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Flash Review Journal, 10-17: Waiting for the Dance
FIND 2003: Dance at the Edge of Nothing

By Kelly Hargraves
Copyright 2003 Kelly Hargraves

MONTREAL -- The Festival International de Nouvelle Danse (FIND) has been bringing two weeks of non-stop top-level companies to town for close to two decades. Past fests have been programmed around a specific country. It was at FIND that I discovered Japanese Butoh, European Tanztheatre and American Post-Modernism, each in one fell swoop in different years.

For its 11th edition FIND didn't focus on a country but rather on the concept of "laboratory," experimentation and creative process. Beyond a few main stage performances by long-standing favorites like Ballett Frankfurt, Batsheva, Meg Stuart's Damaged Goods and Montreal diva Marie Chouinard, this year's fest presented a number of companies and choreographers known for their sense of the studio versus the stage. FIND even created a space called Lucky Bastard where every night 20 or so artists would come together with a set of instructions given to them only an hour before show time and see what they could come up with in the space.

In four days I was able to see five live performances and four video versions of festival performances. It was enough to leave me with a general sense of a casual, unsculpted, and un-self-conscious aesthetic. Even calling it improv is too structural.

In each piece, performers were costumed only in street clothes -- that is if they were dressed at all, as nude bodies prevailed.

Movement was not highly choreographed. Yes, there were dance phrases but there was also a lot of sitting -- on chairs, on the floor, in the audience. Many of the performances left me waiting for the dance as choreographers researched what movement could communicate. A number of pieces involved a verbal explanation of the process by the performers. Texts were personal -- with dancers and choreographers explaining who they are, why they're here, why a piece is the way it is. In fact, it was clear that most preferred talking to us to dancing for us.

No one demonstrated this more than the Portuguese choreographer Joao Fiadiero's company RE.AL and its piece "Existencia." Faideiro believes in demystifying the artist by creating "Composition in Real Time," a piece made each night with no script or structure, instead offering the audience "an alternative way of being," as the program notes put it. In a written interview, he compares his process with going to the supermarket just intending to buy a few groceries yet perhaps running into a long-lost friend instead and taking a new direction to your day. It's definitely good theory, an evolution of Dada, Beckett, and Judson Church. What it means is that a performer shouldn't start an "improv" unless something activates them to move. But what it looks like is a bunch of young, uninteresting performers sitting around doing nothing.

The piece begins with the eight performers walking on stage, dressed as if they just got off the subway, and taking turns walking to a mic to state their name, their age, where they are from and some tidbit about their day or their past. Then they sit in a row of chairs and wait. And wait. And wait. Until someone feels ready to begin something. What? No one is quite certain. My evening begins with one man's redundant story about his mother, while two dancers stare at one another until they both fall off their chairs and onto each other, then proceed to drag each other around in a tug of war eventually joined by two others. Meanwhile, a woman moves her chair closer and closer to the audience until she is sitting with them, beside a young man who she begins to interview. A large role of butcher-block paper eventually adds a short-lived design aspect to the piece. As all of this random activity happens Fiadeiro moves around adjusting lights and microphones so that we can focus on one or more of these events. Each activity is mildly engaging, depending on the skill of the performer. Luckily the company includes two young women willing to be performative and create something out of nothing, but most of the others seemed happy to let nothing be nothing.

I flashed back to every painful college improv class where nothing happened. But isn't a ticket to a performance (at $30 a pop) a contract of some sort? Shouldn't it go beyond what students would do in a classroom? Doesn't a "stage" imply something more than process?

But what one experiences one night with RE.AL is different from the next. For instance, on the opening night, the audience started booing so much that Fiadeiro ended the performance, but on the second night, the audience took things into its own hands, joining the "performers" on stage and literally making them dance, taking partners for a social dance, a contact improv and an impromptu ballet technique lesson -- only in a town like Montreal would the majority of the audience have more training than the people on stage. The stage performers seemed quite charmed by this, and happily danced with them.

Luckily, during the performance I could read through the press kit -- house lights were up -- and find out just what the choreographer was intending. I couldn't help feeling like I'd rather talk to him than watch the work.

Even within a format that questions whether movement is at all necessary, some choreographers still found it possible, to still be structured and polished, as British choreographer Jonathan Burrows exhibited in one of his two collaborative duets at FIND. "Both Sitting Duet," previously reviewed here by Paul Ben-Itzak, was created and performed with composer Matteo Fargion. A compositional exercise for gestures, it was reminiscent of Thierry de May's "Table Percussion" piece and Steve Reich's "Handclapping Music." Both men, dressed in their jeans and shirts and sitting on chairs in a bare space, use their hands and arms to create a silent musical composition in odd-times that syncopates, echoes and resonates between the four active limbs for over 45 minutes. The delicate precision of Burrows and the more natural movement of the non-dancer Fargion makes the seemingly simple movements and patterns mesmerizing and hypnotic.

Ballett Frankfurt's ballet master Anthony Rizzi also added some polish to a seemingly casual style in his piece "Snowman Melting." Seen on video, this work combines video imagery of male strippers, classic Hollywood film clips, Rizzi in a snowman costume, his mom reading and chatting with him onstage and his articulate and luscious phrases of movement and words. In a piece that deconstructs the notion of romantic love, Rizzi uses a witty and personal monologue to introduce himself (and his mom) to the audience with stories of his past drug addiction, romantic illusions and the process of making the piece, including a very funny story about trying to buy rights from Pina Bausch to use natural elements on stage. It is a wise and witty work that combines Rizzi's high style dance and his low style personality.

By comparison, the two Montreal companies I saw, generally considered great dance experimenters, within this context seemed almost purist because they still use standard choreographic forms. Hard to believe that the cinematic western "Back Track" by Tammy Forsythe and TusketDance, replete with political and social activism, could seem pure.

What sets Forsythe apart from her Canadian counterparts is her raw street aesthetic drawn from sports movement, break-dancing and skateboarding, and her counter-culture politics. Forsythe is a multi-media artist who combines her own paintings, videos and text to create a movement style that is dynamic, climactic and chaotic. Yet even in the whacked-out world of dancers screaming out their lines, stylized gun fights, and video clips of headlines taken from the tumultuous past few years referencing war and crime, there was still a sense of the casual as Forsythe sat amongst the audience smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer and not holding back on her enthusiasm for her dancers' efforts.

Montrealer Daniele Desnoyer and her company Carre des Lombes, which spent six weeks in residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art here played with sound and yet only came up with a choreography of three dancers sitting on speakers with mics attached to them to cause feedback. Desnoyer used three of Montreal's finest dancers to play three different characters -- one confused, one bitchy, one sweet and innocent -- dressed in stylish dresses with a vintage air. Yet, it didn't add up to anything beyond a white space and white noise with movement filling the spaces in the noise.

When you compare such "unplugged" performance styles to the 10th-anniversary performance of Marie Chouinard's "Rite of Spring," accompanied by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra performing the Stravinsky score, you get a sense of what's changed in the past decade. Chouinard's dancers were exotic, erotic, balletic and quite a spectacle. Although ten years ago they would have seemed at the forefront of new dance, now they looked stylized, polished and flamboyant in both movement and costuming -- nude with black shorts and occasionally wearing animal horns. It was almost embarrassing to see them trying so hard after all the other performances of the weekend.


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