One of the things that makes dance so magical---and oftentimes so moving---is its ability to transcend language. Using movement, a skilled performer can make us feel and understand things at a level that can't be reached through other means. That same ethereal quality, however, can sometimes make dance hard to talk about, especially for a dancer or choreographer for whom physicality is the main means of expression.
This is probably why, when asked to describe Grande Théorie unifiée, the dance work he'll be presenting in Halifax this week, dancer/choreographer Martin Bélanger falters. "It's a bit of everything," the Montreal native says carefully. "There's not a storyline but a poetic narrative...it's a bit like a collage, or DJing of different formats and kinds of dance," he says, describing his 90-minute piece that will incorporate cheerleading, hip-hop, pedestrian movement, club dance styles and more formal contemporary dance gestures, with spoken word and humour in what he assures will be an audience-engaging mash-up.
Not, he quickly clarifies, that his dancers will be traipsing across the stage in an encyclopedic showcase of dance styles. Rather, Bélanger wants to "unify all theories" (hence the title) of movement, creating something new by finding a place where high and low culture can mingle. He equates the process to hearing a remixed version of a well-known song, rather than listening to a brand new experimental composition. In many ways, Bélanger explains, the remake of the familiar tune will better enable us to hear what's been changed.
He admits he's intent on shedding what he calls "preciousness" from his dance works, seeking more urgently to communicate something to the audience rather than to rest on dancing virtuosity. "I want people to feel something," he says, feeling around for the right words in English, "I don't want it to be encyclopedic or didactic...it's almost as if I want to convey the complexity of life...the complexity of the world and things. But that doesn't mean we have to be bored. That doesn't mean we can't have fun and we can't laugh."
He likens the experience of watching the performance to that of having a serious conversation. "If you really want to communicate something intimate or important," he explains, "you don't do so abruptly. You sit down and chat and make jokes, and when we're warmed up we get into the more serious stuff." Bélanger says he uses the same approach to warming up the crowd, in order to make them "more available" to absorbing the work's weightier aspects. Because as readily as Bélanger describes Grande Théorie unifiéeas funny, he also admits it has a tragic and ominous side: "I like to play on these extremes...these paradoxes."
Bélanger, who came to dance in his early 20s after working in experimental theatre, builds his pieces by setting controlled improvisations, allowing his dancers creative freedom within set parameters, a process he compares to playing cards: "There are rules, but it still feels like you're playing," he says. His intention is for some of that spontaneity to carry over into each performance, which is why he chooses to pepper the stage with playthings, including a trampoline, a hanging rope and a Pilates ball. As well as six dancers, Grande Théorie unifiée also puts technicians on stage, including sound designer Jean-Sébastien Durocher, who keeps the piece rolling along with a mélange of musical stylings, from classical to pop.
For Bélanger, it's crucial that his audiences stay open, receptive and relaxed while watching his work, allowing the experience to wash over them---an acknowledgement, again, of dance's unwillingness to be pushed around by logic and words. He says audience members have described the experience as rewarding and freeing. "Art is not always comfortable...it's not necessarily about consuming something that you like...it's about being witness to something."
Like with all good art, Bélanger says ultimately, he wants to create dance that reflects the world we live in. And like our mixed-up world, Grande Théorie unifiée is a study in contrasts. He pauses again, trying to strike the right balance: "It's at once joyful and menacing."
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