Watching People Dance: notes on Festival Quartiers Danses

The Quartier des Spectacles slowly moves their performing arts programming indoors as summer comes to an inevitable close in Montreal, and the Festival Quartiers Danses avails their 11-day lineup in four indoor locations while certain events lure in new audiences from the street.

Only two days into this festival’s lineup, a double-feature of dance pieces draws a full house at the Studio-Theatre of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in the Wilder Building on Bleury street.

The evening begins with a shorter piece, Disorder, by the Montreal-based hard of hearing choreographer Cai Glover.

Its message: “Every act of translation is an act of betrayal.”

Two male dancers take to the empty stage. One of them recites the thesis of the piece as a live translation of American Sign Language — I was able to recognize the sign for “death” and “dying.” Phrases of text are delivered powerfully between phrases of dance that seem to be extensions and elaborations on ASL, as it affects the upper limbs and requires the expression of the face. Hands and fingers lead the dancer while the other body onstage circles patiently watching, embodying the act of a viewer’s interpretation before interpretation itself occurs.

A fifteen-minute intermission scoots the crowd back out into the high-vaulted concrete-walled lobby while the stage is set for the next presentation, Play Dead, mounted by the Montreal-based dance collective People Watching.

From the first moments, relationships between performers are established — and decidedly gendered. Dancers Brin Schoellkopf, Sabine Van Rensburg, Natasha Patterson, Ruben Ingwersen, Jérémi Lévesque, and Jarrod Takle populate the space in costumes of the last century, wearing flowing dresses in high collars and faded, period suits.

The first act incorporates a parlor room from which the two female dancers let out separate howling screams — ignored by the men there with them — and a dining room table from which ceramic plates are tossed and spun atop rods, seemingly stopping time and space. Baroque decadence stands elegantly in a past era of emotional and sexual repression winding itself up to a crisis of revelations of infidelity and madness in a new era of unfettered passion.

The set design is decidedly domestic, hinting at a decaying opulence; a practical lamp with an elegant shade goes from ambient hearth to a hidden flickering flame, casting shadows of the bodies that encircle it, and the dining room table brakes down on an angle to create a slippery inclined surface a pair of dancers scale in a Sisyphean cycle. It all falls apart just so.

A hanging light suspended threateningly low to the ground swings violently during the climactic moment of crisis where all six dancers are tossed against each other and the walls of this once stately home. The effect is dramatic, Glover and the bodies that bend beneath the light flinch and bloom in its pendulous glow.

This interrogation lamp-style swinging device has been seen before at the New York Opera House in a 2014 production of Macbeth, where Lady M herself sings her soliloquy of the blood on her hands beneath the intense and lowering light of a swinging lamp, which she eventually takes hold of and beams out to the audience.

A smaller-scale version of this illuminated direct address was also done at the Centaur Theatre this past autumn, when the young student victimized by the events of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes throws a handheld light out to the audience, encouraging their voyeurism, offering a physical implement to investigate the story.

The dancers of People Watching build upon an established stylistic theme with this theatrical device that marries together lights, props, set, the human body, and its burden of responsibility. But dance as a medium is not so literal as opera or theatre, and thus is liberated to explore the device joyfully, chaotically, and generously open to interpretation.

The second half of Play Dead revels in an aspiration to the circus arts, where the domestic space is transformed into a dark void. Empty glass bottles are brought in for shadow play and a balancing act effect. A subversion of male aggression is staged where bottles are wound up over the dancer’s shoulder, but instead of being swung weapon-like or thrown down, they are released behind the dancer’s back and swiftly, safely caught. This shtick is repeated some dozen times in a satisfying and reassuring rhythm.

Many moments have the “ta-da!” pacing of circus feats, while others are intentionally a struggle for the dancer. The audience can’t help getting caught up in feelings of intense sympathy, cheering him on in quiet observation as he stumbles through the lineup of hazardously placed bottles. This same dancer returns later to deliver a very queer-coded, almost drag-like dance number after being delicately undressed by the five others, shades on, and lyrics mouthed in resilient camp.

Still, the highlight of the evening is Van Rensburg dancing in and out of an internally illuminated wardrobe. She kneels atop it, gives her yearning scream, and then lowers herself within, rearranging the clothing inside while hanging from the rod. The doors of the wardrobe support her weight as she swings herself perilously up and over the sides, striping off half her costume. It’s a thrilling performance of strength and vulnerability that leaves the room astounded.◼︎

Festival Quartiers Danses continues through 17 September 2023.

Cover image: @emilytucker.creative