Interview with Jeanne Renaud on April 2, 1997 at her home in Montreal.
Selections from a conversation with Dena Davida with contributions by Louise Bédard, Peter Bonehan, Vincent Warren
Jeanne Renaud, Jeanne Renaud, Jeanne Renaud…What is air? What is light? What is water?
Jeanne Renaud, Jeanne Renaud — Or stars, Or night, Or dance?
Jeanne Renaud, Jeanne Renaud, Jeanne Renaud — I am the artist I am today because of you, Jeanne Renaud. Love Peter Bonehan
j: Some artists’ work is interesting in the beginning. But later it becomes a system*.
d: How can artists avoid this?
j: That’s why I left my company [Le Groupe de la Place Royale]. It’s because I was going somewhere else, had gone as far as I could with the kind of work that I was doing. I was questioning everything. I was afraid that if I didn’t, that I would develop a system, because I knew how, in my abstract forms, to cut things up and put them together again. I had developed a way of working with form, shape, space, rhythm and energy. It’s like the couturier who learns how to cut on the bias [of the cloth], she makes something so beautiful that it can become too comfortable. I had explored as much as I could, and didn’t have the challenge any more that I was looking for in my creative work. So I broke away completely and started again from “rags”.
d: Why couldn’t you do that with the company?
j: Because Peter [Bonehan] didn’t want that. He said, “Look, with all the technique and the work we did with you, you can’t treat us like rags.” In a way, it was good that he challenged me, by saying that at that point he wouldn’t accept it, but that he might if I showed him something interesting. Peter wanted to keep going forward with the kind of technique that I had developed with them [Le Groupe]. He was not ready, I suppose, to let those dancers create. And I must say I didn’t have the kind of dancers then who could stimulate creation, probably because I had trained them mainly in technique. I would have had to start at the beginning again, and he was not prepared to do that. And we had problems then with everything, the grants…
d: There were grants in the ‘sixties?
j: Oh yes. I even think that mine was the first modern company in Canada to get grants.
d: Was there a jury of dance peers then?
j: There was only one person to handle both theatre and dance. They [the theatre office] didn’t yet really know how to assess us, because they didn’t understand the kind of music I was using, the kind of dance I was doing. [They said] “You don’t have enough public, you don’t have a prestigious enough theatre to dance in…”.
d: It seems that these attitudes still exist today, and that they still apply a lot of criteria that aren’t intrinsic to the art form, like the size of the venue, if certain critics approve, who the artists studied with… I think it’s because they aren’t able to understand the art form itself that they apply these kinds of peripheral criteria.
j: I think you’re right. And you see, what they are trying to rationalize today is that since the money comes from the people, they have to give it back to them, and everyone must benefit from it. So they must have criteria that relate to the people like, “How much public do they [the arts group] have?” It’s a small part of the assessment, but it’s still there. And usually you have to find a rationalization and say it’s a young company, it has a young public, but it’s the public of tomorrow.
d: Is it because they [the arts council] don’t understand profoundly the role of dance in this society?
j: They’re not part of the artists’ world.
d: I feel that we still have these problems today. As soon as the art form pushes into new areas, even peer juries often don’t know how to look at new work. Their reaction is often to say, “You can’t do that, that isn’t done that way!” There’s an ironic conservatism in the contemporary art world among artists themselves. Isn’t it strange?
j: No, not really strange. I would say that the artist is “of his or her time”, but the government and the public see them as too advanced, in the forefront. But it’s not true. In reality, the artists are contemporary and everyone else is behind the times! In history, when the artists become modern and then postmodern and so on, they are reacting in an extreme way to what has been done before in order to discover something new. I don’t really think there is anything new…
d: But all the same, we are discovering and are involved in the act of searching.
j: And the public reacts to that with skepticism until it [the new discovery] takes shape and becomes evident. So it takes time before they accept it.
d: In the beginning, when those new ideas are put forward they are somewhat raw and experimental, and I’m actually trying to develop a public who likes that raw stage and also likes to watch it become refined at time goes on. I’ve seen this cycle with so many people now, for instance with Edouard [Lock]’s first work as an independent choreographer. I even remember Ginette Laurin’s first piece, which was kind of sweet but also strange! She was working with Robert Racine. They moved through a process, taking time to experiment…
j: At the present moment, I consider those artists in danger.
d: Because they’ve each become a system?
j: Yes. And they also need silence at a certain point. They need to time for reflection between touring and creating.
d: So what do you think about what Peter has done with the creation of the experimental lab at Le Groupe, a space only for research?
j: It’s nice. But it doesn’t deal with creators like Edouard or Ginette. But I’d say that it’s a great preparation [for younger choreographers].
d: Couldn’t it be a space for choreographers like them, if they wanted to work with that group of dancers [at Le Groupe] for several weeks without any pressure?
j: Yes. It’s a good idea.
d: Then the problem is the system around them that is pushing them to be productive and tour a lot.
j: And they probably feel uncomfortable if they don’t do it. In my opinion, they all really need time to be able to reflect deeply. I think Jean-Pierre [Perreault] is someone who understands this. He allows some silence into his life each year, and says that he doesn’t want to create before he feels a need. The silent times allow him to have the quality of life that he needs. He loves his forest, his little country place. I think it is very important for an artist to allow time for reflection. If they don’t take the time they need, how can artists allow us to have a nouveau regard ?
d: That idea seems to me to be the essence of a contemporary view. Why is it so important to provide this new view?
j: Because creation is something that you discover at the moment that it happens, a discovery that can be shared, communicated. But when you begin to repeat the same thing over and over, it isn’t stimulating any more.
d: It becomes its own tradition. So then what do you think is the relationship between this need to discover and the practice of recreating traditional dances, which co-exists parallel to all of these new styles and forms? Do you think they are still very separate?
j: Yes, they are separate in the same sense that they are in music. When you listen to Bach and Beethoven, or even Schubert, you don’t try to make a relationship to what you hear today in contemporary music. Those kinds of classical compositions are so strong, so beautiful, that you always discover something in them; but it’s because you are an outsider.
d: Like Molière or Shakespeare?
j: Yes, and it’s the interpretive artists in this case who can bring the work alive and connect it with something that you are living today. Some of these classics don’t say anything to me or relate to any kind of sensibility that I am looking for. But I adore seeing an old ballet beautifully remounted and beautifully danced. I don’t mean that I’d like to be dancing in it myself! But its superb, and that dance history is part of us. Where I have a problem is with the creation of ballets today, because I feel that there have been few real creators after Balanchine.
d: And what about William Forsythe?
j: Yes of course Forsythe, but…
d: You don’t think of him as a ballet choreographer. Neither do I! He’s fascinated with ballet vocabulary but I don’t think of him as adhering to classical ballet aesthetics.
j: And his vision of the stage space is almost as important as his dance. The pieces of his that I saw recently at the Festival international de nouvelle danse were the most fulfilling ones I have seen in a long time.
d: So you feel that there’s a certain place in society for people to reconstruct classics, but that it’s quite a different place than the one reserved for creating?
j: It’s the same as for everything in life, just look at politics (laughter)! I think that requestioning your whole life is something important at any age.
d: So, what are you doing now? You said that you have begun to think about your memoirs. Are you writing a lot?
j: No, not a lot. But every time I write I feel that I don’t really get at what I want to say. I think, “This is a detour.” So then I go back and start again. Because I’m not a writer. I would like to be able to write so that people would discover what it was like to be a choreographer, dancer and creator at a certain time, and what happened to the people who were involved in that. When I say that we opened one door, [people would realize that today] they have opened fifteen doors, twenty-five doors. That it’s all about a continuity of discovery and evolution. I’m more interested in seeing what the younger generation is doing than repeating what we have done in the past. What I wonder about the younger dancers is whether they are aware of their history so that they don’t need to repeat what has already been done. (telephone rings)
j: There is something that my generation of dancers had that we miss a lot. When we started Modern Dance–Françoise Sullivan, Françoise Riopelle and myself–we had a general background in the arts. So when someone asks me why I worked with Gilles Tremblay, Serge Garant, Fernand Leduc, Marcel Ferron and all those people, it’s because I was involved in the same kind of artistic experimentation as the other disciplines. That’s why I wanted to work with those artists.
d: So if you feel that’s missing today, what do you think about the university dance education? I’ve just finished a two-year programme in Laban Movement Analysis in Montreal, and I’m very stimulated by that course…
j: To teach you have to be stimulated, otherwise you cannot share and give anything. What do you think about how many universities in the United States are teaching dance? It’s amazing. Speaking of teaching, I wonder what Carolyn Brown and Viola Farber are doing these days. I saw her [Farber] in Paris when I was sent by Le Ministère des Affaires Culturelles, to evaluate Béjart’s school in Belgium, because we were getting requests for scholarships [from Quebec dancers who wanted to study there]. So I went to see Viola in Paris because she was doing a show at Beaubourg, and we had a long talk. She was quite frustrated there, at one point, because it was difficult for her. I think the training was all coming from ballet and Nikolais [technique] which was so distant from her. You see, all of the evolution in French dance came from Merce [Cunningham], Viola [Farber], [Alwin] Nikolais and the American school. But they [the French] didn’t really know what to do with that because it didn’t belong to them, and there was nothing in it that resembled their culture.
d: Mark Tompkins is an American choreographer who has been living in Paris for a long time, and he once said that it had taken the French a long time to digest American dance. A perfect metaphor.
j: Helen McGhee had left Martha Graham and was teaching in Paris for awhile. She was dancing and teaching at the American club when I was in Paris. And the dancers that were coming to me, to Helen, and Merce when he came to Paris to teach, were all Americans! I wanted to teach, wanted to start shaking up the French, but look at the people who came to my class. They were always American with one or two little French ones, who were the ones who questioned everything, who didn’t want to do those movements, couldn’t do it, rejected it. (laughter) I wanted the French to understand Modern Dance. There had been few Modern Dance performances. They had never even seen Martha Graham or anyone else when I arrived there in ’48.
d: None of the big Modern Dance companies had toured there yet?
j: Well, there was the mannierism of the Opéra de Paris. But six months later Merce was there in Paris, to teach with John Cage. I think John Cage had been invited by a certain group of musicians. The music scene was already moving ahead. He gave some performances, and Merce did some recitals in a private home.
d: Like Isadora, when she danced in private salons…
j: Yes. It was the same thing. And he [Merce] had big classes, but the students were all Americans.
d: But Isadora had spent time in Paris, so why did it take so long for the French to develop Modern Dance?
j: There was the war in the ‘forties, which made all of the artists–visual artists, musicians–leave for America. All of the artists in the avant-garde left, except for [Antonin] Artaud.
d: Well we know now, with some of the new research, that about a dozen choreographers stayed in Germany through the war and choreographed.
j: You know I wrote to Mary Wigman after the war, and I was supposed to go there, and she wrote back. I’m so sorry that I never kept those letters. And Morton Feldman wrote some music on big sheets of paper and I didn’t know what do with it, so I left it behind and my stepmother threw it out. Was I stupid!
d: Well, you weren’t born to be a dance historian!
j: She [Wigman] was teaching in Switzerland in the summer with Laban, in 1948, so she was still there.
“Montréal and Québec culture is like a rich tapestry, remarkable for all the connecting
threads — Jeannot is an essential part of the weave and for the dance world a central motif. Her involvement is hands on : visits to studios to observe and comment on works in progress, arranging contacts between painters like Betty Goodwin and choreographers like James Kudelka. She is also the connection to the other art forms, new music and the visual arts are part of her heritage. With her great generosity she draws others into the fabric, sharing her experience and opening doors to people from elsewhere, like Peter Bonehan and myself, and younger Québecois artists, beginning with Jean-Pierre Perrault and now Louise Bédard and Sylvain Emard, who have all become part of the cloth aided and encouraged by Jeanne.” Vincent Warren
j: The quality of dancers today is something…so free.
d: Do you mean that dancers today don’t have to have a particular technical base or style?
j: Well, just look at what Louise Bédard has: a wide enough base in so many different techniques that allows her to be able to do a lot of things.
d: Could you situate it [this free quality] in a specific style, or would you say that one needs a base in ballet or in a particular technique, or just a range of technical trainings?
j: Well I remember, for instance, when I was remounting two of my dances from 1948 at for the “Encore, Encore” project with Louise, the leaps that I was doing were different from hers. And my run from the back [of my body] needed as much presence from the front. She had to work hard at doing that!
d: Was she able to do it eventually or did the piece change?
j: Well, the quality she brought to the piece was very different from the original, which was based in another technique. Dances today are different. Except, for me, the larger range a dancer’s range, the greater experience that she, or he, can live. I don’t think there is any rule. If I were to start a school today, I would still build the energy of a dancer, meaning training the muscles and using energy in order to extend their range.
d: Do you think because dancers are now training later into life the kind of training they need to do changes?
j: Yes, because the body reacts differently.
d: If you think you’ll be dancing at fifty, don’t you work differently when you’re twenty? It seems so difficult for a twenty year old to imagine themselves dancing at fifty.
j: Well when I was working in New York, I was working at this window display in the morning. I used to say to my boss (you know I was seventeen or eighteen then) that at the age of forty I would commit suicide. It was too old! So then when I got to the age of thirty, I said that I would commit suicide at fifty (laughter). You know I’m sixty-eight!
d: But is it true that if you were working today your dancing would be quite different?
j: Oui. It’s amazing what the body can do. You never finish learning the possibilities. I remember when you used to do that Contact Improvisation. I saw a lot of your performances, I think I saw them all. And when I was in Quebec City you were doing it there too.
d: Yes, I was teaching Contact at L’Entre-Chat Studio in Quebec City.
j: But you know that I had already seen it with Yvonne Rainier and Steve Paxton in Grand Union.
d: Yes! Those were the improvisational performances where they tried everything.
j: And then once Yvonne Rainer came to Montreal, and she wasn’t doing Contact any more. She came to do a performance on the stage at the Monument National. I had my company then, so it must have been in the ‘seventies. She was doing things that weren’t Contact, but were coming out of Contact. She had Steve Paxton with her, and said to the public at one point, “You know, you can all experiment with things like this, so if you want to come onto the stage I will give you the space…”. So my dancers, and Peter [Boneham] was also there, went onstage and started to dance. They were showing off. Yvonne Rainier was backstage and she said,”Oh, my God, that wasn’t what I wanted at all!” (laughter) Was I upset! Because you know I used to take Mia Slavinska’s class with Yvonne. You know she used to take ballet then. And we would go across the street for coffee after class–she would have yogurt or jello–and we would talk and talk and talk. She used to tell me, “Gee whiz, I love Mia Slavinska, and I love those classes, but I love even more what we do afterwards, having these talks.” I wonder what she’s doing now. I remember that performance in New York in which she showed her film, and people were getting undressed onstage. They were sitting on a couch.
d: They took their clothes off a lot then…[laughter]
j: So Louise, my sister, said “What is that?!” That was in the ‘seventies. It was a little hard to watch, but it was interesting. I was so disappointed one time when I went to see Rainier in a theatre at Judson Church, in ’67 I think. I was going to Merce [Cunningham], taking classes every time I had a week off from the school at Le Groupe, because I was still dancing and didn’t have much of a chance to train myself. He [Merce] said to be sure and take time off to see Yvonne Rainier. I rushed after the class to get there. I stood in line and finally got in, and do you know what I saw there? A [plastic] bubble, being blown up with a vacuum. And it went bzzzzzzzz for half an hour. Half an hour to inflate the bubble and half an hour to deflate the bubble!
d: Wasn’t that Steve’s piece about the workings of the digestive system?
j: Maybe. Well then I said “Come on!” [rowdy laughter] Here I was coming to New York, and I hate the sound of my vacuum, so imagine that I spent the whole evening hearing that scrreeeee. But it did something to me. And then I got crazy to the point where I would reject it and I would say that I hated the evening. I think that’s what they wanted us to do. But then I thought, “I think I know what they are doing.”
j: Isn’t it strange about what is happening with [dance in] New York? I don’t know enough about what is happening in the younger generation. But there isn’t any more help from grants, and contemporary dance is a discipline that needs some support to exist. There’s no way that you can do it [today] like we did in our time. So seems to be no longer there [in New York] that dance is really happening; it’s somewhere else.
d: This problem with funding is also happening in Quebec, because even though there is more money available than ever before, there are so many more dancers. In the United States, of course, they’ve developed private fundraising into a fine art and everyone does seem to get some money. It’s the “good corporate citizen” model. I also think that younger artists are becoming more entrepreneurial, and realize that they’ll be riding a roller coaster in terms of grants. Many of them have a second job or vocation to support their arts practice.
j: It’s the same sort of thing when you look at how young women are having children at a later age than our generation. They keep on dancing longer then dancers used to, because they’ve developed a new way of looking at the dance world. It no longer just about a great body, a young body, but the dancer has to have other kinds of sensibilities and a good sense of curiosity.
d: Do you think that the dance public is also growing in that direction?
j: Yes. Their understanding of dance is getting wider.
d: So there’s something that the mature dancer has to offer. There is a whole group of Quebecois dancers now who are mature, around forty years or so. It feels as if an entire generation of modern dancers, who have had a relatively long career in dance of ten to fifteen years, are now in a career crisis. The question is not about whether or not to stop dancing. They want to continue. But it seems to be about how to keep themselves artistically nourished.
j: It’s not really fair for a dancer to be continuously waiting to see what kind of a company they will be in and what kind of role they will be dancing. Sometimes they aren’t really used fully by the choreographer.
d: What do you think is the future for these dancers?
j: Jean-Pierre [Perreault] is working with these mature dancers, and he says that they are doing so well. So I don’t see why people who are forty or fifty, and have been dancing all their lives, couldn’t keep going. But when you are only a dancer for other people [and not creating] you know that you will have to stop at some point, because of the demands on the energy. There is no way that a boy can keep lifting…
d: And choreographers keep asking them to do the same things as a twenty year old.
j: Even Paul-André [Fortier] says that it is so hard to keep dancing, and he is creating his own roles for himself. So these [mature] dancers eventually have to become creators, or teachers or historians.
d: A lot of choreographic process has moved in the direction that you mentioned in the beginning, where the dancers are more involved in the creation. Do you think this makes a change for the dancer?
j: Of course! First of all, these dancers are richer in their experience and actually experience some of the evolution of creating the piece. It’s more interesting for them. Also, for the creator, there is a challenge for the eye that has to edit [the dance material]. It’s so rich with possibilities for everyone.
d: And this way of working has changed the nature of the relationship between choreographer and dancer. It’s getting more rare, I think, for a choreographer to walk into the rehearsal studio with preset vocabulary and phrasing.
j: Thank God!
d: So in a sense, this kind of creative collaboration that you were seeking then [with Le Groupe] is beginning to happen.
j: Peter is doing that now. He once said, “You had all the opportunity [back then] to create the way you wanted to, and now it’s my turn!” It was frustrating for him in the beginning, but after some time he realized that it was also what he was searching for.
d: You mean now that he is mentoring, and helping to bring out the creative process of younger choreographers?
j: Yes. And he is also a fabulous teacher. He was so funny! He made us laugh a lot, but always worked hard. He was the sunshine of the company.
d: What do you remember the most about him?
j: The times when he would talk to the public. I never knew when he would stop or what he was going to say. (laughter) And it made me so nervous, because he could sometimes get very fou !
d: How did you first meet Peter?
j: He was working for Les Grands Ballets, and I was looking for someone to dance a duo. Vincent [Warren] couldn’t do it because he was on tour. He said that he knew Peter wanted to leave the company, and that maybe I should use him, that he had a strong ballet technique. So I did a duet with him and that’s how the whole thing started. But since his entire background was in ballet, he had to take the modern class for quite awhile before he could teach it. The only modern teacher he’d worked with was James Waring. He eventually developed his own technique, a little like I did myself.
d: Why did you decide not to continue teaching, or create a technique or become a lecturer?
j: When I left dance I had my art gallery; it was a question of earning a living. At that time [the ‘sixties] there was no university, and I wasn’t earning any money with my school at Le Groupe de la Place Royale. The gallery didn’t work out either, so I went to work for The Canada Council. And after awhile, if you’re not experimenting in the dance world, you lose your perspective on teaching. I could have taught creation, but wonder if it can really be taught…
d: Or dance history? (Jeanne shakes her head “no”)
j: When I left Les Grands [Ballets Canadiens] in 1989, I knew that they wanted me to become the director of the Dance Department at the University (of Quebec). I did teach there [for awhile], but didn’t want any administrative responsibility. I’d had enough of it…
and I love being free like this.
“Art is part of Jeanne Renaud’s life. To separate them would be to never really know this exceptional woman. She devoted the greater part of her life to the art form of dance. She knew how to transmit this passion for dance to many of the people around her. What I love about her is the abscence of conflict between generations; it seems to be non-existent for her. Her relationships, with both novice and mature creators, are filled with a curiousity about human beings and the creativity which motivates them. Jeanne is a great nomad whose only home port is her destiny of curiousity, energy and her thirst for understanding why art exists, how creativity operates on all levels, and of course how the architecture of the world came to be. Jeanne Renaud is one of the most rare and endearing people. She possesses such lucidity and insight that your spirit, in her wake, gains in strength and is exhilarated.” — Louise Bédard
Biography of Jeanne Renaud drawn from a two-page text published in the booklet for the Prix du Québec.
Jeanne Renaud was born in Montreal in 1928. She began piano studies at nine years old and honed her artistic sense during her teens among the great artists of the time with whom she developed life-long associations. Dance was the medium through which she chose to express her interest in both ancient art (nourished through her numerous travels) coupled with a decidedly modern view of the world. And so she went to New York City to study modern dance with Hanya Holm, Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham and Mary Anthony. She was alternately student, dancer and teacher with the Mary Anthony’s New Dance Group in New York, the American Club in Paris, Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, not to mention her own school and dance company. Throughout her career she allied herself with other innovative musicians and visual artists to examine the nature of interdisciplinary creation: composers Serge Garant, Guy Lachapelle, Gilles Tremblay, Bruce Mather; visual artists Mariette Rousseau-Vermette, Fernand Leduc, Lise Gervais, Marcelle Ferron, Di Teana. From 1947-9 she danced in Automatist performances alongside Françoise Sullivan, and then danced and founded École de danse moderne with Françoise Riopelle in the early ‘fifties. She organized a month-long artistic event Expression 65, and in 1966 founded Le Groupe de la Place Royale along with Peter Boneham, for which she created 31 choreographies. She was briefly artistic co-director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens from 1985-7 and teacher at the University of Quebec in 1988. She also served as consultant to Canada Council for the Arts and the Minister of Cultural Affaires in Québec. She is currently working on writing her memoirs.