THE ARTS

Montreal magic

New York celebrates four Quebec companies

CELINA BELL November 5 1990
THE ARTS

Montreal magic

New York celebrates four Quebec companies

CELINA BELL November 5 1990

Montreal magic

New York celebrates four Quebec companies

THE ARTS

For most of this century, francophone Quebec looked to France, the United States and English Canada for much of its arts and entertainment. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a distinctively Québécois cultural life began to take shape with a surge of nationalist novels, plays, movies and songs. In the past decade, Quebec arts have evolved further to produce some of the most exciting and innovative theatre and dance groups in the world. And this fall, that distinctiveness is the talk of New York City’s cultural circles, and of the international performing-arts community. Theatre and dance companies from Quebec are among the hottest tickets this year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, an eight-year-old event that is renowned for presenting the leading edge of contemporary performing arts. The festival, which opened on Oct. 2 and runs until Dec. 9, includes a special salute to Montreal’s performing arts, featuring four outfits from that city. Joe Melillo, the former director of Next Wave who began putting the distinctive Quebec program together two years ago, said of the result: “There is amazing power coming from the work—it expresses such extraordinary energy and vision and quality.” The special showcase, called Next Wave/ Next Door: New Currents from Montréal, was almost completely sold out when the festival began last week. It brings together some of the most adventurous performers from Canada’s second-largest city. Robert Lepage’s Théâtre Repère, winner of international acclaim for the evocative imagery of its stage productions, opened at Next Wave on Oct. 23 with the enigmatic detective thriller Polygraph. Carbone 14, under director Gilles Maheu, is presenting the visually arresting Le Dortoir {The Dormitory)—a mostly nonverbal exploration of adolescence that blurs the lines between theatre and dancing. Ginette Laurin’s 0 Vertigo Danse is presenting two works: Don Quichotte and Chagall have won accolades for their evocative and athletic choreography. And Canada’s top contemporary dance soloist, Margie

Gillis, will perform nine works—four of them premières, and three of them duets with her brother, Christopher.

Gillis, the only anglophone performer in the Next Wave/Next Door, represents a separate strain of Montreal’s creative life. But she says that her intensely expressive dance has been influenced by the currents running through the

culture of French Quebec. Said Gillis: “I have always felt a kinship with the passion coming from the francophone side of Montreal.” Meanwhile, Théâtre Repère, Carbone 14 and 0 Vertigo Danse, while highly diverse, share some characteristics that define the current art from French Quebec. Their creations are multidisciplinary, intellectual, highly visual. And they are distinguished by'the ascendancy of the director, who plays a hands-on role at all levels of a production.

Besides the artists invited to New York, the new wave in Montreal includes multimedia performer Michel Lemieux, who has toured the world with his one-man show, Solide salade, and choreographer Edouard Lock, leader of the internationally acclaimed troupe La La La Human Steps. Both creators, true to the new Quebec style, blend dance, video and other elements in their shows. Said Laurin: “In Que-

bec, we’ve tried to create another form of art that breaks down the barriers between different disciplines—between theatre and dance, between dance and the visual arts, between the visual arts and music.” Maheu contends that such innovation springs from Quebec’s lack of its own arts legacy. “We have no tradition, not being a country and not having all this historical past,” he said. “Because of that, we feel free to invent, more free than Toronto or Vancouver. Maybe others don’t take risks. We do.” Quebec’s creative surge began in 1948 with the Refus global, the manifesto of a group of Québécois artists—including famed painters Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle— who rejected established forms of art and traditional Quebec society, favoring a more spontaneous, visceral approach to creativity. But it was not until the 1960s, with the Quiet Revolution, that francophone artists began to take on an important role in the province’s life.

By the 1970s, Quebec’s musicians, poets, novelists, playwrights and film-makers were carrying the flag on the front lines of the nationalist battle. Such figures as singer Pauline Julien and director Denys Arcand helped to sever cultural ties with France as well as with anglophone North America, producing works that explored the realities of being a French-Canadian.

Perhaps the period’s most renowned creator beyond Quebec’s borders was playwright Michel Tremblay {Les Belles-soeurs, Albertine en cinq temps), who began writing in jouai— Montreal street dialect. Tremblay was one of the province’s first important playwrights, gaining international recognition for dramas that vividly conjured up the people and spirit of Quebec. Said Robert Lévesque, theatre critic for the Montreal French-language daily Le Devoir: “With Tremblay, theatre in Quebec finally became unblocked. The stage became a

political place, and Tremblay, the best representative of that very nationalist period.” That art was an important catalyst for political change. And the evolution in francophone society—including the Quebec nationalist movement, the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 and the continuing debate over the province’s role in Canada—in turn allowed an

even more fertile and freer performing arts community to emerge. In the 1980s, the artists who had led the battle for nationalism relinquished the role to the politicians, and a less explicitly political, more international style emerged. “Artists were tired from having fought the nationalist battle for years,” said Lévesque. “When Gilles Maheu and Robert Lepage arrived at the beginning of the 1980s, after the referendum, they weren’t interested in doing the same thing—fighting for a Quebec for the Québécois.”

Maheu, the 42-year-old artistic director of Carbone 14 and an actor who played the lead role in the hit 1988 movie from Quebec Un Zoo la nuit (Night Zoo), notes that in the past decade, after years of looking inward, Quebec artists were finally free to reach beyond the Québécois experience. Said Maheu: “It was no longer a question of identity as with Tremblay. It was rather an attempt to become part of a more global current.” Artists, he continued, “had helped turn the Québécois identity into an established fact. Now, it was time to move on and explore other avenues.”

In the early 1980s, with Carbone 14, Maheu was among the first people in the theatre community to reject the primacy of language as the purveyor of Québécois culture. Instead, in such works as Pain blanc{ White Bread) and Le Rail (The Rail), he chose a more visual and physical form of theatre. Maheu used choreographed movement, a powerful visual design and a dramatic musical backdrop as part of his

new theatrical vocabulary. Maheu’s 1988 creation Le Dortoir, which opens at the Brooklyn Academy for three performances on Oct. 30, is set in the co-ed dormitory of a Roman Catholic school for adolescent boys and girls in the 1960s. Alternately dreamlike and passionate, the work blends dance and dramatic stage effects to explore teenage sexuality, religious

repression and violence. After a triumphant, four-night performance of the work in Paris last year, the daily newspaper Le Monde declared that it was “a formidable laboratory of inventions. The audience is never bored.” Lepage, 32, vice-president of Théâtre Repère and artistic director of French theatre at the National Arts Centre, says that he was heavily influenced by Maheu’s innovations. In

such works as La Trilogie des dragons, Vinci and Les Plaques tectoniques, he, too, stretched the boundaries of theatre, adding a rigorous intellectualism to the new style. When La Trilogie des dragons played in London in 1987, Michael Ratcliffe of The Observer called it “one of the subtlest and most haunting theatrical narratives seen in London this year. This is a theatre of truthfulness, harmony, logic and gentle wit.” Polygraph, co-written and codirected by Lepage and Marie Brassard, first opened in Quebec City in 1985 and had a successful run at London’s Almeida Theatre in 1987. It is a meditation on truth based on the real-life murder of a friend of Lepage, a Quebec City actress. After it began its five-night run in Brooklyn last week, theatre critic Lina Winer wrote in the New York daily Newsday that the show “combines a gusto for pop trash, political paranoia, gritty cinematic realism and vivid imagist surrealism in a mix as unpredictable as it is engaging____Repère does not look

much like anything else in the theatre today.”

I Like Maheu, Lepage conic tends that Quebec theatre is v especially vibrant because

City showcase the province has little cultur-

al past of its own. Added Lepage: “If I had been bom in France, and raised in the Parisian theatre milieu, I would probably feel everything has been said. It seems that when there’s a need to identify yourself, you do the best things.”

Quebec’s dance creators share that pioneering spirit. Choreographer Laurin, a 35-year-old former gymnast, has established a reputation for startling, often risk-takingly physical choreography, much of it a contemplation of the social upheaval of the past few decades. The works that she is presenting in New York, however, represent another strain: homage to other creators. Don Quichotte (1988) attempts to enter the imagination of Cervantes’s Don Quixote by mixing the rhythms of Spanish flamenco music with delirious, almost demented movement. With Chagall (1989), the choreographer captures the poetry and whimsical, gravity-defying movement in the works of Russian-bom artist Marc Chagall. Laurin’s troupe is presenting both works six times at the Brooklyn Academy, beginning on Nov. 13.

Like Maheu and Lepage, Laurin says that the newness of Quebec culture has been liberating. “We don’t have any reference,” she said. “It’s always easier to be inventive and creative when you haven’t had a master behind you who is very strong and who has spent years clearing

0 the path.” As the Montreal artists are showing

1 in Brooklyn, they are boldly clearing a path for

1 themselves.

2 CELINA BELL in Montreal