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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Weight of Words

The Second États généraux de la danse professionnelle du Québec
by Marie Claire Forté

“The written word endures and is eventually accepted as authority,” proclaimed Regroupement québécois de la danse (RQD) director Lorraine Hébert at the launch of the second États généraux de la danse professionnelle du Québec, a summit conference on professional dance in the province. A striking statement for an art form whose transmission relies on the body.

Following up on their first such event held in 1994, the RQD, a provincial dance service and advocacy organization, began planning for this summit conference in November 2003. In 2006, they published a report on the results of the first summit conference and ensuing 1994–1997 triennial plan. At the annual general meeting in October 2007, the RQD launched the “Grands Chantiers de la danse”, a vast research and consultation process. In the wake of this meeting, a steering committee decided on five specific axes of study, delegated to five research committees: 1) Renewal of the discipline: continuity and change; 2) Paradoxes and challenges in a qualified work force; 3) Conditions of practice and artistic requirements; 4) Consolidation and regeneration of the dance [infra]structure; and 5) Dance territories: anchors and nomadism. For two years, members of these committees volunteered over 4000 hours in total, meeting among themselves, soliciting information from the RQD membership and the community at large and submitting over 200 recommendations back to the steering committee. Addressed to funding bodies, institutions and the dance milieu, these recommendations aim to ensure the sustainable and vital growth of the art form. The steering committee paired them down to seventy-nine, distributed along with a discussion of their groundwork in the 119-page participant catalogue for the summit conference.

On April 26th, during a seven-hour closing plenary session, over 200 dance professionals voted on these seventy-nine recommendations, plus 112 amendments and twelve new recommendations issued from two days of workshops April 24th and 25th. These have been submitted back to the RQD and the steering committee. The project will culminate in April 2010, when the steering committee will present a master plan for dance in Québec for the next ten years. These second États généraux were weighted with information and process.

Opening night, a type of launch/performance party, was the exception. Circuit-Est transformed their Jeanne-Renaud studio into a reception hall, with small round tables, bistro-style. With great emotion, Hébert and Anik Bisonnette, chair of the RQD, gave speeches alongside Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, Louise Roy, chair of the Conseil des arts de Montréal, Yvan Gauthier, chair and general manager of the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, and Christine St-Pierre, Québec’s minister of Culture, Communications and the Status of Women. Rencontres revisitées, a video installation and performance by Alain Francœur in honour of the dance profession, followed. After, the chairs of the five research committees delivered "Ours in Solidarity", a declaration of intent written by Hébert, inspired by recommendations issued from the Grands Chantiers. Catherine Lavoie-Marcus, research assistant at the RQD, then unveiled the Toile-mémoire de la danse au Québec, a “memory-web” of dance professionals in Québec since 1900, presented on a large, flat digital screen, with names linked via affiliations with notable artists, schools and companies. A bout of festive networking ensued.

The following two days were dedicated to workshops, where recommendations were discussed, amended and adopted. Out of a possible three, I was able to attend one. I registered for a workshop on Dance territories: anchors and nomadism; it was informative to have the time to discuss each recommendation and to get more background information from one research committee in particular. Even then, I sometimes felt ill equipped to take a stand because my knowledge of the issues was incomplete. Consensus was a clear goal of the workshop I participated in, though wording was often cause for great debate. Over the course of three hours, the focus shifted many times from the placement of a comma to voting on all of the many recommendations. In the afternoon, Lavoie-Marcus formally presented her Toile-mémoire with one of her project supervisors, Michèle Febvre (the other, Philip Szporer, was absent), insisting on the work-in-progress nature of the image.

On the last day, the plenary played out a now familiar tension between the details of wording and the bigger picture. Debate topics included the need for more infrastructure; provincial, national and international touring strategies; preservation practices; and generational bridging plans.

I was both excited and exasperated to have so many people caring about words. Because of the breadth of the issues, the sheer number of recommendations and the process of debating and voting, and despite rigorous work by the plenary chair, we occasionally bumbled through big questions, cutting the discussion short and voting despite lingering questions from different members. There was an ongoing confusion for me between distant dreams and concrete possibilities. This was brought up by a question about the possibility of securing funding for rather lofty goals and one member offered that “we cannot always be logical, we must be political”, suggesting that we should request the money for every project knowing that the outcome will be uncertain. Though the plenary was governed by a desire for consensus, some recommendations were reworked entirely during this session.

It was inspiring to interact with so many different players within the dance sector in Québec. I am proud to be part of a community with so many impassioned, well-spoken individuals. My dance activities do not afford me many opportunities to chat with a dance company’s accountant, nor to listen to a presenter’s needs for specific funding, nor to participate in a debate about teaching certification for dance in public schools. Meeting so many different people allowed me to broaden my horizons, and engaging in longer conversations with a few individuals gave me a sense of different perspectives within the community.

Registration for the summit conference was divided by electoral college as follows: dancers, rehearsal directors: 45; choreographers, companies and production designers: 67 (I didn’t notice any designers); professional schools, teachers and researchers: 23; and presenters, service organizations, festivals, cultural workers, associations/networks: 49. The majority of attendees were from Montréal (239 versus 20 from Québec City and other regions), primarily working in contemporary dance. This demographic is consistent with statistics published on the 1994 summit conference. Interestingly, one of the issues that arose from the workshops addressed the need to reflect on the diversity of artistic practices in the milieu.

The amended recommendations are now back with the RQD and will be articulated in a ten-year master plan. Notable outcomes of the first triennial plan submitted in 1994 included La Danse sur les routes du Québec, a provincial network for dance touring, and several new dance presenters. In a 1995 press release regarding the implementation of the first triennial plan for professional dance in Québec, the RQD said: “We are of course aware that the current economic and social situation is not the most auspicious one in which to consider the development of an artistic discipline. However, the dance community considers that the process, and the resultant synthesis which we submit today, reflect the hope that we will overcome the prevailing gloom and that there will be a resurgence in the development of the arts in general and of dance in particular once our society recovers from what must be called a crisis in values, a crisis which translates into instability of the social climate, economic stagnation, and a radical calling into question of the social contract.”

In lieu of the current economic and social crisis, potentially more transformative than the one cited in 1994, will this same statement apply in April 2010 when the RQD presents its master plan? I personally hope that the vision of our community leaders will translate the weight of words into action, and that these actions will “overcome the prevailing gloom”, lighting the future path for dance in Québec.

Declaration of Intent: "Ours in Solidarity"
Déclaration d'intentions: "Solidairement nôtre"

Marie Claire Forté is a dancer and choreographer and also works as a translator and writer. She has performed and presented her work primarily with Le Groupe Dance Lab in Ottawa, from 2004 through 2008. Currently, she dances for choreographers in Montréal and Toronto.

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Participatory Performance: looking on from inside

Bluemouth Inc.’s Dance Marathon
by Cara Spooner

Editor’s Note: From February 4th through 7th, 2009, Bluemouth Inc. presented their participatory dance experience Dance Marathon at the Enwave Theatre in Toronto. The concept of participatory or interactive art has been rising in dance performance of late. Toronto-based dancer Cara Spooner was an "insider" participant in the Bluemouth event and here recounts her experience.

Rule #1: Your feet must keep moving at all times

Look down at the number printed on the pinny. Pretend to be surprised. Silently repeat “#32 #32 #32”. The crowd looks to match the numbers in foot shapes taped on the floor with the number they’ve been given. I look to match the audience, pretending that I’m searching for my own. I know exactly which corner I’m headed for (right side of the bandstand, next the jumbo-tron screen directly under one of the pre-positioned pools of light) but each night I always turn left to do a full loop of the floor before “finding” my spot.

The Bluemouth Inc. members and other planted dancers are doing the same. Unassuming, we attempt to blend in. Audience members flinch when separated from their dates, friends and partners. Bluemouth member and the mistress of ceremony Sabrina Reeves’ voice booms above the noise. “You’ll have a chance to change partners later on in the snowball section of the marathon. You will get to dance with the people you came with.” Paired with the stranger standing on the numbered feet across from me, we introduce ourselves under flashing coloured lights and begin.

We are now officially entered in the Bluemouth Inc.’s Dance Marathon at the Enwave Theatre. It’s the first week February and the 1930s-inspired activity parallels the current economic state, in a rather uncanny manner. The piece was developed before any economic turmoil began. This piece is designed to be an interactive, participatory event in which audience members compete to out-dance each other in the midst of theatrical elements and preplanned choreography. The clock begins counting down. The “participant count” is displayed at close to 200. We are instructed that we cannot stop moving: our feet must keep moving or we will be eliminated. The referee (Bluemouth member Dan Pettrow) whizzes by on a pair of vintage roller skates, blowing his whistle for emphasis. The first invitation for elimination is made. The planted dancers begin "The Maddison" (a complicated sequence from the movie The Bande a Part) and some audience members attempt to follow along, stumbling through the choreography. The tempo increases gradually and competitors fall away, leaving unassuming Bluemouth member Stephen O’Connell as champion. With this, the flavour of the Dance Marathon is established and this complex, layered, participatory event begins.

Rule #2: You may be eliminated at some point throughout the evening

The investment audience members bring to the competition amazes me. Everyone seems to find equal ground with the strangers next them; such active empathy is rarely found in a conventional dance audience. We are playing the same game; we are competing against each other and the realization that only one pair will win sets in. A sense of urgency takes hold of the group and adrenaline increases. Participants push themselves beyond their comfort zones, which adds to the intensity of the show. Everyone jokes that they will be crowned winner at the end of the three-hour event. We are all a part of the show and each participant has become a protagonist. I know exactly when I will have to give up my #32 pinny and leave the dance floor (during a preplanned “pile-up” half way through a derby in the second half), so my forehead seems to perspire less than those of other competitors.

My focus isn’t winning; it’s the participants’ experience. To intentionally integrate them into the complexity of the show and allow them to fully experience the Dance Marathon’s potential is my sole purpose. I play a supporting role (along with the other planted dancers and Bluemouth members), assisting the protagonists on their journey in the marathon. We blindfold them, we teach them dance steps, we play with their emotions, break out in spontaneous choreography, whisper monologues into their ears and direct their focus to multimedia screens. We support the event; they live in it. The various dance-challenges we all participate in remind me of a “Survivor”/“So You Think You Can Dance” fusion. Everything is larger than life yet each moment is also extremely personal and intimate. The dedication of the human spirit drives participants into a frenzy during such events as the red-light/green-light derby. Cut-throat criticism is frankly expressed when eliminated competitors are required to judge other couples. Acute attention prevails while Bluemouth characters are humbly isolated in guerrilla-style monologues and genuine shock erupts as couples are eliminated.

Rule #3: You cannot rest until the allotted rest period

Worlds were woven within worlds as the roles between audience members and Bluemouth members became more defined. The rule “knees may not touch the floor” did not apply to the planted dancers as we performed choreography among the dancing couples. There were two allotted “rest periods” in the show during which most audience members moved to the lobby to eat popcorn and re-hydrate. The select few who chose to stay in the theatre experienced a different event than the others. As the participants rested, subtle choreography performed by the planted dancers eventually emerged. Rolling on the floor, and slumping and stretching movements made it difficult to tell if the choreography was planned or not. Some audience members would walk right through the group, completely unaware.

The fact that this tiny section was only seen by a select few each night was not a disappointment to Bluemouth Inc. Each participant experienced the show completely differently. This was intentional, and added a meaningful weight to every image and event. The complexity of this physical theatre structure allowed audience members to invest fully in the experience. Their own intimate interactions occupied their attention and perhaps the dance they shared with their partner was far more meaningful than seeing the rest period dance, or watching a duet danced by Bluemouth members O’Connell and Lucy Simic. On the other hand, the confrontation between Bluemouth members Dan Pettrow and O’Connell forced everyone to stop dead in their tracks. The second rest period included referee Dan yelling a crash warning announcement to blindfolded Stephen O’Connell who improvised to the pulsing music of the Dance Marathon’s live band. The mass of stimulation made it challenging to focus on the movement, listen to the text or hear the band, and this added to the urgency of the piece.

This layered approach to theatre made Bluemouth Inc.’s work a truly interactive and interdisciplinary event. The most striking example of this approach to theatre in the Dance Marathon was the climax after the final two couples had been announced. Most of the competitors were in the balcony after they had been eliminated and looked down upon Sabrina Reeves delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue. She sat on the stairs leading to the balcony, while projected images lit the huge disco-ball hanging from the Enwave’s ceiling. The band, led by Bluemouth members Ciara Adams and Richard Windeyer, synced the audience’s heartbeats with their ever-evolving music meditation. Planted dancers performed a choreographed floor sequence. Everything seemed to slow down. The fast-paced competition morphed into a surreal, dream-like installation and I no longer had to play the role of the unassuming character attempting to be innocent about what was happening in the Dance Marathon. I was genuinely invested like everyone else who had taken the journey, experiencing it from yet another perspective, one of the many that Bluemouth Inc. had intentionally presented for us all to explore.

Cara Spooner is a dance artist based in Toronto. She collaborates with Alicia Grant and others on site-specific, installation-based movement work.

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