The contemporary genre traces its lineage back to the highly influential American dancer/choreographer Martha Graham and her pupil Merce Cunningham. In 1953, the pair founded what can be deemed the first contemporary styled dance company in North America, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. As Brody notes, Graham and Cunningham sought to “renew ballet, free people from the rigours of ballet and explore new ways of working with the body and gravity and balance and release.” Brody points out that although these pioneers of contemporary dance looked to liberate bodily movement from the constraints of ballet, they came to form their own schools of practice and technique that ended up as rigorous and conventionalized as the old tradition. Nonetheless, what dancers such as Graham and Cunningham forged is the notion of conflating the role of the dancer with the artist’s so that the dancer is to be understood as a force in and of itself imbued with creative potential and no longer restricted by genre conventions or techniques.

Since anything that’s characterized as “contemporary” concerns the here and now, contemporary dance is to be understood as being in a perpetual state of development. Particularly in Montreal, a number of dancers and choreographers, many of whom have backgrounds rooted in classical or traditional training (mainly ballet, but also other popularized techniques and styles also apply) eventually venture out on their own and give birth to their individual styles. Brody explains that for this reason, the eighties in Montreal opened a floodgate of such artists who came to embody the emerging concept of danse d’auteur, or “dance of the author,” which allowed these dancers/artists to explore and tap into their creativity, and in turn led them to form their signature aesthetics and style.

This coincided with the trend of not only breaking away from conventions within dance, but also of loosening the boundaries between different artistic mediums so that dance can be incorporated into a rock concert or a politically charged rant performance. Frédérick Gravel is an example of a contemporary Montreal-based dancer who incorporates dance into a performance-based rock concert – or vice versa. The predominant aim of many, if not most, up and coming dancers in Montreal is to present an amalgam of artistic forms of expression.

In Gravel’s case, some of his shows visibly display the orchestra as the band members move along with the main performing artist(s), and are as central to the performance as the performer. Or take someone like Dave St-Pierre, who has a knack for including nudity in his shows, and presenting overt political and social commentary to address issues such as gender inequality, body image, and convention within art.

In his 2011 show Un peu de tendresse bordel de Merde! (A Little tenderness for crying out loud!), St-Pierre seems to be implicitly (or otherwise) critiquing the oft-celebrated and now conventionalized Brechtian strategy of distanciation by wholly subverting the technique. In a nutshell, the famous early 20th century German playwright Bertolt Brecht espoused the notion that there needs to be a clear wall established between the audience and the actors to remind the former that they are watching a performance, which would enable them to think critically about what is being presented to them.

Fast forward a good nine decades or so and you have someone like St-Pierre rejecting distanciation by making his naked performers emerge out of the audience and physically engage with them by stroking them or sitting on them. Sound like it’s a little too close for comfort? Well, comfort isn’t the only thing St-Pierre is aiming at. Like Brecht and like countless contemporary artists in Montreal including Gravel, St-Pierre wants his viewers to re-think what he believes to be the constraints of artistic conventions and norms. Which is why his shows and Gravel’s are difficult to pin down – we could argue, in fact, that they intentionally make it a challenge for us.

Montreal is strapped for cash when it comes to staging larger, more elaborate classical pieces that an organization like The National Ballet of Canada (based in Toronto) can afford to stage, with shows like Giselle and The Nutcracker. So what does one do when the going gets tough in the dance world? In Montreal, the tough (and there are many) get going with wholly original, boundary-pushing signature styles that are bound to inspire current and upcoming dancers to carve out a piece of the pie – even if it’s a sliver – and branch out on their own. In our beloved city, where there’s passion, there’s bound to be some appreciation.