Compagnie Marie Chouinard has been around since 1990, winning awards in Montreal and beyond. The 68-year-old French-Canadian choreographer was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 2007; Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in 2006; the Grand Prix du Conseil des arts de Montréal; in 2003; the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards in Ottawa in 2000; a Bessie Award in New York also in 2000, and in 1994, the Paper Boat Award in Glasgow. Somehow, despite reviewing dance in Boston, New York and San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe, I had never seen her work.
The thrill of being a dance writer lies in moments like this. Sure, the pieces presented were two of her company’s greatest hits, created decades ago. Still, this was a well-known voice I had never heard, a movement vocabulary I had never sampled. Would it look dated? How she would take-on “24 Chopin Preludes?” What fresh take could she possibly offer using the the still-jarring, much-choreographed-to Stravinsky score (and narrative) “Rite of Spring?” The last “Rite” I saw in person was Emanuel Gat’s all-salsa version, which was surprisingly effective. Woe to the female left without a partner.
How to describe the company— a flock of mis-matched French-Canadian hippies? Dreadlocks for women, nudity, a tall stork-like brown man dancing alongside a small, white, hairy one. The choreography for this band of alternative people reminded me of the tribal modern dance I used to watch in 1990’s San Francisco by choreographers like Sara Shelton Mann, Krissy Kiefer’s women’s group, “Dance Brigade,” as well as the queer politics-influenced cirque nouveau, “Circo Zero,” by Keith Hennessy and Seth Eisen. All this is to say that Compagnie Marie Chouinard is deliberately, defiantly odd.
Inclusive, gender-bending, political work like this rarely seems to tour to places like Santa Fe. Bravo to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, then, for being brave enough to bring a little weird our way.
In “Rite,” the dancers were all topless; in “Chopin” the women wore sheer leotards with black tape covering their genitals. For shock-value alone, Santa Fe needs work like this. Let the other presenters stick to the tried-and-true. And clearly there is an audience for this. The house was full at the 800-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center on Labor Day Weekend.
“24 Preludes by Chopin” was choreographed by Chouinard in 1999. The Preludes were an exercise for Chopin to compose a short piece to each of the 24 major and minor keys on the piano. The sections vary dramatically in mood and style, from funereal to ecstatic. They sound like Chopin—romantic, lush, often virtuosic. The challenge for a choreographer is to create a stylistic through line—a cohesion that the music may not itself contain.
Chouinard’s dance includes bird-like movement with jutting necks and fluttering hands; humor; sports team physicality; quirky musicality; Clockwork Orange eye-shadow; Afternoon of a Faun references; wrestling; Pina Bausch-style theatrics; a sense of humanity; and lots of sex. If there was a through-line beyond the batch of interesting dancers onstage throughout, it would have to be sex. And not the cheesy, Fosse-style stylized sex, more like a horny movement impetus– a Chopin-fueled drive towards release.
Just the music for “Rite of Spring” may have drawn some of the audience to the performance. Any opportunity to hear the relentless score (even in an unidentified recording) is a chance to ride through a storm. If Chouinard’s choreography for Chopin brought out the eroticism she found in the score, Stravinsky demanded the same times ten. Her version offered no apparent narrative; there is no virgin singled out for sacrifice. A single, extended female solo occurred at the beginning of the piece; later, dancers appeared wearing horns as limbs and spikes and phalluses. Another element to the choreography is Chouinard’s repeated use of high kicks, usually one at a time, in the middle of an otherwise grounded phrase—as if she were making a nod to vaudeville and showgirls. There were also gaping mouths choreographed, lots of lighting cues and black outs, undulating pelvises, and bouncing breasts. Ah well, Canada. Choreographically, I would put Chouinard in the same earthy world as Mark Morris—without his slavish devotion to musical visualization. Her milieu also includes Danz Theatre, Cirque du Soleil-style mime, and Paul Taylor-style movement for muscles-in-tights.