Stories From The Beach, Stories From The Stage

La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines bustles with the warmth of a full house for opening night of The Beach and Other Stories, and the welcome is reciprocated throughout the evening.

Presented as part of Montreal’s contemporary dance institution Danse-Cité’s 42nd season, and with provocative programming ongoing throughout the coming months, it is clear that the dynamite team of Bulgarian-born Montreal-based Maria Kefirova and the live arts multi-disciplinarian Michael Martini is also the perfect pairing of gesture and text, philosophy and practice.

The stage, roped off into a rectangular performance space, features set pieces of a workaday office — a desk, a tablet, a lamp, a folder. This particular folder, though, contains the heart and soul of the show: two dozen or so large, glossy prints of candid, urban colour photographs.

Kefirova reveals each photo with some form of singular physical engagement, gliding one across her torso, another over her arm, then casting each one straight out to her audience, away from herself, in a slowly crystallizing snowflake that takes over centre-stage.

These photos are collected again throughout the performance while Kefirova speaks softly into a microphone, illuminating each image with untethered first-person narratives that engage and implicate the audience. And the audience adores her brand of storytelling.

“I am weaving a corporeal reality out of a fictional narrative.” Maria Kefirova photographed by Vanessa Fortin.

For a show in a dance series, text is surprisingly indelible to the composition of The Beach and Other Stories. Kefirova maintains a velvety consistency in her vocal tone that has the enraptured crowd bursting into delighted giggles whenever she inserts a plot twist, some unexpected profanity, or deadpans a sense of absurdity.

The Beach and Other Stories concludes with the pay-off of fully embodied choreography and ecstatic engagement with the space. After challenging the room to listen and interpret a narrative for the majority of the runtime, to watch and feel what dance does is certainly well earned. The work ultimately finds a niche for itself in Montreal’s long-standing tradition of avant-garde living arts.

“I am weaving a corporeal reality out of a fictional narrative,” Kefirova says, “searching to bring multidimensionality to a photographical archive from the 90s in post-communist Bulgaria. Body and text are short-circuiting the suggestive power of the images, recasting imaginary worlds, and writing alternative histories.”

Below, the playwright Michael Martini answers a few of our critic’s questions about his process, his motivations, and his chemistry with Kefirova.

Michael Martini photographed by Félix Bonnevie.

What does dance as a medium do for you as an artist that other modes of performance do not?

Martini: I think the contemporary dance community in Montreal is quite singular in how mutually supportive the artists are of each other. There’s no nitpicking with form, and a strong will to centre the artist’s agency in creation processes and productions.

As a playwright who doesn’t see characters or dialogue as a given in text to begin with, I feel very liberated working on non-theatre performances. In dance and performance art, I feel there’s generally a perspective on text as a tool or an object valued as a sort of counterweight to abstraction, rather than an all-ruling container.

The artist onstage is the artist onstage first, maybe doing some shapeshifting into characters, but not a character at the mercy of a text first.

What is your favourite thing about Maria Kefirova as a performer?

Martini: Maria’s performance is full of humour, mystery, and a nice overlap between the rough and the elegant. It’s a work full of secret little nuggets if you listen and watch closely — and let Maria cast her spell on you.

What drew you most to this project?

Martini: Maria and I met on a literally scorching hot road trip to perform at Summerworks in Toronto last year, as a sort of Montreal delegation. We connected well — over a shared occasional craving for liver, especially — and Maria invited me some weeks later to participate in writing exercises for her new artistic concepts.

In just a few sessions, the two of us wrote in a sort of ping-pong style over photographs she had brought in of Bulgaria in the 90s, and before we knew it, we had a body of text that seemed to Maria enough to anchor a new creation.

Working with Maria is inspiring. She is incisive, while remaining mysterious. It’s hard to know her next move, and she manages a balance of secret-keeping and generosity in her process that I’m thankful to be in proximity to.◼︎

The Danse-Cité series continues in May, 2024, with Taiwanese-Canadian interdisciplinary dance artist Nien Tzu Weng’s production, 光影 光陰 (Guāngyǐng guāngyīn).

Cover image: Vanessa Fortin