Firehall Arts Centre
By Hailey McCloskey
Serge Bennathan's Contes Cruels opens with a bare stage, exposed, no curtains. Scuff marks marr the sheen of the marley (vinyl flooring used for contemporary dance). This is highlighted by sparse light, designed by James Proudfoot, that gives off a sharp, silverish hue. The wings are exposed. The venue has the look of a warehouse or a practice room. The marks on the floor are a history of the space: there are many stories held in this design.
There is always a depth of dance history present in the works of Bennathan. His choreography is deeply visceral and emotional, while revealing a body rooted in contemporary dance techniques and teaching: we see deep plies and extended lines just as much as we see floorwork and contact-improvisation style lifts. Ballet underpins virtuosic athletic feats: Bennathan began his professional career as a ballet dancer in France before emigrating to Canada in 1985, and became an important figure in the Canadian dance scene under the Toronto Dancemakers umbrella.
My experience of the evening, as well as this particular choreographic biography, is informed by the fact that I once danced one of his pieces. It was ages ago, in my formative dance training at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but I feel this memory arise strongly. It leads me into a personally empathic reading of the movements. I read it first as a dancer and practitioner.
The evening begins with the dancers Hillary Maxwell, Molly McDermott, Josh Martin, and Katie Lowen entering the space and standing at the front of the stage. They direct their gazes out. There is a gentle confrontational quality. I can see them breathing, chests rising and falling. They are standing front and centre, wearing soft black plain jeans and t-shirts.
Their physical toughness isn’t rigid; there is vulnerability exposing bodies of fleshy expression. Each scene is held together by large, sweeping movements that lunge across the stage, dancers lifting each other and catching each other.
The group stands downstage right holding their hands above their heads, fingers popping then moving side to side in a steering swipe, as though they are all driving the same vehicle. The movement is like a typewriter, pushed back to the left side to start a new sentence. Their bodies move up and down in a cosmic heartbeat, pulsing together. Dancers lunge repetitively, jutting their upper body forward, arms trailing behind them, micromovements betraying a struggle against wind, or space, or the possibility of momentum taking over the body. They give in eventually, collapsing under their weight, down to all fours.
The lighting is sharp. The shadows of bodies sometimes projected onto the side wall. It's these projections, shadows, grey imprints softening borders of the shape of bodies, that I long for more of. I am curious about the abyss that I am being teased by.
Words spoken are image filled and broad stroked: “rage in me a little animal...mongoose eat snake” is recited by Bennathan at the back of the stage while a dancer evokes a soft wave over their body. There is a sensation of depth that leaves me with a vague understanding of the relationship between the text and the movement. The poetic nature of the words act as signposts, and I don’t feel required to catch every word. In fact, sometimes I simply cannot hear the words. Bennathan mostly reads from a page into a standing microphone at the back of the theatre, sometimes departing to move with a directorial body posture and gaze around the moving dancers. At times, the dancers pause mid move, the group supporting an individual while they recite a line or two.
Bertrand Chenier’s score is at times ambient and drone-like, at others symphonic. The score is a landscape of deep strings (cello?). The words of Dylan Thomas’ "The side of the truth" draw existential commentary into these dynamics. 'Good and bad…good death and bad death" — lines from Thomas' poem suspend judgement in the face of the harsh realities of love and courage. I see courage when McDermott reaches up and draws in a powerful breath while Bennathan repeats "you are loved". Later, she retreats into an embryonic pawing, washed in a swath of light coming from upstage right. There is a violence to the renunciation that Bennathan speaks of, both in his and Thomas' words, and it shares the stage with bodies that both confront one another, and confront their own limitations: they reach into each other's space and into the space above them repeatedly. Bennathan says “I am content to not move anymore” as dancers break a moment of suspension, falling, reaching across the space, then stop in a clump, reaching above them. The reaching is cacophonic in rhythm. Hands wave above.
Maxwell and Martin engage in a duet downstage left that brings me to tears. They reach into each other's personal space with a grace, a tenderness and a desire for connection: they are standing close to one another, facing each other, reaching towards each other with their arms but never touching. Their upper bodies wave towards and away, following fingertips that bounce elastically back upon missing contact. They are playing with invisible boundaries. Permeable walls are being punctured by chest cavities that lead the reaching into each others' personal space. Their fingertips are antennae seeking what the eyes only make partial sense of.
The aesthetic tone of the piece is starkly space-like in nature. It exposes an earthly acceptance of facing our desires, judging ourselves at the moment of our death, and the moment we choose to be courageous enough to love. The text is bold: "Yeux dans les etoiles" reveals that human tendency to reach for the ideal in love and courage. The dancers embody courage fiercely, lunging, leaping and catching one another. Lifts are explosive. Bodies engage passionate centres as though propelling questions into the cosmos.
The piece is completed with the dancers continuing to move as Bennathan walks through the space saying “black out…..lights up” over and over. As he attempts to guide what we see, no lights are blacked out. We see everything. There are no breaks. He attempts resistance by calling the calls, and surrenders by staying with the dancers as they continue to be exposed through his desires to control their exposure. There is no place to hide.