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Finding Entertainment in an Artist’s Obsessions

// Dec 14,2012

Toronto: November 3, 2005
by Suzanne Jaeger

It is not that Chouinard has run out of ideas. “bODY rEMIX” is a rich, wildly entertaining compilation of playful associations, sensual and erotic imagery and stunning virtuosic dancing enhanced by a cleverly woven mesh of percussive sounds, music, recorded speech, breathy sighs, grunts, orgasmic gasps and squeals. There is, however, something clearly recognizable in all Chouinard’s works. There is something of the same — repeated even within a single work. This trait is not necessarily a negative feature, though it can be momentarily tedious. I’ve heard it said of great philosophers that they often have a single thought or philosophical problem that gets worked out in the wealth and complexity of all their writings.

Perhaps it is also true of Chouinard, as a choreographer. She has one main thought that is explored in numerous ways, with different dancers and in various performance contexts. One can’t help seeing, however, the obsession. It is evident in the rhythmic structures of her movements, the spinal undulations and flattened, two-dimensional plane in which so many of the movements are contained. It is in her perverse humour, her comical responses to classical ballet and in the almost unseemly sexuality of her dancers. It is also evident in her use of fantastical props, prosthetic devices and other distorting manipulations of the human body that make her dancers appear simultaneously in an animal-like creaturely condition and as ultra-human, machine-like mutations.

Chouinard’s interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Glen Gould’s verbal commentary on them from a radio interview would only be silly, bad-girl antics if it didn’t work. Instead, however, the cadences of Gould’s slowed-down voice, the repeated phrases, and the manipulations of the music to a point beyond recognition together with the set, costume and choreographic inventions suggest something of a continued, albeit mischievously perverted, classical aesthetic. The persisting elements of classicism include short repeated phrases both in the sound score and in the dancers’ movements, virtuosic control, highly abstract artistic elements, lyrical beauty, a sense of realism, and an attention to line, form, composition and the integrity of the whole. Chouinard is having fun. Her silliness is full of laughable surprises.

Among the wittiest moments are pointe shoes worn on the hands, and sometimes only on one foot with the other bare; the bun heads; and the crutches, walkers, canes and other prosthetic devices bringing to the stage, if rather excessively, the hidden side of a real dancer’s life — the pain, injury and chronic disability that can result from the work. Dancing is also associated with the wild sensuousness of bacchanalian celebration, and dancers are often, therefore, perceived as erotically endowed beings. Chouinard, however, eroticizes even the ostensibly disabled dancer who uses crutches and has other more unusual metal prosthetics protruding from her body. In a November 3rd interview with Susan Walker for The Toronto Star, Chouinard acknowledges the influence of David Cronenberg’s film “Crash”.

The sexuality of Chouinard’s choreography can be shocking, but it is often comical too. A man enters with a large pole protruding from his crotch. He swings this huge penis up and down, pushing his pelvis forward, and then strikes his rod, clanging, against a metal rack with each thrust. Some of the female dancers in “bODY rEMIX” appear to be topless, wearing only a flat plastic nipple sheath. The costume bottoms look like men’s athletic supports but with dark triangles in the crotch area. There are a lot of hip and pelvic thrusts — legs spread open to display the crotch. At one point, an apparently naked female dancer suggestively straddles a five-tiered dance barre like a playful note on a musical staff.

The dancers’ sexuality is immediate — like having your face in someone’s crotch. It is also, however, fantastical: there are the breathy sounds of an immanent orgasm, the beauty of the dancers’ almost naked bodies and the virtuosity of their movements. A stunning and outrageous aerial pas de deux, performed by a man and a woman, ironically spoofs dance historian Susan Foster’s interpretation of the classical pas de deux as penetrative sex, as discussed in her infamous article “The ballerina’s phallic pointe”. The couple swings in bold sweeps from side to side, and at the peak of each swing’s arc, pelvises press together with backs arching in apparent erotic pleasure, as they gradually build up the momentum to a climax.

Other less sexy, but nonetheless clever moments in the performance include a group of dancers moving across the stage on all fours, with pointe shoes on their feet and hands creating the image of a herd of gazelle or deer accompanied by the soft clopping sounds of their hooves. The herd transforms into flamingos, with the dancers upright, arms overhead and pointe-shoed hands curved to outline the birds’ heads, percussively pecking their beaks.

Chouinard plays on the ethereal aspects of classical ballet with the female dancers suspended from aerial ropes. Between extraordinary leaps they land like sprites on the upturned palms of the men sitting cross-legged on the floor. There is a fight scene between dancers suspended from the ropes. In a number of segments Chouinard also acknowledges the painfulness of pointe work. A group gathers around a female dancer suspended from an aerial rope and, though she whimpers, she finally submits, “ok, ok,” anxiously allowing the others to remove her pointe shoes and bathe her feet. In another scene, the dancer plops down into the splits, brutally pumping up and down, sadistically forcing her stretch. In a less squeamish moment, a man holding a microphone near his mouth closely follows the movements of a female dancer. He gasps in sympathetic exclamations of pain with every step she takes on point. His reactions are both funny and poignant.

It struck me, while watching “bODY rEMIX”, that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the sound of ecstasy and the sound of pain, and that perhaps dancers lose track of the difference. To dance en pointe, for example, is a wonderful experience, expressively liberating and enjoyable, but it can also be damaging to the feet and legs. Dancing, at least for the professional dancer, brings both ecstasy and pain, and sometimes both in the same movement.

Chouinard’s work might paradoxically suggest as much a critique of ballet’s critics as of ballet itself. Classical ballet has been disparaged by feminist dance scholars who find its aesthetic values oppressive of women. Arguments have been made against the aesthetic demand for extremely thin, prepubescent female bodies, the consequent devaluation of womanly curves, the impossible-to-attain ideals of feminine beauty, the idealized image in white ballets of “woman” as chaste, loving and all-forgiving of chumps like Albrecht in “Giselle”, and finally, the disproportionate number of male teachers, choreographers and artistic directors who have control over the careers and bodies of young women. Although Chouinard’s work does present another perspective on the dancer, perhaps even a feminist one, it is hardly more realistic than the familiar, idealized illusion of the ethereal ballerina. The presentation of the female dancer in “bODY rEMIX” is sometimes serious, but the work, as a whole, is mostly a clever joke. Moreover, the extreme virtuosity and clarity of line in Chouinard’s choreography, the sleek beauty of her performers, the exaggerated play on the wounded dancer on crutches, a walker, canes, aerial ropes and other odd devices, and the exhibitionism of the sexuality work too much against an interpretation of “bODY rEMIX” as anything approaching either didactic or political art.

In the final analysis, Chouinard’s work is an artistically witty, grand spectacle. If her performances are entertaining, they are not thereby diminished, however, as works of art. Chouinard’s obsessions serve her well as distinctive sources of creative energy from which she responds to her world and to her dancers. It is the world of a performance artist with the experience, artistic knowledge, skills, motivation and unique talent to become one of Canada’s most successful women choreographers and artistic directors.

Originally posted on The Dance Current.