Marie Chouinard, a very distinctive voice in dance

The Montreal-based choreographer brings a new work to On the Boards, full of chaotic invention and dirty dancing.
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Pasties and fur hats: Marie Chouinard's <i>Orpheus and Eurydice</i>.

The Montreal-based choreographer brings a new work to On the Boards, full of chaotic invention and dirty dancing.

Marie Chouinard finally visited Seattle last week. The buzz around her choreography has interested me for years like something you notice out of the corner of your eye while sitting in a room, finally making you intrigued enough to get up and see what it is. Her appearance at On the Boards was enough to send me over to Queen Anne to have a look.

Montreal-based Chouinard was the enfant terrible of Canadian dance in the late '70s and '80s, making works full of graphic imagery, apparently the real 'ꀜdirty dancing.'ꀝ In 1990 she started her own company, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, and it was that intrepid troupe of 10 actor/dancers that I saw perform her most recent opus, the one-hour plus dance/theater work, Orpheus and Eurydice.

This Greek myth has many variations and is a passionate and tragic voyage in search of lost love from this world to Hades and back. Its powerful storyline has inspired countless artists to riff upon it, including the Roman writer Ovid, an eighteenth century opera by Gluck, plays by Tennessee Williams and Sarah Ruhl, and several films, including one by Jean Cocteau and the extraordinary Black Orpheus of 1959, set in Rio de Janiero at Carnival time. (As an interesting aside, the two actors who played the doomed lovers in that movie recently passed away within only weeks of each other.) In dance, the myth has been inspiration for many choreographers, most notable among them George Balanchine, America'ꀙs link to the great traditions of Russian ballet classicism, and the German expressionist Pina Bausch.

In program notes, Chouinard indicated that she had started on a work exploring voice and movement, and came upon Orpheus and Eurydice in search of a storyline among myths and legends from various cultures that might tie the two together.

Her work starts most charmingly with a performer speaking the outline of what is to come in a strangely distorted voice, backed up by the same words projected onto the backstage scrim. The dancers, through ingeniously simple movement sequences, act out what he is describing. From there, Chouinard'ꀙs Orpheus and Eurydice is a series of striking sequences filled with rich imagery, some tenuously if at all related to the storyline. Viewers can be tricked into believing that by introducing the narrative we will then see variations and deeper explorations of it, but often the visuals and sounds are so powerful and cacophonous that we lose track of intention, more absorbed by the moment than its place within the whole. The myth is a touchstone, to be returned to now and then, but not in any linear fashion.

The pre-eminent theme that Chouinard seems to draw upon is love in its many guises — seductive, lustful, ethereal, overwhelming, lost and then found again — all framed within the primal power of Greek mythology. Her scenes are full of inventive movement, grotesque facial gestures and sounds, and graphic sexual imagery. The soundscape for the dance is not only the performer'ꀙs own utterances muttered and screamed through distorted mouths amid twisted, almost palsied faces, but also an 'ꀜelectro-acoustic'ꀝ score by Louis Dufort heavy on percussive tones, along with the occasional thumping of bodies against each other or on the floor.

Two things most drew me to the work: the movement voice that Chouinard has developed, one devoid of the technical virtuosity demanded by many major choreographers, and an active imagination that creates vivid theatrical moments. Her dance is movement and theater, asking of the performers not only physical chops, but the ability to emote, to gesticulate and to sound off. There were not flashy dance pyrotechnics, though I could see some of the performers had excellent formal dance training. Rather she uses a vocabulary that built upon the use of walking, lifting, pushing, twisting, climbing, posing, and other pedestrian and idiosyncratic uses of the human body. Added to that is an intriguing architecture of bodies massed in different ways.

The emotional punch of the dance was advanced significantly by the costumes created by Vandal. At different times the performers wore overalls, or almost nothing at all — tight little shorts and pasties over nipples for men and women, funny fur hats that evoked some Siberian dreamscape (though much of the action is in Hades). There were wonderful props, such as a slow motion parade of puppet snakes (a snake causes Eurydice'ꀙs untimely death) that seemed all too real for comfort.

All these elements played out in arresting scenes such as a Bacchanal with the male dancers in extremely high heeled women'ꀙs shoes, matching gigantic strap-on dicks and little else, at first moving sinuously in back lit silhouette, eventually furiously copulating with the females. Later in the work, a female dancer, wildly crying out in tongues, climbs over the audience row-by-row, part of a complicated vignette reminding us that Orpheus has been forewarned not to look back as he exits from Hades with his love, lest Eurydice be lost to him forever.

When Chouinard premiered this work earlier in the year it ran longer and was in two acts, meeting with some critical disapproval. At its current length of 70 minutes or so it still seems just too much at times — chaotic and repetitive, especially the motif of dancers' vocalizations. One gets the point and would like the dance to move on to some new, more coherent place. Overall, however, Chouinard'ꀙs is such a distinct voice that much is forgiven if only to see those guys in high heels lusting after the women in pasties and funny hats.


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