“We need an unlimited view of beauty that encompasses all of human experience.”
Deepti Gupta, choreographer
Like so many dense urban centers these days, Montreal is fostering a new group of dance interculturalists. We occidental choreographers have long drawn inspiration from dance traditions other than our own. In the past history of Euro-American Modern Dance, for instance, borrowing from abroad usually took on the character of reverent homage to an imagined “primitive” past, or even romantic musings about exotica from distant lands. But the recent political climate has begun to position our classical and contemporary dances on more equal footing, in terms of sophistication and cultural value, with the larger world of dances.
Now we only need travel a few métro stops to find dances from virtually everywhere. This proximity has encouraged an inter-mingling between the dominant contemporary dance, and especially its creed of experimentation, with traditional dance forms that have become strongly rooted in Quebec (certain Spanish, African, South American and East Indian dances for example). The current interculturalist practice is still limited to a small group of Montreal choreographers. But the basis for exchange has changed completely. It is now common for contemporary dancers to study another culture or style of dance in depth, as if acquiring a second language in which to communicate. As for choreographers from other dance traditions who have more recently immigrated, it may be the ethos of artistic freedom that has compelled them to invent dances that represent their present-day lives in Montreal.
Marie Chouinard: moving towards a transcultural dance
The curtain opens at Place des artson Chouinard’s tribal ode Trous de ciel. This is Montreal’s mecca for the theatrical dance avant-garde, the Festival international de nouvelle danse, for which I was co-founder, in September 1992.
Seven dancers are aligned shoulder-to-shoulder in a deep squat à la secondewith hands joined above their heads in a triangular configuration. Their torsos are wrapped in loose-fitting beige bodysuits knotted at the pubis; wild hair tumbles from scalps and armpits; light glints off metallic bits of teeth and eyelids. The dance begins with a percussive collective “ah!” from the dancers, amplified by sophisticated wireless microphones attached to their skulls like vestigial jawbones. A symbolic sun is rising on the upstage cyclorama.
Is this a fictional allegory from the past or a speculative future? We know (from the programme notes) that the narrative framework is inspired by an Inuit folk tale from Chouinard’s northern travels. She has always struck me as a kind of choreographic archeologist, cataloguing ancient actions from around the world by excavating deep into the “soul, spirit and organic aspect of the body,” as she has put it, in search of a kinetic collective unconscious. Each new dancer becomes a site for spiritual discovery.
The dance progresses as if an urgent ritual, the dancers enacting a series of inevitable and cathartic events in the life of a fictional community. Embedded in the movement phrases are images from Chouinards’ journies to Bali and Nepal, glimpses of dance gestures from Spain, South America, India. Voices and bodies act and react simultaneously as if motion and sound are inseparable, regenerated in the diaphragm. The calls and exclamations emanating from the dancers are reminiscent of a minimalist sound score for a mixed species animal chorus. Breath is expelled with a sharp sigh, the body shrinks and condenses; a percussive “Ping!” springs the spine into extension, jerking limbs upwards. A bird-like strut incorporates the sinuous rising hands of Flamenco and later the outstretched arms of Bharatanataym. This fantastic flock, often moving in unison, seems a curious species of wildlife that has assimilated behaviors from some of homo sapiens sapiens most highly refined dance forms.
Marie Chouinard is a home-grown Québecoise of French heritage, and has always been an iconoclast among her choreographic peers. She formed her first artistic alliances with performance artists in the seventies. It took nearly a decade for the dance milieu in Montreal to embrace her vision of a primal, almost pre-social, body. The style and content of her dancing fell completely outside the kind of expressionistic danse théâtre that has characterized contemporary Quebec dance since the 1948 social revolution, the Refus Global.
As Chouinard dances into the Global Village she positions herself at the center of a heated North American debate on cultural appropriation that has particularly affected the fragile, fragmented artistic dance community in Canada. As Daryl Chin has written, “To deploy elements from the symbol system of another culture is a very delicate matter…when does that usage act as cultural imperialism?”
For over a decade I had perceived the integrative cultural mix in her work as a humanist quest for some biological common ground. And so, I was taken by surprise at the reaction of U.S. presenters at the 1992 National Performance Network (NPN) meeting as I screened a videotaped exerpt of Trous de ciel. “How dare she stealan Inuit story,” they raged.
In this current view of racism, artists of the majority Caucasian culture (though “white” Québecois ironically perceive themselves as a disenfranchised group within the Canadian context) are admonished not to use images from minority cultures in their artworks. This argument has arisen, I believe, in response to the changing demography of North America, and especially within its large urban centers, where repeated waves of immigrants have dramatically diversified the cultural character of society. At the epicenter of this public debate on the dynamics of power lies political questions of artistic freedom, censorship and copyright. In terms of choreography, for instance, is it desirable or even possible for one culture (or choreographer!) to “own” a certain set of movements? Are the codes of classical ballet, modern and post-modern dance the only allowable sources of movement inspiration for “white” Euro-American dancers? As for “non-white” creators, do they betray their cultural specificity when they reach into the “mainstream” for form and content? To what extent should a dancemaker acknowledge their sources of inspiration, however distant and subconscious? While musicians have pressed far ahead towards the concept of a World Music based on a common pulsebeat, dance conservationists and innovators argue over the integrity of traditional dances as if they were endangered species (as many of them were under communist dictatorships).
The currentdanse d’auteur model requires that each choreographer reinvent the dance by devising an original, coherent choreographic universe. As transnationalism increases and questions of culture push further into centre stage, a multitude of dance forms and styles is capturing the artistic imagination. And I wonder if the breakdown of stylistic purity is a natural outcome of the project of modern and postmodern dancers to free the body from rigidified classical codes. The 1948 Refus Globalmanifesto from Québec’s mid-century revolution tranquille, a socio-political movement that determined to define the character of Québécois society, contained a key declaration of the local automatisteartistic ethos from choreographer Françoise Sullivan, that “Above all the dance is a reflex, a spontaneous and vividly felt emotion.” And in 1972 Yvonne Rainer declared all movements of equal interest to dancers in her American minimalist dance “Trio A.” Do we really want to create an e(s)th(et)ic of racial segregation in the dance studio?
Roger Sinha: choreographing racism
When Roger Sinha created his autobiographical solo Burning Skinin 1991, he presented Montreal’s first dance essay on racism. This seasoned dancer describes himself as an Indo-Armenian-Canadian. His physical skills include the mastery of several modern dance styles, karate (black belt) and Bharatanatyam, which he fuses into a single movement style.
March, 1992. This is the Ascendanseseries at Espace Tangente, for which I am the artistic director, a platform for contemporary dances influenced by traditional practices. The narrow stage can barely contain Sinha’s explosive energy. At the core of his dance lies a childhood story of a black boy who plunged into boiling water believing it would bleach him white. Sinha enters the stage like a whirlwind, extending the elegant Indian mudrasinto stabbing and slashing motions. Into the mix he adds a voluminous red robe and trailing headress. His body sweeps through space and freely recombines the traditional gestures, playing with variations on pathways and dynamic phrasing. At some point this prelude becomes a Karate-tinged parody of classical ballet clichés and we leap literally into the Western colonialist world.
Next comes a prim but messy parody of English high tea. As an oval constellation of electric tea kettles begin to boil, Sinha steps into the steaming halo, assuming the well-known Krishna pose. Boiling water is poured into a pan with ritualistic care. More dancing ensues as Sinha strips down to black pleated pants and naked torso. He begins a monologue, memories of racial incidents from grade school, as he retrieves a hot wet shirt and tie out of the boiling water and pulls them painfully onto his bare skin. An electric guitarist accentuates the increasing agitation. The performance art finale is raw and disturbing.
Sinha was born and raised in a cultural mixture of East Indian, Armenian, British and English Canadian identities. He entered directly and deliberately into the mainstream of Montreal nouvelle danseseveral years ago, quickly gaining recognition for his athletic dancing. His fiery temperament proved well-suited to the expressionistic aesthetic of the Quebecois dance community. While continuing to dance, he began creating choreographic studies.
His first impulses remained within the occidental conventions of contemporary dance. Then one day a kind of cultural autobiographyBurning Skin, described above, emerged from his psyche to become a signature piece. Into this intense self-portrait Sinha reinvested his interest in text, symbolic objects, athleticism and psychodrama. This potent mix has already won him invitations to perform at both contemporary arts venues in the Occident and dance festivals in India.
There appear to be literally hundreds of artists in North America working in this mixed genre. The politics of marginalisation, living in diaspora, cultural fusion, ethnic and sexual identity have become favored content, and the talking dancera familiar performance form. But Burning Skinis still a curiosity in Montreal where contemporary dancers have narrowly focused for more than fifty years on constructing a distinctly Québecois dance identity. Apart from its emotional intensity, Sinha’s piece cannot be placed inside what French dance philosopher Laurence Louppe has reverently identified as the “Quebec school of contemporary dance”. An interesting historical note: la nouvelle danse québecoise, like the “new dance” (postmodern) styles in other occidental countries, can itself be considered as arising out the intercultural ferment of both the American and Central European strains of early modern dance which included a flirtation with Asian cultures.
Sinha is also an anomaly for many of his traditionalist Indian colleagues. I attended a gathering of this international dance community in Toronto in 1993, Kalanidhi’s festival and conference “New Directions in Indian Dance.” It soon became clear that this highly educated group of dance practitioners was deeply divided over the issue of preservation vs. innovation, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Most first generation immigrants (to Canada and elsewhere) seem to be teaching their children with missionary fervour trying to keep the cultural memory alive for future generations of Indo-Canadians. Others are engaged in adapting their dances in an effort to gain knowledge and support from their new fellow citizens. And some have been seized by the freedom to experiment, as Toronto choreographer Menaka Thakkar suggested, “to be creative and to play with the dance.” So the performance of Burning Skinwas perceived by one side as taking outrageous liberties with classical form and for the other, often younger, Indian dancers, Sinha is a model of success. So far, Sinha seems to be flourishing inside his multiple cultural identities, which he pulls firmly together into the single vocational identity of choreographer.
Maria Castello: the meeting of Northern and Southern bodies
Montrealer Maria Castello, born and raised in Argentina, created a minor disturbance among local choreographers at the Ascendanse series last year when she wove Latin American folk dances and North American modern dance aesthetics into a series of tableaux drawn from legends. The public-at-large and the local Latin community loved it, “serious” contemporary choreographers bemoaned its folkloric character in the context of a professional dance theatre.
In our various cultural ministries in Canada and Quebec we cling to our notion of the “professional” artist as criteria for providing state support. We still maintain our cherished high art/low art paradigm like some kind of artistic class system. Most folk dancers here do not yet fall within the model of the full-time vocational artist, and folk dancing is generally considered a recreational activity. This has recently caused confusion at the Canada Council for the Arts, as the Dance Office begins to open its doors to “all forms of professional dancing”, inclusive of First Nations dancers. These dancers, of course, have very different aesthetic criteria than the Council had ever before encountered.
There is no doubt that Castello is treading on unfamiliar ground, for Montrealers at least, as she navigates choreographic compositions that lie between popular and high art dancing. For Castello, this process is intuitive. Her body has assimilated every kind of dancing with which it has come into contact from ballroom to Bartenieff Fundamentals. And she takes particular delight in the movement possibilities of musicians as they play and non-dancers.
Salgo a caminarwas the result of a commission proposed to Castello by the contemporary dance presenter Tangente and Baru, a Panamanian dance association in Montreal with a pan-Latin mandate. Castello was the likely Montreal artist to bridge the two dance communities. Her first challenge was to gain the confidence of her folkdance-trained dancers who began rehearsals with trepidation (“Modern dance? Isn’t that where everyone gets naked and has water thrown on them?”) Once a stable group was established, she began searching for a style and structure that could sustain her interest in weaving together the common threads of disparate dances from Latin American cultures. The final choreography is reminiscent, to my mind, of the Caribbean-infused modern dances of U.S. dancemaker Katherine Dunham. But Castello was born more than half a century later and has the postmodernist’s love for collage and pastiche, creating a choreographic territory where unlikely dance combinations and fusions can coexist.
For Salgo a caminarthe black box stage becomes illuminated with a panorama of danced legends and myths, pulled together through seamless transitions as if a single continuing story. One movement motif seems to run throughout, that is the alteration between sensual pulsating motions and sharply percussive thrusting actions.
The story begins with a gyrating woman in a full skirt surrounded by four “native” men beating time in unison. Ceremonial hopping, stamping and spinning patterns accelerate. The dancers finally collapse, and into the tranquil landscape two percussionists enter and energize the choreography with bravura drum-and-foot beating. A wonderful male solo of swooping and diving phrases ensues, a prelude to a flirtatious sextet. Three women are spun onstage as they are unwound, by male partners, from trailing blue sarongs that stream behind them like waves. The effect lies somewhere between the organic beauty of art nouveau and the ebb-and-flow of contact improvisation. Castello (who also dances in her piece) then develops a spiraling contact duet in a playful “you catch me and I’ll catch you” structure; and a second couple recreates a social dance of seduction through a dialogue of pulsating hips. A sparring male duo, inspired by contact improvisation, completes this ritualistic courtship section. The last series of tableaux begins with Castello’s solo inspired by Mexican artist Frida Kalo. She distills the tragic biography into a series of symbolic phrases, as her folkdance skirt transforms into mantilla and shroud. Stripped down to a body suit garnished with two metallic sticks, she becomes the hunted deer in one of Latin America’s most popular legends. The finale is the iconic dance of death, which Castello has choreographed as an ominous hooded quintet.
At the end of the forty dense minutes of Salgo a cominarI had the sense of having experienced an abridged survey of Latin themes and dance styles as viewed by a contemporary choreographer cum anthropologist. With a humanistic outlook, much like that of Chouinard, Castello is also seeking the ties that bind–in this case those of her Latin American compatriots. As a neo-Québécoise she is not fearful of cultural assimilation and remains self-assured in the face her hybrid acculturation. Much like other “multi-choreographic” dancers (who have mastered several dance forms and styles), at the core of her research lies the belief in a trans-dance essence that grounds her practice and gives her a clear sense of choreographic mission. It is this sensing of an essence that appears to allow traditional dancers here to venture out into contemporary experimentation with no sense of losing their past. In works like Salgo a caminar, tradition and innovation not only coexist but even fuse into a single purpose.
A New Epilogue: Rethinking “Kinetic Crossroads” (2018)
With the invitation to contribute this essay to a new anthology twenty-five years after its inception, there is the rare opportunity to think through this set of ideas within current-day debates, and also to finally compose the conclusion that was never written. I have left the original text above intact as a vintage artifact of the 1990s, imposing only the light copy editing which I had never done, for the English version was conceived as an informal, conference paper.
Much has changed here since 1994. Montreal is now replete with intercultural choreographers. The combining and modernizing of dance forms and styles have become predominant, and these staged performances sourced in folk, street and traditional dances are now (almost) fully embraced by audiences, critics and funding bodies. A large number of choreographers have adopted dances from cultures other than their own as their life’s work, dedicating themselves to deep and sustained study even as traditional dancers emigrating from abroad have embraced the freedoms of open-ended aesthetic experimentation in the local contemporary dance community.
At the 1996 conference of the Congress on Research in Dance (now the Dance Studies Association) in Ohio, we discussed deeply and intensely how and where we might move beyond questions of authenticity and appropriation in the dance world (the conference’s overarching theme). It is interesting to note, as I have discovered through curatorial conversations with artists, that the imperative to be authentic, to representing one’s “true inner self,” is quite prominent at the moment in the discourse of Montreal choreographers. At the same time, the interest of combining ideas and materials from disparate geographies that characterizes postmodern art has completely transformed dance training and choreography into hybrid practices. Even our identities are now considered as complex combinations of the biological characteristics we have inherited and the beliefs of the social and cultural groups to which we choose to belong.
In this age of post-colonialist aspirations, one of the compelling central questions in so many democratic countries is how we might decolonialize our worldviews, communities, and institutions to better promote diversity and democratization, and so to give agency to the disenfranchised. It is, as always, a matter of the dynamics of power. In a 2018 critique of the “Mobile Worlds” exhibit curated by Roger M. Buergel in the Museum für Kunst und Gerwerbe, Jason Farago presses the debate yet further when he declares, “It’s not enough just to call for ‘decolonization,’ a recent watchword in European museum studies; the whole fiction of cultural purity has to go, too”. In Montreal, the concept of cultural appropriation continues to be debated in the heated discussions currently pervading our dance community. But from all evidence there is one thing, I believe, that remains certain: choreographers will continue to make their work at “kinetic crossroads” by way of mixing and recombining, borrowing and transferring, translating and transforming the various forms, ideas and phenomena that surround them as they move, ever so expressively, through the globalizing village.
Daryl Chin, “Interculturalism, Postmodernism, Pluralism.” Interculturalism and Performance: Writings from PAJ, page 94, PAJ Publications, New York, 1991.
The source and character of this European concept was clarified for me by an article by Leonetta Bentivoglio “Danse d’auteur” in Balletinternationalmagazine, September 1989.
Lucy Lippard used this name to describe this kind of performer, and elaborated a vivid critique of the intercultural phenomenon in the U.S. in Mixed Blessings: New art in a multicultural America,” Pantheon Books, New York, 1990.
Lauwrence Louppe, “Québec New Dance.” Programme for the Festival international de nouvelle danse1992, Éditions Parachute, Montréal, Québec.
Jason Farago, “A New Type of Museum for an Age of Migration,” Art and Design Section. New York Times. July 11, 2018.