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Flash Dispatch, 10-30: Le Grand Labo
Finding the New -- and Old -- at FIND

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001 Josephine Leask

MONTREAL -- Le Grand Labo, which was the title of Montreal's 10th International Festival de Nouvelle Danse, was set up by festival directors as "an artistic and social laboratory, to reflect on the notions of individuality and community in today's world" using dance and performance. Its focus was on finding new ways in which dance could be expressed and the body redefined using experimental music, environment, visual arts, film, video and new technology. The participating companies and choreographers, predominantly from Europe and Montreal, were chosen because they embodied the festival's spirit of innovation either through exploring a variety of different media and environments, or through a radical working of common dance forms such as the solo and improvisation. The festival, held over three weeks ending earlier this month, also included discussions, screenings and films, plus weekly club nights in which live performance, sound, projections and a line up of hot DJs provided a background for nocturnal 'happenings.'

While many emerging artists presented work at the festival, so too did the pioneers of the new dance in the '70s, such as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Marie Chouinard. The Judson Church was also represented through the White Oak Project, in a new version of Yvonne Rainer's "Continuous Project Altered Daily" (1970) and an homage to John Cage.

The festival contained many good ingredients: a rich, imaginative program, slick organization, friendly atmosphere and enviable performance spaces, ranging from theatres to gallery spaces and studios. Experimentation and research were at the core of this festival, although some companies and individuals illustrated the laboratory theme better than others. As with most festivals, there was some disappointing work that was either too pretentious or didn't live up to the innovatory intentions. While some of the varying levels of experimentation no doubt confused audience members, for example the visual art non-dance work of La Ribot, this was no bad thing. On the other hand, I felt there was an absence of new American choreographers and a distinct preference for French companies, but perhaps this reflects more on the politics of the Francophile Quebecois.

What emerged clearly from the festival was the importance of presentation, which took precedence over dance content; for example the setting up of the performing space and how the audience were positioned in relation to the performers. As a result, some audience members felt that the 'dance' component was lacking overall. This feeling was confirmed by the reception to the performances of London choreographer Russell Maliphant, who was voted favorite choreographer because his work is all movement-based, well-crafted choreography.

Highlights for me during the festival included Christine de Smedt (Belgium), Konditional Pluriel (Montreal), Jean-Pierre Perreault (Montreal), La Ribot (London/Spain), and Ted Robinson (Canada). I enjoyed the work of these artists because in their unpretentious styles they illustrated clearly dancing bodies that are responding to the changes in the environment, technology, lifestyle, popular culture, art and society in general.

Housed in his very own building, Montreal choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault with "Les Ombres - Installation choregraphique" set up a radically refreshing viewing position for the viewer. As in a peep show, each member of the audience was shown into individual booths, which faced onto the generously proportioned performance space. From this exclusive position, you were pretty much concealed, and could indulge in a highly intimate, personalized relationship with the dancers, as they moved busily and urgently around their space. While the movement material was less interesting than the setting, the choreography really engaged with and challenged the space as well as the spectator.

Christine de Smedt, a member of the Belgian Company Les Ballets C. de la B who worked with some 55 non-dancer performers, created powerful crowd choreography. Using basic mathematical structures that made pedestrian movements look impressive when performed by so many people, de Smedt also managed to extract the individuality of each performer through the work, by instructing them to respond spatially to a variety of sociological questions. By identifying each with other performers according to sexual preference, social status, musical taste, family, living conditions, appearances, politics, etc., each performer's presence was felt.

La Ribot installed her performance space with a clutter of objects, all of which she used in the course of her show. The audience was encouraged to view her work as a workshop, where she continuously constructed and deconstructed the space or decorated and undressed her body. While there was no dance material in this work, the meticulous placing, setting up and dismantling of her props was very satisfying to watch. La Ribot presents her naked body as a blank canvas, extending its boundaries to become another prop. Through her confident presence and her concentrated arrangement of objects she avoids objectification or gender stereotyping.

Kondition Pluriel, consisting of multi-media artist Martin Kusch and choreographer Marie-Claude Poulin, explored the influence of digital technologies on the body and space, in a process-led laboratory situation. The company created a sophisticated multi-media intelligent space which consisted of two dancers, four computers, a mixer, sound and sensors which were attached to the dancers. Architecture of bodies and space was redefined through movement, transmission of electronic image, the physical triggering of sound, light and played back images. What is impressive about these new technology artists, is that they have found a comfortable meeting point between the dancing physical body and technology. The dancers were empowered working in the intelligent space, and were not dominated in any way by the bank of machines, while the intricate and analytical style of their movement mirrored the complex manipulations of the artists at their computers. Together they created a series of disturbing and beautiful images. While such work demands a strong level of concentration from the audience, it really is about the revisioning of the body.

Ted Robinson's quirky theatrical solo was inspired by the meanings of the word "rigamarole," and explored through gesture, voice and dance. Robinson proved that the solo still provides potential for exploration, and created a unique character that was a mixture of Tibetan Monk and Charlie Chaplin. Performed late in the evening, the solo had the flavor of a one-man Berlin cabaret wrapped in Buddhist spirituality.

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