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

All Dressed

Point to Infinity: in conversation with An Laurence 安媛

“In the end, you are never really able to truly merge the two sides of yourself,” says An Laurence, the Montreal-based experimental artist. “They can coexist. But to find inner unity within yourself is also a quest you’ll never be touching.”

Laurence is describing the title of her recording, Almost Touching, named for the mathematical concept called ‘asymptote’: a straight line which stretches towards a curve without ever intersecting.

It’s theoretical geometry, says Laurence, “and also very interesting in terms of the philosophy of art.” But it could just as easily refer to the literal conditions of the post-covid era, in which we might feel reluctant to resume physical contact with the world. To Laurence, it ultimately indicates our ideas of nature, the elusive character of time, the eternal now.

“I realized that all the pieces on Almost Touching are about getting closer to an answer but never really being able to grasp it,” she says. “Like being in the dark and starting to see the form of something, and as soon as you think you understand the concept or the idea, it changes. Actually, you’re never able to grasp whatever you’re searching for.”

An Laurence is equally enigmatic as an artist. At 28, she’s a graduate of the programme in Arts and Technology at Université de Montréal. There, she studied creative programming, sound art, video art, and coding. She is also a curator, an audiovisual media producer, and a classically trained guitarist. Though classical guitar may not be the instrument that immediately comes to mind in today’s experimental music world.

“My first thought,” says Laurence, “was that even if I’m the best classical guitarist in contemporary music, I will not get so much work because it’s very niche. So I thought that I should record the pieces that really impacted me in the last few years, to show what it could be.”

That dedication paid off. Laurence’s courageous 2022 double album, Almost Touching, was lauded by au courant publications Foxy Digitalis and Musicworks Magazine.

Most recently, the contemporary music centre Le Vivier granted Laurence carte blanche to program an event entitled Do You Have a Minute? which gathers together the works of five avant-classical composers. Laurence specifically chose each piece in the concert because of its connection to time. “Music,” she says, “can make our perception of time really different.”

On paper, the titular work is a percussion piece with electronic sounds. But its peculiar aesthetic elements make it more than just a conceptual work. The composer, Thais Montanari, wrote Do You Have a Minute? for a soloist “so that the performer is stuck in a clock,” as Laurence explains.

“It’s a piece for a solo performer who walks in a circle twelve times around these objects, which are time markers. So there’s a metronome, there’s electronic timers, Newton’s Cradles — something that will make percussive, repetitive sound. The idea is about how to walk in the clock. It’s also about information overload — constantly wanting to know everything, and the obsession with time. Counting every second.”

Laurence’s work encourages us to engage in multiple competing temporalities at once, hearing fast and slow. She commissioned the Montreal pianist Gabo Champagne to compose a work around the idea of moss. Entitled Bryophytes, the piece interrogates our notions of acceleration.

“I had just finished reading Gathering Moss,” says Laurence. “It’s a book about moss, and it really mixes a scientific way of storytelling with philosophy. So I was talking to Gabo about this, and how long it takes mosses to exist, and how much effort it takes to exist, and how they’ve been there so long before us. Bryophytes is a piece for piano, percussion, guitar, and voice, but there’s some theatrical elements also, some performing texts, performing actions. It’s all about mixing beauty with the absurd. We are running so much and we don’t really know why.”

Photo: Studio Valaquia

Laurence is concerned with the cycles of nature and what constitutes the natural. “Everything in nature is very fascinating,” she says. “That’s where we all belong — we belong with those things that feed us and the things that allow us to live. In the city, we’re kind of far from it because everything we consume is coming from elsewhere. Especially during the pandemic, people — including me — started to want plants in our houses to feel better. But to look at those plants, I was like, they do not belong here. I knew there were lots of people going super intense on learning about the plants: what pH you needed, what kind of water, what kind of soil. And that’s all very interesting. But if you look outside, nobody cares about the actual ecosystem. The trees that we have, they are the plants that actually impact us. They’re there all the time and they impact the land we live on. All the flowers, all the weeds, all the bushes, all the mosses — everything. Those are the things we actually are a part of.”

Laurence’s creative vision borders upon the transcendental, her outlook engaged as much with philosophy as with beauty, as much with space as with time, and as much about existing in the present moment as a commitment to eternity.

“What we are is never really ours,” Laurence muses, “because everything we’re made of — like our bodies — comes from other people before. And when we’re going to die it’s going to go away. Not only our physical bodies, but also our knowledge, our thoughts, our traditions. All of this is not from us, but it’s going to pass through us. Culture is something that’s living, and something that’s living always wants to go on living. The culture that we carry wants to live and it uses bodies and beings like us to travel through time and space, to not cease to exist. If we didn’t have that heritage, would we be able to go through time?”◼︎

Do You Have a Minute? runs 19 & 20 April 2023 at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines.

999 Words

Bonjour High Drama: in conversation with Michael Martini

In 1985, “Running Up That Hill” was an obscure synthpop single by Kate Bush, an artist relatively unknown outside of a certain very artsy and very English crowd.

Cut to 2022 when the popular series Stranger Things included the song in its soundtrack and catapulted it past Harry Styles to become the most streamed track on Spotify, introducing Bush to an entirely new generation of global fans. It’s what might be described as the ‘new normal’ of popular culture, in which a new context breathes new life into a work of art.

“I felt like I was fighting a battle or something, but now because of that TV show, everyone’s into her,” says the Montreal playwright, Michael Martini — whose latest work entitled Landscape Grindr premieres this week at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines — of his own Kate Bush obsession. “I feel finally very redeemed. She’s not a terribly well-kept secret, but I’m glad that the baton is being passed, in a way.”

Although Martini is among the last group of graduates of Concordia’s now-discontinued Playwriting programme, he draws creatively more from cinema and music. “I don’t really enjoy reading too many plays,” Martini admits. “I’m not into what I would call ‘TV theatre,’ with lots of dialogue and really psychological characters.”

Still, Kate Bush was one of his earliest inspirations: “I just fell in love with her taste for cacophony,” Martini says, “and key changes, and time signature changes, and narratives that weren’t about falling in love at the club, which seemed to be so ubiquitous, otherwise. That’s when I started writing — little songs and stories at first, and eventually, plays. I also had an ‘aha’ moment with the films of Robert Altman. Like Nashville, where characters are more or less improvising, and Altman is creating layers out of those improvisations, and then suddenly somehow everything comes to a boiling point.”

Montreal’s hottest new production, Landscape Grindr is an interdisciplinary piece and Martini’s most ambitious work, incorporating aspects of video and dance and expanding upon conventional notions of drama.

“The language of the show is not strictly the codes of theatre,” Martini explains. “We’re aware of how different artistic audiences are encountering this work. It is a longer show — it’s about two hours long — and it’s carried forward by a text that I’ve written and that people are enacting. The show is about connections between environmental justice, the #metoo movement, and personal questions of sexuality. Those three different aspects all hinge on questions of: What is nature? What is violence? What is change?”

Martini has been steadily carving out a niche in Montreal for his singular style of satirical yet poignant theatre. Though Martini originates from west of the Quebec border, where he developed a love for a certain absurdist humour.

“My family is from Pickering Village,” says Martini, “the historical part of Ajax, Ontario. It’s quite bizarre. It looks like a ski village made out of cardboard. But it is directly beside a farming community called Greenwood, where they have lots of little pioneer villages and old historical churches and homes. When I first started as a teenager, I was doing English pantomime. There were these plays put on by our community in kind of a Monty Python spirit. Lots of puns, lots of audience interaction, and very DIY. And I think when I look back, that’s really stuck with me. These little plays that were done in pioneer villages around Christmastime. That spirit is still with me.”

Although Martini has enjoyed the support of MAI’s Alliance program and of the Playwrights Workshop Montreal, staging Landscape Grindr has required patience and persistence.

“The timeline of theatre is very tricky,” explains Martini. “It’s very rare that it’s very fast that things happen. In the case of this show, I started writing it in 2017. I did little things here and there with it, trying things out, reading things aloud. But I didn’t have a real full-length script until 2019. And finally, by 2021, I was able to get a technical residency to explore the show. Through all that, it was booked for 2023. So that is a huge challenge, not just logistically. It’s fine when things run at a slow pace. But artistically, I find it a huge challenge to connect to material that starts to collect age, to remain interested in the same things, to honour the ideas you had.”

“I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” says Michael Martini. Photos: Félix Bonnevie

Nonetheless, honouring ideas is what brings them to fruition, and Martini is determined to share his vision with the Montreal community that has supported him through thick and thin.

In 2021, Martini lost nearly everything to a devastating apartment fire. Fortunately, he and his two roommates escaped unharmed, but the majority of Martini’s belongings, including years of writing, were destroyed. In response, the city’s theatre community rallied around him, starting a Gofundme campaign that exceeded its fundraising goal, and assisting with the enormous monetary and emotional toll. This feeling of camaraderie buoys Martini and keeps him excited to share his latest piece with an audience. “I’m moving forward with a sense of humour and kind of a social energy,” he says. “It’s a pretty DIY atmosphere. Everyone’s welcome.”

Landscape Grindr is the culmination of nearly five years of work, and catapults Martini into a completely new context. “You can feel that energy when you are waiting to do something and share something you’re proud of,” he says. “It takes up real estate in your head. And it’s a huge release to share something. I love the community that you build when you’re working on a show — with the people who are in it, but also the people who are interested to come and see it. There’s a really unique sense of conviviality. I love that feeling of a little huddle before a show. I think it’s really beautiful. That certainly carries me forward.”◼︎

Landscape Grindr runs April 11th, 13th, 14th, and 15th at La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines, 3700 Saint-Dominique Street.