Bienvenue en territoire autochtone – Parcours Danse 2023. Photo © David Wong

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Parcours Danse 2023, Montreal

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Bienvenue en territoire autochtone – Parcours Danse 2023. Photo © David Wong
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How to ‘land’ at Parcours Danse? French writer Marie Pons takes her first steps at the long-running Montreal festival

Where does one set foot when coming to Parcours Danse? Let’s begin by situating the context in which this article is being written: I am a French dance writer, writing in English for a European media outlet with a British editor about a dance platform taking place in Montreal, Quebec, where French is the official language. When being invited to cast a curious and critical eye on a specific dance scene it seems like a good warm-up to start with this kind of self-check. But here, this geographical and linguistic precision seems all the more necessary, because Parcours Danse questions from the outset where we stand, what our cultural references and imagination are made of and made into when we arrive here to watch dance. The official welcome speeches on the first night begin with the acknowledgement of the territories – a gesture stating that the land on which we gather is unceded territory, a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst First Nations. It is one way to work with the colonial past of Canada and to signal the need for systemic changes.

So, going back to where one sets foot when discovering Parcours Danse, I should also write that we are in Tiohtià:ke, where the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation is recognised as the custodian of the lands and waters. We are also on Turtle Island, Northern America’s other name. Our references and imagination start to shift. Then comes to my knowledge the existence of the Indian Act, first introduced in 1876 as a set of colonial laws aiming to crush First Nation cultures in favour of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. Amongst these laws are a ban on traditional ceremonies, dances, songs and playing music. The ban heavily affected Indigenous communities until very late in the 1980s. While going from one theatre to the next, these different layers of history affect my perception and remain very much present. Nothing is ever neutral, but crossing an ocean to wander on a piece of land where dancing used to be a target of cultural oppression sure shakes up viewing habits.

A vivid platform for dance in troubled times

Parcours Danse takes the shape of a five-day dance hub, a dive into the dance scene from all over Quebec. About 138 programmers gather for this edition, coming from 13 different countries to discover 50 works presented by dance artists in the official selection, and about 50 more in the OFF programme. Annie-Claude Coutu-Geoffroy, director of Parcours Danse since spring 2022, points out the high number of applications received this year due to post-covid recovery in the dance sector. Organised by La danse sur les routes du Quebec, a network of 172 organisations for dance artists, agents, producers and programmers working together to improve the touring system in the country and beyond, Parcours Danse is a biennial event organised by the network since 2003, and one of the rare platforms in North America that is entirely dedicated to dance. As Quebec relies widely on international touring to ensure the companies’ financial health, the stakes are high when coming to present an excerpt of a new piece or pitching a performance in the making during this rendezvous. This year celebrates the nineteenth anniversary of Parcours Danse, and the selection is made by a jury of experts from different dance aesthetics and backgrounds. Showing the diversity of dance making in Quebec is the guiding principle of the platform.

From early morning to late night we follow a schedule packed with a great variety of formats and aesthetics, from bewildering propositions to inspiring surprises. As there is an application fee for companies to present their work at Parcours Danse, some smaller scale companies might not be able to pay for the production costs. How does this influence the work presented, how representative will they be of the current scene? Inflation, difficult working conditions, high studio costs, low wages for most dancers are all part of the post-pandemic recovery in a liberal economy that considers dance a part of the entertainment industry (for more on the sector’s health, see this article [in French] published in Le Devoir by dance critic Catherine Lalonde). Defending and producing creative work is a struggle, as conversations with dance makers during the festival attest – though Parcours Danse can also facilitate encounters that can find additional production support and touring leads – decisive for the life of the pieces,

Bearing all this in mind, here are some moments that piqued my curiosity.

First steps

Late at night in Circuit-Est, choreographer and dancer Manuel Roque presents an excerpt of his new piece, working title solo 2024. The pressing question guiding his research sounds apt for our times: how is it possible to be consistent in a chaotic environment? In the studio, Roque engages in a series of repetitions, going back and forth from the front to the back of the room. We can almost see furrows being dug in the black vinyl of the dance floor as he goes. He spins, winding around himself. His axis remains a landmark in an ever-changing, high-energy environment. Gravity, verticality, diagonals, horizon: when everything seems to be in turmoil all around, these physical and spatial reference points become the dance’s primary grammar (his previous piece, Sierranevada, also used a single motif – jumping again and again – as the core of his movement exploration). Roque’s choreography is precise and focused, digging into and reflecting upon a troubled atmosphere with a poetic practicality. His presence in the space is strong, and these twenty minutes form a promising step that made me curious to see what the next loop will look like.
[Note: The piece will be presented 4 June 2024 at l’Atelier de Paris during June Events Festival in France.]

The evening was completed by two other presentations. The reprise of a staple piece by Daniel Léveillé, called Amour, acide et noix created back in 2001 at l’Agora de la danse in Montreal, is a quartet for three men and a woman, all naked, entering in turns to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Here, only the woman’s solo is presented, interpreted by Lou Amsellem. All in rigid lines and slender limbs stretching out, she carries the rough choreography of impossible jumps and strong constraint. The nudity seems to reveal a desire to remove the superfluous and go towards rawness.

Changing the mood instantly, choreographer Frédérick Gravel, now artistic director of DLD (Daniel Léveillé Danse) presented the very first steps of a soon-to-be premiered piece, with three dancers. The energy is vivid, and as always in his work, rock music is part of the equation. While talking extensively, Gravel presents ideas and demonstrates some threads at the basis of the research, such as group energy, implosion and explosion in terms of movement. The work will continue and surely become more acute, but the materials shared here are already invigorating.
[Note: Frédérick Gravel will present his solo Fear and Greed at New Baltic Dance Festival (Vilnius) 3-4 May 2024, and will also present a work at Avignon festival 2024].

Confession and polyphony

Confession publique, by choreographer Mélanie Demers for multidisciplinary artist Angélique Willkie is a powerful solo that emerges from the darkness. A black woman is already on stage as we enter the theatre, dressed in a golden tunic and sitting behind a drum kit. She starts to hit the drums, enjoying producing a rhythm, gloating and muttering to herself in English as she goes, visibly taking pleasure in her actions. Her pleasure is interrupted by a wordless white woman, who removes each piece of the kit one after the other. Willkie is calmly robbed not only of her instruments but of her jewelry, clothes – all the accessories she had presented herself with at the beginning. The gesture is anything but harmless: we fathom that this body is about to unveil parts of her history, in part made of previous acts of violence. Alternately speaking and engaging physical actions in the space such as changing costumes or pouring water over her head, Willkie indeed reveals some bits of her biography. Through her speech we meet her parents’ way of being, we walk with her on the way back from school and are the witnesses of sexual abuse. She talks about maternity, being an artist, being a mother, being a black woman while being also all of the above. Her strong presence is riveting as she shares her experience with raw honesty. The white woman is still here, sitting on a throne nearby, and during the course of the piece turns into a dresser, a helper, a silent commentator, intervening with a seemingly neutral but unsettling presence. This act of choreographing is like a plunge into the depths of intimacy, and puts us in the position of facing shame, damage being done to a body that stands here in spite of everything. It is a portrait made as an act of unveiling, in a form that leaves a strong imprint.

Polyphonie, Eduardo Ruiz Vergara. Photo © Magda Arturo
Polyphonie, Eduardo Ruiz Vergara. Photo © Magda Arturo

A forest of cables snakes on the floor of the studio at UQAM (University of the arts in Montreal with a dance department), giving shape to a set that could be part wasteland, part electronic jungle. It’s a still place at first sight, but soon filled with murmuring rustling sounds. A few frail loudspeakers dangle from the ceiling, and soon start swirling through space, broadcasting mysterious voices, activated by Colombian choreographer Eduardo Ruiz Vergara who has entered the space, dressed in a black hoodie and matching pants. Sometimes the voices are woven together as the cords tangle, producing a low-tech fabric of languages and words, seemingly coming from different areas. Vergara’s enigmatic presence evolves between sounds and words in the space. He appears as an ever-changing creature, letting go of layers as he goes, removing clothes, making a mask/bandage over his face with the cables, breathing from his belly into a speaker placed on the ground. Curled-up or on all fours, he seems to invite us to witness this body’s rebirth and metamorphosis. Images of an asexual, Butoh body come to mind. Later on we find out that the initial inspiration for Polyphonie came from his encounter with the Nukak Maku tribe from the Amazon forest, one of the last nomadic peoples in the world. The neglect and lack of public policies towards the protection of Indigenous peoples is also what is being shared here, giving substance to the whispering voices. The work is clever in that it is neither illustrative nor abstract, Vergara inviting other presences to share the space with him for a dialogue with alterity.

Fancy Shawl and Smoke dance

For the first time at Parcours Danse, a programme is dedicated to dance makers and performers from indigenous communities. It is a good opportunity to meet and exchange with dancers who evolve in multiple contexts at once, being trained and graduating from contemporary dance school, working as performers for established choreographers in the country, and also active in teaching, transmission, and organising encounters within their own communities. Catherine Dagenais-Savard, Wendat and Quebecoise, graduated from the Ecole de danse contemporaine de Montréal in 2015 and used to be a performer in Marie Chouinard’s company. She has collaborated with choreographers Mélanie Demers, Danièle Desnoyers, and her encounter with Ivanie Aubin-Malo led her to learn the practice of Fancy Shawl and Smoke Dance, pow-wow dances that allowed her to be in touch with her Wendat roots and keep researching and creating as a dancer within the community.

Left to right: Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, Kanahsohon Kevin Deer, Catherine Dagenais-Savard. Photo © David Wong
Left to right: Barbara Kaneratonni Diabo, Kanahsohon Kevin Deer, Catherine Dagenais-Savard. Photo © David Wong

Ivanie-Aubin Malo is a Wolastoqiyik and Quebecoise performer, choreographer and curator, who graduated from the same school in 2014. She learned Fancy Shawl dance from Curtis Joe Miller. Her creations such as MILINAQOT and Metiyewestuwik are nourished by Wolastoqey culture as well as her experiences as a performer and collaborator. It would necessitate an article in itself to go deeper in how a new generation of dancers and choreographers are actively questioning and working at the crossroad between the different cultures that are part of the country. Just witnessing some bits of dance and hearing the interventions on that morning was deeply moving, in measuring how a work of repair is being taken in hand by this generation.

Architecture and Ferraris

A bubble of softness appears with The door opened west, a solo for Marc Boivin choreographed by Sarah Chase. Based on the dancer’s memories, childhood home and fondness for houses and architecture, the piece unfolds as an exploration of how one’s existence is made of a layering of stories, perceptions and physical sensations that remain anchored within one’s body.

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Marc Boivin in The Door Opened West, by Sarah Chase. Photo © Michael Slobodian
Marc Boivin in The Door Opened West, by Sarah Chase. Photo © Michael Slobodian

In this autobiographical solo, Boivin, simply dressed in black, narrates as he carves out the space with precise arm movements, measuring with the length of one arm, his hands, as if dancing a sort of personal qi gong that takes us into the arcana of his sensitivity. He explains that he loved to flip through architectural magazines as a child, imagining people living in the houses, and that he almost became an architect as an adult. In fact, he turned to stage design and then dance – and this whole path, all the decisions and choices that are part of the individual that is now standing before us, is caught up in this subtle portrait work. In the original piece (here, we only watch an excerpt, without the original lighting) a strong light design dialogues with the dancers’ movement, giving flesh to lines, perspective, plans. The calmness oozing from the piece is like a comfortable fog, making the solo not only a moving moment where we are invited to go through the career of a dancer that began in the early 1980s, but also a mirror that invites us to reflect on what matters in terms of balance, care and importance.

Julia-Maude Cloutier and Amélie Gagnon (Le CRue), Ferrari en feu. Photo © David Wong
Julia-Maude Cloutier and Amélie Gagnon (Le CRue), Ferrari en feu. Photo © David Wong

Setting a whole other tone, the dynamic duet formed by Julia-Maude Cloutier and Amélie Gagnon under the name Le CRue presents Ferrari en feu, a roaring title for a piece filled with humour revolving around a F1 circuit. Standing up on yellow and red chairs, wearing chequered socks, the two dancers engage in victory poses, slow-motion explosions of joy that stretch out on their faces and in time. The choreography is inspired by gestures that could be found on the edge of the racetrack and abounds in acrobatics. As one stands upside down, performing a headstand on her seat, her partner mimics replacing some of her parts, as if changing a wheel. They are a team, sticking together, united and synchronised in the moves. The excerpt makes us want to continue seeing the research and the whole form.

Coming to the end of this inevitably partial overview of the programme, it suddenly appears to me that it’s mostly solos or duets I’ve written about here, as if smaller forms were what could somehow allow a real encounter with the dance makers and their work in such a vast sea of propositions. Maybe focusing on some quieter and intimate moments was the most helpful way for me to start grasping the contours of a specific context, and appeared as a welcome path to landing here at Parcours Danse. Moving through this platform undoubtedly sharpened some points of attention within me. I think it’s no coincidence that oppressed bodies throughout history are the main focus of my attention when choosing what to write about. Continuing the conversation is now a logical continuation of this journey. 

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27th November – 1st December 2023, Montréal, Canada
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