Arts & Culture

Bare-Naked Soul

Montreal choreographer Dave St-Pierre pushes his dancers to their limits

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• 1,120 words

As the lights dim in the Grand Théâtre de Québec, several people are still searching for a seat. But the room is already full, everyone having ventured into the damp Saturday evening in Quebec City to see the latest creation by Montreal choreographer Dave St-Pierre, Un peu de tendresse, bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness, For Crying Out Loud!). The scene is chaotic. Someone has taken the wrong seat and crawls over into the next row, landing on a spectator’s lap; a couple in search of their umbrella asks people around them to stand up; a woman apologizes profusely as she squeezes along the back row. Emerging from the crowd and taking to the stage, the dancers finally distinguish themselves from the audience. “Congratulations,” the evening’s host, Sabrina, tells the public after the show is under way. “You have just survived the first twenty minutes.”

Audiences have been happy to subject themselves to St-Pierre’s radical brand of dance theatre, and critics have only helped to strengthen its following. “One goes to see a Dave St-Pierre show as one would go to mass,” writes a journalist in the Montreal daily La Presse. Like fellow Québécois choreographers Marie Chouinard and Édouard Lock, this generation’s enfant terrible approaches such themes as gender and sexuality head on, breaking the taboos left behind by his predecessors. His raw aesthetic recalls Pina Bausch’s theatre of cruelty — European critics have hailed him as her “pornographic son” — but on St-Pierre’s stage, the tortured soul dances to Coldplay and plays dress-up. Chipping away at the icons of his art form, he has a professional stripper embodying the violin strains of Air on the G String, an obese woman dancing a solo to the leitmotif from Swan Lake, and a chorus of naked men in blond wigs standing in for the corps de ballet. A deft editor, he delivers montages as devastating and profound as they are cheeky and lowbrow. No wonder the show has the man beside me weeping one moment and laughing the next.

When I met St-Pierre an hour before the performance, he was sitting cross legged at centre stage, surrounded by dancers warming up to a bubbly Michael Jackson track. Sporting a crumpled grey hoodie, sneakers, and a green wool cap, the thirty-four-year-old reacted to his success with wide-eyed amazement. “Sometimes I wonder how we can have this much attention. We’re a dance company, not a rock band.” But the comparison is not far off. Judging from the past four years, he has a talent for creating buzz and filling seats.

Dance has always been a part of St-Pierre’s life. As a child, he escaped to the studio to forget a stubborn speech impediment, and at eighteen left his hometown of Saint-Jérôme for Montreal, to attend contemporary dance school. He was short, but made up for his height with sheer attack, his body a fearless machine easily bored by formal training. It wasn’t long before he dropped out and began working professionally. But he soon longed for more creative control. Approaching his thirtieth birthday as a sought-after dancer and moderately successful choreographer, he gave himself an ultimatum: if his next production didn’t take off, he would stick to dancing.

La pornographie des âmes (Bare Naked Souls), the predecessor to La tendresse, took four months to create. St-Pierre couldn’t afford to pay his performers — a mix of dancers and actors, some professional, some not, all of them friends — so rehearsals were a haphazard affair. “Every Monday night, I waited to see who would show up. Sometimes it was one person, other times twelve. The first time all fourteen of my performers were together was for the run-through,” he says. The show became a series of short skits put in order the day before the premiere. “We couldn’t remember the piece by heart because there were too many scenes, so we wrote a list on the wall of the theatre,” recalls Enrica Boucher, a theatre artist who performs in La porno and plays Sabrina in La tendresse. The run-down was integrated into the opening at the last minute, with the cast lining up at the front of the stage to preview all twenty-seven sections.

In April 2004, they played a six-night run to sold-out crowds in Montreal. Six months later, the newly formed troupe toured Germany, where upon returning less than a year later it won the prestigious Mouson Award in Frankfurt. La porno marked a personal and artistic departure for St-Pierre. He had first envisioned the piece as completing his “cycle of destruction,” a collection of previous works, but instead it launched his trilogy, Sociologie et autres utopies contemporaines. “I thought I was finishing a cycle, but I was actually starting a new one,” he says. He had mistaken the beginning for the end.

Chance plays an important role in St-Pierre’s work. He seeks out the spontaneous energy of improvisation, integrating mistakes and imperfections like little gems in the rough, and describes his performances as “happenings.” Every show is a risk, scary yet stimulating. “I often tell the dancers, ‘You’ve become too good. It isn’t interesting anymore,’” he says — in which case the offending section is altered an hour before the show. His creative process is more deliberate in studio, where an idea is wrung out with the help of text, props, and a pastiche of pop culture references.

Rehearsals for La tendresse were launched with the words “slap,” “crash,” “spit,” “split,” and “dash,” for example, and the dancers found their personas by imitating exaggerated poses from a 1980s Sears Roebuck catalogue, recreating the rigid forms of a blow-up doll, and miming the security briefings of a flight attendant. Nothing is too outlandish. “We always go farther than the movement that is left, to the limit of what each body can take,” says Éric Robidoux, who joined the company in 2003. “It’s like being Ozzy Osbourne in the body of a prima ballerina.”

These choreographic jam sessions have fostered a tight-knit group within the company. St-Pierre cites the artists as collaborators in the program notes, and presents each of them at the end of his shows. The respect is mutual. Shedding formal technique — and inhibitions — is an exercise in trust for the interpreters, but liberating nonetheless. “The insecurities Dave brings out in an artist are interesting,” says Boucher. “He pushes you into zones you’ve never wanted to visit, but that he knows you’re perfectly capable of entering.”

And St-Pierre doesn’t just test his performers’ boundaries. In La tendresse, the viewer is called upon as well: “This is not only about us here on stage,” Sabrina says ominously. “You would be so naive to think that you are safe.” The opening not only breaks down the fourth wall; it blows it to dust, as a gaggle of nude male dancers in blond wigs charges into the audience. “We’re too polite in the theatre,” says St-Pierre, “as if we didn’t have the right to react.”

Doing away with abstract and cerebral themes, his stage is a series of tableaux in which the everyday tragedies of rape and death play out alongside the large-scale human devastation of 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami. In the darkened theatre, we are all accountable for what transpires onstage. There are no innocent bystanders, only silent witnesses. St-Pierre wants people — dares them — to interact with the performance, and sometimes he succeeds. In a scene where golden-tressed nymphs shed their disguises and evolve into men, slapping themselves across the face, a woman stands up and tells them to stop. It is a moment of collective catharsis that blurs the line between art and reality.

Contrasting violence with compassion, St-Pierre explores the ecstasy and heartbreak of intimate relationships. He treats sex lightly, but takes love very seriously, wiping the Vaseline-smeared lens clear of romantic cliché. The body is at once horrific and hauntingly beautiful, capable of destruction and abuse, but also tenderness and vulnerability. Its movements are painfully transparent, pulsing with the conflicting urges of selflessness and self-interest. Holding on is torture; letting go is out of the question. Desperately beckoning her lover, a dancer pulls an invisible thread until she frantically unspools a whole history between them. Gesturing wildly and flinging themselves with acrobatic abandon, another couple engages in a pas de deux as if going to battle, their only armour a layer of skin.

But what to make of the soul once it is bared? How to interpret its desires? Standing naked and alone on a chair at stage right in La porno, St-Pierre confesses to the audience: “I’m scared that I won’t leave a mark. I’m scared that I’ll never fall in love again. I’m scared to fall in love. I’m afraid to forget, afraid of being forgotten. I’m scared to never hold again, never make love again, only to fuck. I’m scared of pain, of inflicted pain. I’m scared of being sad. I’m scared of dying before my mother, before my father. I’m afraid of not being inspired anymore, to never again have glimmering eyes. But what I’m most scared of above all is to not be loved.”

Two weeks after the show in Quebec City, St-Pierre beckons me into his home with a half-eaten bowl of cereal in hand. It’s three in the afternoon, and he has just woken up. The apartment is dim and quiet, overlooking a tree-lined street in Montreal’s east end, where panhandlers and young families share the sidewalks. The space feels occupied but not quite lived in, and St-Pierre admits that the urge to settle down and decorate has only hit him in the past six months. Directing me to a yellow vintage sofa, he curls up in the chair opposite, yawning. He usually sleeps twelve hours a night and takes naps in the afternoon, anchored to a respirator in the kitchen by a ten-metre-long plastic tube — “my leash,” as he calls it.

At seventeen, St-Pierre was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a progressive disease that affects mucus-producing glands, particularly the lungs, leaving them prone to infection. There is no cure (the illness worsens with age and cuts life expectancy in half), so at thirty-one he was pushing himself to the limit. He had always been careful with his health, just as a dancer monitors a recurring injury, but his body was starting to strain. “We saw the changes happen quickly,” Boucher remembers. “He was very tired and couldn’t dance. He needed to take oxygen.” In February 2006, St-Pierre performed La porno, knowing “it was the last time. I struggled to finish the piece.” Instead of dancing in La tendresse, then a work-in-progress, he fully committed himself to directing it.

The transition is apparent in the work: a narrative arc replaces the loose series of sketches that preceded it. St-Pierre, who studied literature and cinema in CEGEP, suggests that the structure of the piece benefited from his outsider’s perspective. The frenzied opening sequence recalls the heady tempo of Carmina Burana, for example, and the performers’ fluttering hands and ready smiles are a tip of the top hat to his childhood idol, Fred Astaire. Now St-Pierre is taking the idea of a big show and putting it into practice.

The conclusion of the Sociologie trilogy, Over Our Dead Bodies, will feature a cast of sixty, many of whom have no formal training. Some are friends of company members, while others asked St-Pierre if they could take part in his next production. In September 2007, the group came together for the first time. Standing outside to greet them one by one, St-Pierre saw the crowd as a whole only upon entering the studio. The impact was immediate. “I’d never seen anything like it. I had a little moment of panic,” he recalls. After the first session, he fell asleep, exhausted by the effort. But he has become adept at directing. His body remains a tightly wound knot that pulses with little shocks of intuition. “If I get shivers, I know it’s good,” he says, referring to the creative process. He stays vast, working on big themes in small groups, and guides improvisations with simple instructions, sometimes just a few words. Finding a space large enough to accommodate the group, as well as orchestrating sixty different schedules, has been challenging. In the past year, he has only held three rehearsals, and the piece won’t be ready until 2010. In the meantime, he is working on its prelude, a solo entitled Over My Dead Body.

Creating a work that breaks away from the collective was a natural choice for St-Pierre. He is a solitary person, and happily stays at home with the phone unplugged for weeks at a time. After an almost three-year absence, the solo will mark his return to the stage. He had been planning it before he stopped dancing, but kept putting it off until now. The Tangente theatre in Montreal has booked the piece for January, with the understanding that St-Pierre may not be the one performing. He is forging ahead all the same, speaking in affirmative terms of “when” rather than “if.” He says, “The final piece is about the moment when you’re ready to fight again, for lasting relationships, for social justice.” According to Robidoux, one of the possible understudies for Dead Body, “You can see it well in the new creation: he’s very animated and alive and vigorous.”

The solo is an affirmation of the body, and St-Pierre admits that his condition is a driving force behind the work. True to form, he is using the solo to provoke and pervert, writing in the program notes of Dead Body, “Between being born and dying, I masturbate, I come, I clean it up, and, when I have time, try to de-dramatize my existence.” However matter-of-fact his mission statement, St-Pierre cannot resist conjuring the image of the martyr for the final act. Regarding his own spirituality, he says, “I believe in one person: myself.” In many ways, the trilogy mirrors his own trajectory, from destruction to rehabilitation to reinvention. The end is a new beginning.

On a humid afternoon in July, the company meets to rehearse La tendresse before leaving for Austria the next day. The dancers slowly trickle in, greeting each other affectionately, before St-Pierre enters the studio, his usually dishevelled mane slicked back in a ponytail. The company has a busy touring schedule ahead, attending Pina Bausch’s Düsseldorf Festival in November, followed by stops in Toronto, Budapest, and Bruges. St-Pierre will be staying behind. There’s the big piece to organize, and the solo to think about. But for today he is concentrating on the present.

The studio buzzes with energy. A dancer does handstands against the back wall, a couple practises lifts and dips, an actress whispers her lines in the corner. And then, a moment of synergy. With the prompt of an “eh!” the company begins a physically gruelling sequence. They tumble, roll, and hover on the edge of instability. Elbows and knees grind into the floor, making sticky imprints. Punctuating the silence, the dancers gasp for air, their resilient bodies made vulnerable at last.

St-Pierre’s work is demanding. It tugs at the heartstrings and goes for the jugular, dredging up all that we try so hard to bury — weakness, pathos, desire, embarrassment — and bringing everyone closer in the process. Watching his work, one cannot help but feel connected to others, for in its simplicity and candour lies a hymn to humanity. “I can go a lot further than I have already,” he says, referring to future projects and, perhaps, to life in general. As his exploration of contemporary utopias comes to a close, St-Pierre reflects on the significance of the trilogy, saying, “The experiences are mine, but they don’t only revolve around me. They’re everyone’s stories.”