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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Interview by/Entrevue de Megan Andrews
Translation by/Traduction de Marie Claire Forté
Photos of José Navas and company by/Photos de José Navas et compagnie de Valerie Simmons

Le français suit l'anglais.

Born in Venezuela in 1965, José Navas has been based in Québec since 1991. After having proven himself a talented and charismatic soloist on the international scene, he created a repertoire of striking group pieces. The creator of nearly thirty works as an independent choreographer or as the artistic director of Compagnie Flak (among them "Sterile Fields" (1996), "One Night Only 3/3" (1998), "Perfume de Gardenias" (2000), "Solo with Cello" (2001), "Adela, mi amor" (2004) and "Anatomies" (2006)), he now focusses his artistic research on the essence and purity of movement. Abstraction, sobriety, intensity and depth are the words that he chooses to characterize his current work.


You’ve said your formal training continues to have a strong influence on your work. Having studied with Merce Cunningham, would you say his choreographic approach also influenced you and if so, how? How have you reflected on his passing last summer?

Yes, I studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio for three years and had the opportunity to learn from Merce directly.

Yes, of course Merce’s choreographic approach has influenced me profoundly, and in relation both to vocabulary and to process. In terms of vocabulary, my movement continues to reflect my formal training, so there is still lots of balletic gesture and formal movement derived directly from Cunningham technique. In terms of process, Merce and John Cage relied heavily on chance, and used various devices, such as the “I Ching” (Book of Changes), to channel chance so as to dictate the choice and order of movement and music. I don’t rely on chance quite as fully as that, but I derive from Merce a sense that the initial choices in creation need not be meditated and that there is a beautiful, creative richness that comes from allowing a role for chance. So at the outset of structuring a piece, in the early stages, I will toss up scraps of paper, each representing a phrase, and use the random order of the phrases as a starting point. Later on, I’ll make adjustments, so – unlike much of Merce’s work – I won’t stay faithful to the random order. But I use it to begin, rather than a sense that I can somehow think through a formal structure at the start. And there is also chance in the sense that when I create what I call an anchor phrase, and invite the dancers to create complementary material around it, I am not controlling the material they make, and we are allowing the chance of their reaction to my phrase to have play. Again, I intervene in the process of chance by accepting some such created phrases and rejecting others, but I do sense the influence of Merce here.

I’ve reflected a great deal on Merce’s passing, alone and with friends and members of my community. It was a shock to lose such a pillar of dance, and the same year as Pina Bausch. The shock was in realizing that people we had sort of assumed would always be making dance could, indeed, disappear. But admiration too of course for such a full life and so much creativity, right to the end.

Once you’ve created the core movement material, you talk about a process of refining, organizing, inverting and opening up. Specifically, how do you work in this phase; do you proceed intuitively or do you use specific methods or formal procedures and can you give an example of what you might do with a given movement phrase or set of phrases?

I wouldn’t say it’s an intuitive process, and when I think about your question I realize that it’s quite formal. Much of this process takes place on paper, at home, rather than in the studio with the dancers. Part of that comes from the need to be frugal with studio time: every hour of rehearsal time with the dancers is counted and precious, so I literally can’t afford to be too intuitive by spending a long time with the dancers in the studio without knowing what I want to do. So at home I look at all the phrases I have and I decide how long a segment I need here, or there, and look at source material that I could use. And looking at the phrases on paper – I have names or numbers for each – I know that I’ll need a contrast from a phrase of one feeling to another. In terms of refining or inverting, as I’ve said, I create an anchor phrase, call it phrase 1, and then the dancers will create complementary phrases around it: 1a, 1b, 1c, etc. At some point, phrase 1 itself will be eliminated, and we’ll be left with 1a, 1b and 1c, each of which is the same length as phrase 1 and each of which will have similar movements, at moments, because each fits with the initial phrase. And I work with those. But it’s pretty much all worked out in my notebook at home, so when I show up to the studio, it’s to execute with the dancers.

You use the phrase “pure abstraction” to describe your work. Some would argue that the human body can never be purely abstract. It is always a human body, a human being, and can’t help but carry both personal and cultural meanings implicitly. How do you understand “pure abstraction” with respect to this perspective and in regard to your own work?

I find it frustrating when people think that by abstraction, artists including myself suppose that the elements we use are entirely devoid of meaning, resonance, or emotion, as if to be abstract something has to be cold or meaningless or dead. I don’t claim that the human body itself is purely abstract. I’m referring to my movement, and what I mean by that is just that the movement isn’t telling a story or representing anything but itself. But I’m always fully conscious that putting movement, which per se doesn’t narrate or represent anything, onto human bodies changes it. Doing so allows that movement to touch people, although the reactions or emotions experienced vary a great deal from person to person. I think the beauty of creating purely abstract dance movement is that the body itself carries so much meaning, and we connect to that meaning through movement that is itself abstract. Unquestionably my work would be entirely different if robots were performing it, and that’s not what I do. So I don’t see the body’s implicit personal and cultural meanings as a problem for my project of abstraction, but rather as a crucial element.

If solo work, as you say, keeps your dancer’s self alive, what is the nature of your relationship to the group work you make and to the dancers with whom you work?

My solo work is personal; it’s my body as an instrument, and me as a performer. My relationship to the group work and to the dancers is that of an architect towards his building or an engineer towards her designs. I see the dancers as an extension of my mind and my body; they become my body, executing my ideas. They give flesh and bone to the movement impulses that enter my head or that I do in the studio for them. And they do it with youth and beautiful technique, so nowadays they can fulfill my ideas in a way that I no longer can. As a soloist, I adapt my work to my own limitations. The dancers for the group work can carry out my ideas with fewer limitations.

I recently attended a visual art show in which the artist noted that other people had titled her works. I’m curious about how titles for dances arise, particularly for formalist work such as yours, without narrative or thematic content per se. How, generally, do you come up with titles for your works? How, specifically, did you arrive at the titles for your current works,“S” and “Villanelle”?

Earlier titles for my pieces used to be things I thought might provoke reflection on the part of the audience, make them wonder where the title came from, how it related to the piece – "One Night Only"; "Perfume de Gardenias"; "Adela, mi amor". And sometimes they were things that I could connect to a personal experience or to a text I knew. With the more recent titles, I have begun with a working title and then it has stuck. I am leaning now towards titles that are much less evocative and that really just evoke the work, itself abstract. It’s easier to convince people that the work really is abstract, really isn’t about anything, when there isn’t a figurative title attached to it! So "Portable Dances" referred to a three-part piece, in which the order of the pieces could be changed, and one or two performed without the other. They were also literally more portable than earlier works because of the absence of set or other staging. "Anatomies" came about because I was really exploring anatomy books and investigating the body deeply at that time, and the plural in the title also captures, I think, the five parts of the piece. "S" was a working title I came up with because I was working a lot with silence as well as with music by Erik Satie. And "Villanelle" has a slightly fuller story: I was inspired in part by a poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, which is written in the form of the villanelle, a tightly structured form with repeated lines.

Having performed solo works to critical acclaim early in your career, how does it feel to return to the form as a more mature artist? What kinds of impulses or reflections does your accumulated experience generate inside the solo creation process?

It’s a funny question: I think I have developed as a choreographer, and so I come back to choreographing solos with a sharpened craft, in the same way that my group choreography is maturing too. But in terms of performing, and here’s why I said the question is funny, I don’t actually feel that I am now a more mature artist, and what I mean is that I actually have the feeling of carrying on right where I left off as a solo performer. I think that those solo performances early in my career showed a mature artistry, and I think it would be unfaithful to those early performances to frame my path as a soloist as a progression from immaturity to maturity. I think you’re born with the capacity to be a solo performer – or not.

If you plan to continue making and performing work as you get older, how do you expect it might change? Do you see a time when you will choose not to perform any longer?

In terms of keeping on making and performing work, I suspect the change in the kinds of material I make for myself and for the group dancers will intensify. Ten years ago, I think the vocabulary and material I made for a group piece and a solo for myself was similar. Already at this point, with "S" and "Miniatures", my solo show from last year, you can sense the difference: the company dancers in "S" can do things that I no longer can, and the new solo, "Villanelle", requires a focus and intensity as a performer that they just might not yet have, although its technical demands may be less.

I honestly don’t know. I’d love to dance as a soloist until I’m a hundred. But I’m open that some day I’ll just decide to stop dance entirely. Who knows? I always want to be an artist who creates things, but I don’t know for sure that I want always to be doing solos and creating group work. I’m enjoying doing this and have the feeling I’ll enjoy doing it until the end of my days, but who knows. I’m open to the possibility that life may change.~

Né au Venezuela en 1965, José Navas est établi au Québec depuis 1991. Après avoir été reconnu sur la scène internationale comme un soliste talentueux et charismatique, il crée un répertoire remarquable de pièces de groupe. Auteur d’une trentaine de créations comme chorégraphe indépendant ou comme directeur artistique de Compagnie Flak, y compris « Sterile Fields » (1996), « One Night Only 3/3 » (1998), « Perfume de Gardenias » (2000), « Solo with Cello » (2001), « Adela, mi amor » (2004) et « Anatomies » (2006), il consacre sa recherche artistique à l’essence et à la pureté de mouvement. Abstraction, sobriété, intensité et profondeur sont les mots qu’il emploie pour parler de ses présentes créations.

Vous avez dit que votre travail est encore très influencé par votre formation technique. Vous avez étudié avec Merce Cunningham ; diriez-vous que son approche chorégraphique vous a aussi influencé et si oui, comment ? Quelles sont vos réactions et réflexions à la suite de son décès l’été dernier ?

Oui, j’ai étudié au Merce Cunningham Studio pendant trois ans et j’ai eu l’occasion d’apprendre directement de Merce.

Oui, bien sûr que l’approche chorégraphique de Merce m’a profondément influencé, autant le vocabulaire que le processus. Pour le vocabulaire, mon mouvement continu à refléter ma formation, alors j’emploie encore plusieurs gestes balletiques et formels directement dérivés de la technique Cunnigham. Pour le processus, Merce et John Cage faisaient énormément appel au hasard ; ils recourraient à différents outils comme le « Yi King » (Classique des changements) pour canaliser le hasard afin de dicter le choix et l’ordre des mouvements et de la musique. Le hasard ne prend pas une telle importance dans mon processus, mais de Merce, j’en tire qu’il n’est pas nécessaire de calculer les choix initiaux en création et que de laisser la place au hasard donne lieu à une belle richesse créative. Ainsi, dans les débuts, lorsque je commence à structurer une pièce, je vais lancer des bouts de papier en l’air. Chacun représente un enchaînement et j’emploie l’ordre aléatoire des enchaînements comme point de départ. Plus tard, je le retravaille, à la différence d’une grande partie du travail de Merce, je ne reste pas fidèle à cet ordre aléatoire. Je commence par cela plutôt que de m’en remettre à l’idée que je pourrais pressentir une structure formelle au départ. Le hasard est en quelque sorte présent lorsque je crée ce que je nomme un enchaînement source, et que j’invite les danseurs à créer du matériel complémentaire. Je ne dicte pas le matériel qu’ils créent et nous valorisons ainsi le hasard de leur réaction à mon enchaînement. Encore, j’interviens dans le processus du hasard en acceptant certains enchaînements et en délaissant d’autres, mais là, je sens l’influence de Merce.

J’ai beaucoup réfléchi au décès de Merce, seul et avec des amis et des collègues de ma communauté. C’était un choc de perdre une pierre angulaire de la danse, la même année que Pina Bausch. Réaliser que nous tenions pour acquis, en quelque sorte, que certaines personnes aillent toujours créer de la danse, mais qu’en effet, elles peuvent s’éteindre : voilà le choc. Mais il y a aussi une admiration à une vie tellement remplie et à tant de créativité, jusqu’à la toute fin.

Une fois que vous avez créé le mouvement de base, vous parlez d’un processus de peaufinage, d’organisation, d’inversion et de déploiement. Comment, précisément, travaillez-vous ? Procédez-vous intuitivement ou employez-vous des méthodes ou des procédures formelles particulières ? Pouvez-vous donner un exemple de votre travail sur un enchaînement ou une série d’enchaînements ?

Je ne dirais pas que c’est un processus intuitif et en pensant à votre question, je me rends compte que c’est surtout formel. Une grande partie du processus se déroule sur papier, à la maison, plutôt qu’en studio avec les danseurs. C’est en partie pour être économe avec le temps de studio ; chaque heure de répétition avec les interprètes est comptée, précieuse. Je ne peux pas, littéralement, être intuitif très longtemps avec les danseurs en studio sans savoir ce que je veux. À la maison, je regarde tous les enchaînements et je décide la longueur du segment ici, où là, et je regarde le matériel dont je peux me servir. Regarder les enchaînements sur papier – je leur donne un nom ou un numéro – me permet de voir que j’ai besoin d’un contraste entre un enchaînement d’une tonalité et un autre. Pour peaufiner ou inverser, comme je l’ai dit, je crée un enchaînement source, soit l’enchaînement 1, et les danseurs créent les enchaînements complémentaires : 1a, 1b, 1c, etc. À un moment donné, nous éliminons l’enchaînement 1 et il nous reste 1a, 1b et 1c, chacun de la même durée que l’enchaînement 1 et chacun avec des mouvements semblables, par moment, puisque chacun découle de la même source. Et je travaille avec ceux-là. Mais c’est surtout réglé dans mon cahier de travail à la maison, alors quand je me présente en studio, c’est pour l’exécuter avec les danseurs.

Vous employez l’expression « abstraction pure » pour décrire votre travail. Certains diraient que le corps humain ne peut être purement abstrait. C’est toujours un corps humain, un être humain, et il ne peut s’empêcher d’être porteur implicite de sens personnel et culturel. Comment entendez-vous « l’abstraction pure » en relation à cette perspective et par rapport à votre propre travail ?

Je trouve cela frustrant quand les personnes croient que par l’abstraction, les artistes, moi compris, présument que les éléments que nous employons sont entièrement vides de sens, de résonance ou d’émotion, comme si l’abstraction doit être froide et vide de sens ou mort. Je ne dis pas que le corps humain est purement abstrait. Je parle de mon mouvement, et je veux simplement dire que le mouvement ne raconte pas une histoire et ne représente rien d’autre que lui-même. Mais je suis entièrement conscient qu’un mouvement qui, proprement, ne raconte pas une histoire ou n’est pas une représentation change lorsqu’il est sur un corps humain. Cela permet au mouvement de toucher les gens, bien que les réactions ou émotions qu’il suscite varient beaucoup selon le spectateur. Selon moi, la beauté de la danse purement abstraite est que le corps est tellement porteur de sens que nous accédons au sens par l’entremise du mouvement lui-même abstrait. Il va sans dire que mon travail serait entièrement autre s’il était présenté par des robots, et ce n’est pas le cas. Je ne perçois pas les sens personnel et culturel implicites du corps comme obstacles dans mon projet d’abstraction, mais plutôt comme élément crucial.

Si le travail solo, comme vous le dites, donne vie au danseur qui vous habite, quelle est la nature de votre relation aux créations de groupe et à vos interprètes ?

Mon travail solo est personnel ; mon corps est l’instrument, je suis l’interprète. Ma relation aux créations de groupe et aux danseurs est celle d’un architecte envers son édifice ou une ingénieure envers ses conceptions. Je vois mes interprètes comme une prolongation de mon esprit et de mon corps ; ils deviennent mon corps, exécutant mes idées. Ils donnent de la chair et des os aux impulsions de mouvement qui traversent mon esprit ou que je leur présente en studio. Et ils le font avec la jeunesse et la beauté de leur technique, alors de ces jours-ci, ils peuvent donner corps à mes idées d’une façon que je ne peux plus le faire. En tant que soliste, j’adapte mon travail à mes limites. Les danseurs des pièces de groupe peuvent réaliser mes idées avec moins de limites.

J’ai récemment été à une exposition d’arts visuels où l’artiste avait noté que les titres de ses œuvres avaient été attribués par d’autres. Je suis curieuse de l’émergence des titres pour la danse, particulièrement pour le travail formaliste comme le tien, sans récit ou contenu thématique explicite. Comment, en général, trouvez-vous des titres pour vos pièces ? En particulier, comment avez-vous choisi les titres pour vos dernières créations, « S » et « Villanelle » ?

Avant, je choisissais des titres pour provoquer une réflexion chez le spectateur, pour qu’il songe à l’origine du titre, au rapport entre le titre et l’œuvre : « One Night Only », « Perfume de Gardenias », « Adela, mi amor ». Il s’agissait parfois de choses liées à une expérience personnelle ou un texte. Avec les derniers titres, je commence par un titre provisoire et il reste. Je penche beaucoup plus vers des titres moins évocateurs, qui renvoient uniquement au travail, lui-même abstrait. C’est plus facile de convaincre les gens que le travail est proprement abstrait, qu’il ne porte sur rien, quand il ne porte pas de titre figuratif ! Alors, « Portable Dances » désigne une pièce en trois volets, dans laquelle l’ordre des volets peut changer ou un ou deux des volets peuvent être présentés sans l’autre. Ils étaient littéralement plus portables que mes créations antérieures par l’absence de décors et de scénographie. Le titre « Anatomies » s’est révélé parce que j’étais en profonde exploration des livres d’anatomie et du corps à l’époque, et le pluriel du titre désigne aussi, je crois, les cinq sections de la pièce. J’ai pensé à « S » comme titre provisoire puisque je travaillais beaucoup en silence et avec la musique d’Érik Satie. L’histoire de « Villanelle » est plus profonde ; je me suis inspiré, en partie, d’un poème de Dylan Thomas « Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night », qui est écrit dans la forme villanelle, une forme très structurée avec des vers répétés.

Après avoir présenté des œuvres solos acclamées en début de carrière, comment vous sentez-vous de revenir à la forme comme artiste plus mature ? Quels genres d’impulsions et de réflexions votre expérience cumulée génère-t-elle dans le processus de création solo ?

C’est une drôle de question. Je crois avoir grandi comme chorégraphe, alors je reviens au solo avec une meilleure maîtrise chorégraphique, qui s’applique tout autant à mes créations de groupe. Mais pour l’interprétation, c’est pour cela que la question me semble drôle ; je ne sens pas, dans les faits, que je suis un artiste plus mature. Je veux dire que j’ai l’impression de continuer d’où j’étais rendu comme interprète solo. Je pense que mes spectacles solos en début de carrière faisaient preuve de maturité artistique, et je pense que ce serait infidèle à ces premiers spectacles de désigner mon parcours de soliste comme une progression de l’immaturité à la maturité. Je pense qu’on est né avec la capacité d’être interprète soliste – ou non.

Si vous planifiez de continuer à créer et à interpréter en vieillissant, comment pensez-vous que cela va changer ? Entrevoyez-vous un moment où vous délaisseriez l’interprétation ?

Pour continuer à créer et à interpréter, j’ai l’impression que les différences dans la nature du matériel que je crée pour moi et pour les groupes vont s’intensifier. Il y a dix ans, le vocabulaire et le matériel que je créais pour une pièce de groupe et pour un solo étaient semblables. Déjà, maintenant, avec « S » et « Miniatures », mon solo de l’an passé, on peut voir la différence. Les danseurs de la compagnie dans « S » peuvent faire des choses que je ne peux plus faire, et le nouveau solo, « Villanelle », exige une concentration et une intensité d’interprétation qu’ils n’ont peut être pas encore, même si les exigences techniques sont moindres.

Honnêtement, je ne le sais pas. J’aimerais danser comme soliste jusqu’à l’âge de cent ans. Mais peut-être un jour, je vais simplement décider d’arrêter la danse complètement. Qui sait ? Je veux toujours être un artiste en création, mais je ne suis pas certain que je voudrais toujours créer des solos et des pièces de groupe. J’y prends plaisir actuellement et j’ai le sentiment que j’y prendrais plaisir jusqu’à la fin de mes jours, mais qui sait ? Je demeure ouvert à la possibilité que la vie puisse changer.~

*A bilingual photo essay on Navas’ creative process for "S" and "Villanelle" appears in the November 2009 issue of The Dance Current.

José Navas/Compagnie Flak presents "S" and "Villanelle" from November 25th through 28th at Centre Pierre-Péladeau, Montréal. | José Navas/Compagnie Flak presente
« S » et « Villanelle » du 25 au 28 novembre au Centre Pierre-Péladeau, Montreal.

Learn more | Pour en savoir plus >>

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

ASTUCES POUR PROFESSEURS : Préparation d’un spectacle des fêtes

De Katharine Harris à l’École nationale de ballet du Canada
Traduction de Marie Claire Forté

Alors que le mercure tombe, de nombreux studios de danse planifient leur spectacle annuel des fêtes. Pour l’élève, c’est l’occasion de se présenter devant sa famille et ses amis, ainsi que la culmination de son travail depuis le début de l’automne. Bien que le plaisir d’un spectacle découle en partie de sa nature imprévisible, il est judicieux de bien se préparer afin que les événements se déroulent dans le calme, autant que possible. Voici quelques conseils.


1. Soyez aussi inclusif que possible. Lorsque vous pensez à des thèmes, discutez-en avec l’équipe du studio, demandez-leur des suggestions et partagez les idées. Cela permet à tout le monde de se sentir concerné, et aide à créer une ambiance effervescente. Souvenez-vous qu’un spectacle des fêtes demande beaucoup de travail ; assurez-vous que l’équipe, les élèves et les parents se sentent engagés.

2. Une fois que vous et vos collègues décidez du thème, faites appel aux comités de parents. Ils peuvent vous aider pour la coordination de détails, comme les costumes, la logistique, la promotion du spectacle ou la supervision en coulisse.

3. Préparez un plan de match écrit pour le spectacle. Commencez par les grandes lignes et allez ensuite dans le détail, du thème du spectacle aux particularités des costumes et à la logistique en coulisse. Si vous l’écrivez, il sera clair et ainsi plus facile à communiquer aux autres.

4. Le lieu de présentation est spécial ; prenez-en soin. Si le spectacle est à l’extérieur de votre studio de répétition habituel, parlez-en à vos élèves. Expliquez-leur le respect qu’exige une salle de spectacle. Si le spectacle est dans votre studio, collaborez avec vos élèves pour le transformer. Vous pouvez le faire avec des accessoires comme des rideaux ou des gradins, mais cela peut être aussi une simple question d’approche. Si tout le monde aborde le lieu différemment, il sera transformé.

5. Le jour du spectacle, l’excitation sera à son comble. Cela fait partie du plaisir des fêtes, mais c’est bien d’avoir des personnes dans les alentours qui peuvent participer au plaisir sans le laisser déraper. Assurez-vous d’avoir des personnes en arrière-scène pour gérer l’énergie des élèves.

6. Pour les écoles qui présentent plusieurs spectacles, rappelez-vous que chaque spectacle est unique. Chaque présentation doit être traitée avec la même considération que la première. Chacun devrait prendre le temps de se concentrer et de se rappeler que même s’il connaît le travail, le public le voit pour la première fois.

7. Un dernier conseil facile à suivre : demandez à tout le monde de prendre soin de leurs possessions : costumes, souliers, maquillage et autres accessoires. Après chaque spectacle, rangez les objets comme il le faut afin que tout soit prêt pour le prochain spectacle.

For the English version of this article, see The Dance Current October 2009 print issue. | Pour la version anglais de cette rubrique, voyez The Dance Current October 2009 édition imprimé.

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HEALTHY DANCER: Daal with Autumn Vegetables

Protein: meeting the body's needs
By Nathan Payne

Animal protein delivers all of the essential amino acids our body needs, whereas proteins from vegetable sources are generally missing one or two of the essential amino acids. (An exception is the grain quinoa, which happens to contain all eight essential amino acids.) For those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, eating a variety of foods and combining food items such as legumes with grains or nuts and seeds will ensure that you are meeting your body’s protein needs.

Try this recipe for Daal with Autumn Vegetables: a vegetarian dish with a strong protein component and a punch of flavour.


Daal with Autumn Vegetables

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
2 cardamom pods
2-3 tablespoons of chat masala
2 bay leaves
2 cups butternut squash (1/4 inch cubes)
3 cups Brussels sprouts (washed and quartered)
1 can whole tomatoes
4 cups vegetable stock (plus 2 cups water)
1 cup lentils
1 cup brown rice

In a large saucepan, sauté onion, season with salt, and add all the spices (chat masala can be incorporated or sprinkled on top of the final dish). Add the chopped squash and Brussels sprouts, and cook on medium for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Pour in the can of whole tomatoes along with 4 cups of vegetable stock and 2 cups of water. Add the rice and lentils, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove lid and simmer for an additional 20 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.

Remove bay leaves before serving and garnish with a bit of plain yogurt if so desired.

Note: This dish will thicken over time. Simply add more water to return it to a soup-like consistency.

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The Demise of Le Groupe Dance Lab: The End of An Era, Part 1

By Michael Crabb

For those not watchful of events at Ottawa’s Le Groupe Dance Lab, the July 31st announcement that it would be closing its doors forever came as a stunning shock.

For more than twenty years – ever since Artistic Director Peter Boneham reinvented his performing company, Le Groupe de la Place Royale, to become a centre for contemporary dance research, experimentation and development – the Lab had been a vital incubator of dance creativity in Canada and beyond. In the late 1980s, as he surveyed the Canadian dance scene, Boneham detected a crucial need for choreographers to explore and hone their craft in a supportive environment, free of the distracting pressure to produce a finished work.


Le Groupe – with rented headquarters at Arts Court in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill district – offered visiting choreographers a resident corps of dancers, technical, design and production support and, most importantly, the outside eye of an experienced mentor, or “monitor”. There were also public showings during which choreographers could engage audiences in constructive conversation – feedback sessions intended to help decipher the sometimes problematic gap between artistic intent and how it is perceived.

In 1988 Boneham’s idea was not entirely novel. Dance workshops and choreographic intensives had been around for years, mostly operating in compressed timeframes, simultaneously involving several choreographers and often without the benefit of monitorial oversight. What was unique and visionary about Boneham’s project was the creation of a permanent, integrated institution where choreographers could be individually nurtured over the course of several weeks in what came to be known as a “process”.

Boneham’s initial assessment of the situation proved accurate and his solution successful. “Peter was definitely ahead of his time,” says Yvonne Coutts, an Ottawa-based dancer, teacher and choreographer whose association with Le Groupe began when it was still a performing company.

Le Groupe Dance Lab became a seemingly indispensable resource, not only for emerging choreographers but for those more seasoned, such as former artistic director of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers Tedd Robinson, seeking creative revitalization.

“I had a great job,” says Robinson, “but nobody was telling me the things I needed to hear. Peter, on the other hand, does not hold back. He told me I had an innate theatrical sense but that my vocabulary sucked. He made a lot of sense.”

It was not only choreographers who benefited. Although their schedule was onerous, Le Groupe’s dancers had two invaluable benefits. They took daily class with a tough but inspirational teacher – Boneham himself – and worked creatively with a wide range of choreographers. For dancers who were often in the developmental phase of their careers it was an extraordinary experience – a crash course in endurance and versatility – and if they felt a strong urge to choreograph there was also the possibility of undertaking a “process”.

As a senior officer at one of our major public granting agencies recently remarked: “It’s rare in contemporary dance to open an applicant’s file nowadays and not find a connection to Le Groupe somewhere along the way.”

Even last fall, when Le Groupe was in the midst of a serious financial crisis and trying to adjust to new leadership, the work in the studio continued at its usual intensity with visiting choreographers from Canada, France and The Netherlands.

So why did it all unravel?

That July 31st announcement included a prepared statement from Le Groupe’s long-serving – and, one suspects, long-suffering – board chair, University of Ottawa law professor John Manwaring. “Many factors, financial and otherwise, have led to this extremely difficult decision,” Manwaring stated. “It is always difficult to move from a founder-led organization to one with new artistic leadership and while Le Groupe Dance Lab tried determinedly to do this, in the end the transition proved too difficult.”

The choice of words “too difficult” is telling. One might have expected something more emphatic, such as “impossible”. “Too difficult” suggests that perhaps, in other circumstances, there might have been a solution. And, since this was a decision made by Le Groupe’s legal trustees, its board of directors, it also hints at the understandable exhaustion – even exasperation – of those four public-spirited volunteers who had, for so many years, done their best to keep the company afloat.

Few would argue Professor Manwaring’s contention that moving beyond a founder-led organization is difficult. Canadian dance history is littered with examples, from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in the early 1950s to Toronto Dance Theatre thirty years later.

Choreographer-driven companies present particularly intractable problems since they are essentially founded to serve as platforms for a specific creative vision. When that creative vision appears to dim or loses the confidence of audiences – or the peer-assessment juries that decide who gets public funding – there is no clear way forward. It is no secret, for example, that the Anna Wyman Dance Theatre, Desrosiers Dance Theatre and Danny Grossman Dance Company – albeit in the latter case specifically in its form as a performing organization – suffered the painful death of slow, progressive cuts.

Although it was not strictly a single choreographer-founded company, a similar fate might have overtaken Le Groupe de la Place Royale had it not successfully convinced the funding agencies to support its refashioned mandate – one not only designed to serve the needs of the dance community but tailor-made for a then fifty-four-year-old director/choreographer seeking to redefine his role as a contributing artist.

Peter Boneham was part of Le Groupe de la Place Royale from the start. Its roots lie in the heady cultural milieu of early 1960s Montréal. Québécoise artists Jeanne Renaud and Françoise Riopelle, with a shared aesthetic forged by their youthful involvement with the modernist automatistes, launched Le Groupe de Danse Moderne de Montréal. Vincent Warren, then a principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was intrigued by the fledgling troupe’s intellectually rigorous avant-garde experimentation and introduced fellow Grands Ballets member Peter Boneham to Renaud and Riopelle.

Boneham and Warren, both ballet-trained Americans, had become friends in New York City before either joined Les Grands Ballets. Boneham agreed to dance with Renaud in a piece called “Rideau” at Montréal’s Expressions 65. The two quickly became artistic compadres in launching Le Groupe de la Place Royale. Dance was intentionally excluded from the title because of its founders’ cross-disciplinary, collaborative intentions. Although Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers proudly claims its status as Canada’s oldest modern dance company, in 1966 Le Groupe was the first to receive a Canada Council grant.

Renaud was gone within five years but Le Groupe continued under the direction of Boneham and company charter member Jean-Pierre Perreault. Perreault, thirteen years younger than Boneham, began as a dancer, learning as he went along, and by 1972 had begun to choreograph. Le Groupe became known for its boldly innovative approach to dance making, particularly the use of mixed media and new technology.

By the mid-1970s, however, Boneham and Perreault had grown restive. Le Groupe was struggling financially and it seemed that the Québec government was favouring the rival Groupe Nouvelle Aire. Boneham – an English speaker with less than functional French – thought it was time to get out. Initially he proposed moving the company to Toronto because it seemed to be “a happening place”. Perreault demurred. Finally, having sounded out the Canada Council, they agreed on Ottawa. Le Groupe moved its company and school there in 1977.

Perreault, meanwhile, was becoming a choreographer of note. It gradually became clear that his ambitions could not be accommodated in Ottawa or within the company. “Le Groupe didn’t suit his artistic needs,” says Boneham. Perreault formally resigned as co-artistic director in 1981. Dancer and choreographer Michael Montanaro, now chair of the contemporary dance department at Montréal’s Concordia University, served as Boneham’s associate director until 1985.

Le Groupe’s switch from being a touring performance troupe to a stay-put centre for creative development was not an overnight event but was formalized in 1988 with a new name and a new mandate. Whether one regards this as a completely fresh start or an evolution of Le Groupe de la Place Royale, Peter Boneham’s claims as a founding father are unassailable.

The issue then becomes how long the founder can continue to function and what happens when he can not. Although the fire in his belly was never dampened, Boneham’s health was sometimes a concern. And since Le Groupe was not dependent on Boneham to supply it with choreography, it could, as an institution with a clear mandate, reasonably look forward to surviving him – even if the mandate might require some fine tuning for the organization to remain useful and relevant.

Conversations about Le Groupe’s future, both within and without, had begun even in the 1990s. Robinson recalls Boneham asking him if he was interested in taking over at some point. Robinson, who had been Le Groupe’s resident guest artist after leaving Winnipeg in 1990, valued the organization highly and got on well with Boneham but was only interested in the mentoring part of the job. “I can teach if I have to,” says Robinson, “but I don’t enjoy it. It’s not my forte at all.” He identifies an important issue. Boneham was teacher, monitor and artistic director. Under the best conditions it would not be easy to find one person to fill all those roles.

The issue of transition came into clearer focus when the funding bodies Le Groupe depended on for almost ninety per cent of its income (in later years the annual budget was around $400,000) suggested it was time to act decisively.

The premature death of Jean-Pierre Perreault in December 2002 seems to have been a catalyst. Though long separated as colleagues, Boneham and Perreault still had a strong emotional bond. Those close to Boneham witnessed the profound impact of Perreault’s death. “It was devastating for Peter,” recalls Coutts.

Coutts, with as clear a knowledge as any of Le Groupe’s workings because of her former involvement as a dancer and choreographer, offered to help. Coutts could teach, she could monitor; she could even write grant applications. She saw Boneham’s acceptance of her offer as a sign that he acknowledged a need for a planned transition of leadership, but while it occupied his thoughts its exact form was not always clearly expressed.

Hiring extra help, of course, takes money and Le Groupe never had much of it. Cash-flow crunches were a cyclical occurrence that the organization somehow always managed to survive. Adding to the regular payroll would take special funding; and it was forthcoming, thanks to the Metcalf and Ontario Trillium Foundations, but it was specifically tied to implementing a transition of leadership.

Boneham, whose twin passions remain teaching and mentoring, certainly embraced the notion of a diminished role for himself but almost certainly never imagined withdrawing completely. The answer, as he saw it, was team leadership. Tony Chong now enters the story.

Originally from Vancouver, Chong moved as a young dancer to Montréal in 1984. There he became immersed in its vibrant dance scene. Chong performed with, among others, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Carbon 14, José Navas’s Compagnie Flak and Perreault’s company. He danced in Germany’s Steptext Dance Project and with Belgium’s Ballets C. de la B.

Chong first connected with Le Groupe in 2003 as a visiting choreographer. Boneham was impressed. By late 2004 he’d convinced Chong to join Le Groupe as associate director, working alongside Coutts. “I’m not sure why I was specifically asked,” Chong reflects. “We had a shared idealism but maybe it was because I didn’t have an historical connection and came with a different aesthetic.”

Coutts was completely unprepared for Chong’s arrival in January, 2005. “It caught me quite off guard,” she explains; and probably left her feeling slighted. “I had committed a lot to Le Groupe. I’d developed the skill set to be artistic director.”

From Boneham’s viewpoint, the combination of Coutts and Chong was ideal. “Each had strengths and weaknesses and they kind of balanced out. I never saw Tony as artistic director on his own. He still wanted to be a choreographer.”

The team leadership concept, even if it could have been financed over the long term, was ill-fated. It was a sometimes tense ménage à trois that ended abruptly and unpleasantly in the winter of 2006. Coutts decided to bring in choreographer Ame Henderson, along with her own dramaturge/monitor.

Coutts says she felt Le Groupe needed to find new ways to meet the needs of the dance community, part of which involved bringing in “a different kind of outside eye”. Although for many choreographers a major attraction of Le Groupe was the opportunity to work with Boneham, other visiting choreographers had requested their own chosen monitor. According to Chong, Boneham was open to the need for the organization to evolve. “He knew it would need to change,” says Chong, “but Peter was also concerned about his legacy and his ideals.” For him, process and experimentation were the essence of Le Groupe, whereas visiting choreographers sometimes came to view a residency as a chance to produce a finished work. “At times it was almost becoming a production company,” observes Robinson. “That was not what Peter wanted.”

Henderson’s residency brought things to a head for Coutts. Henderson was inadvertently caught in a fomenting cauldron of conflicting ideas about how Le Groupe should function. “It was three weeks of hell trying to support her. I couldn’t understand what was going on. All I could see was this tightening of the grip.” Coutts decided the situation had become intolerable and quit– leaving Chong as sole heir apparent.

And so Chong’s apprenticeship continued until, on April 29th, 2008, Le Groupe’s board announced the passing of the torch with Chong’s official appointment as artistic director, effective July 1st.

Boneham – who by then had been honored with a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement in 2005 and appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in April 2008 – would assume the position of senior artistic advisor. It was at this point that a concatenation of events, so intricately entwined that it’s hard to follow the threads, conspired to bring Le Groupe down.~

Read the rest of the story in "The End of an Era, Part 2" by Michael Crabb, posted in November 2009 (above).

Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based writer, broadcaster and lecturer. He was a CBC Radio producer and on-air host from 1981 through 2000, and is still heard on the Toronto program "Here & Now". He has written about dance for thirty-five years.

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