English Editor: Pamela Newell, French Ed:
Julie Anne Ryan
David Earle commissioned James Kudelka to create a new work for the Toronto Dance Theatre in 1991, resulting in Fifteen Heterosexual Duets, a suite of technically challenging dances. In 2005, Laurence Lemieux of Coleman Lemieux decided that these dance pieces should be part of Dance Collection Danse’s choreographic archive (begun in 1986), so the following year, Coleman Lemieux engaged in a reconstruction of these, with new dancers (except for Lemieux), a new costume designer (Denis Lavoie in place of Denis Joffre), and a new lighting designer (Pierre Lavoie in place of Ron Snippe). Kudelka returned, of course, to recreate the duets in his characteristically dynamic, fully engaged manner, as Laurence Lemieux took notes during the rehearsal process in which participants were asked if they wished to contribute their thoughts. Photographer Michael Slobodian attended rehearsals and performances with a digital camera in tow. DCD found photographs and illustrations from the 1991 and 1997 B.C. revival to supplement the pictorial record, and the present coffee-table book is the result. It includes an Introduction by Miriam Adams, Foreword by James Kudelka, Writings by Lemieux, Suzette Sherman, Marc Boivin, Sasha Ivanochko, Andrea Boardman, Sylvain Lafortune, and John Ottomann, and concludes with artists’ biographies, and a photo gallery. That’s not all: the book has a simultaneous French translation by Marie Claire Forte, thereby expanding its potential audience market.
While its motive is admirably useful, and this record contains many fascinating riches, it struggles to deal with two overarching problems for any book attempting to be an archival record of a reconstruction of a famous dance. One concerns the issue of the limits of reconstruction, and the other concerns the issue of recording the dance itself. Lemieux’s journal entries are interesting but sketchy. They attempt to record how Kudelka’s musicality seemed to make movements come to life, and how Sylvain Lafortune and she emphasized mechanics, with music and movement coming together at the end. However, the text is extremely short on specifics of choreography and almost void of analysis. Lemieux can say little about the overall piece apart from noting how it is “a kinetic work about relationships and partnering, physical dependence.” She quotes Kudelka: “You should not be able to do this by yourself.” Fair enough, but do what precisely, and what were the partnerships like in performance? What, for instance, was Duet 1 like when danced in 2006 by Lemieux and Victor Quijada, in contrast with the way it was performed by Lemieux and Graham McKelvie in 1991?
While the writers of the short texts all seem to be enamoured of Kudelka’s way of working, they don’t bring the dance pieces to vivid life in any way. Suzette Sherman writes of Kudelka’s “no-nonsense, no-time-to-waste” approach that often used sharp humour to make a point. Sasha Ivanochko writes of his “powerful presence, and the energy he brings into the studio,” which she calls “palpable and transformative,” but she never says how. John Ottmann records how Kudelka, “at once bobbing and weaving, then lunging and sweating,” directs “through his own body, willing the dancers to be unleashed.” His brief writing (not quite two pages long) successfully communicates the symbiotic relationship between choreographer and dancers, but readers will have to do their own work, prod their own imaginations in order to guess at the multifold layers (music, space, time, body) being unleashed. Of course, these participants know, as any critic also does, that writing about dance (especially modern dance) is almost as difficult as writing about music. This is probably why there are few excellent dance critics anywhere in the world—certainly few who convey the excitement, subtlety, poetry, and emotional force of the art.
Sylvain Lafortune’s text is probably the best of all the written records. He had appeared in the premiere presentation in 1991, though he hadn’t danced Kudelka’s choreography for four years. However, as dancer and rehearsal director (assisted by Pierre Lavoie), he had the technical expertise and experience to supplement his keen eye and ability to summarize the practical problems and solutions in rehearsal. His text is rich in insights because he is (as he states) “interested in the mental representation that a dancer has of the choreography he/she is performing. This image, which is constructed through verbal, visual and physical information, influences how the dancer will realize a desired goal. The dancer in turn makes choices based on that image, evaluates these choices and proposes solutions.” Excellent, but what were the desired goals, apart from communicating themes of partnering and dependence? Moreover, as Lafortune recognizes, in a reconstruction, “choreography is no longer open-ended.” It is already fixed and almost never changes, so dancers have to adapt to it. Or to use Lafortune’s words, “Can a work be truly be considered finished when it ultimately exists only through the dancers [sic] interpretation of it?” Or “When James proposes a version of Fifteen different from those on video, is it because his aesthetic has evolved or because he is simply looking to correct a version with which he was not entirely satisfied?” The questions shed light on the importance of archiving dance, but can they ever be fully answered by a book such as this one?
The book has no video to show this process, and videos, in any case, only show what dancers do, not what they think at the time of the dance. Lafortune is shrewd enough to pinpoint the problem: “Despite our general knowledge of James’s work, we were unable to understand the specific intention of each movement. Those who had already danced the choreography could speak with expertise about their roles, but even then, they spoke from impressions that had inevitably changed over time.” This problem is common to all kinetic performance art: the presentation changes in at least a subtle way from performance to performance, and the presentation becomes a residual memory, a shadow, if you will, of the actual performance at a specific moment in a specific space. Photographs provide useful archival assistance, but in this DCD pictorial record, the black and white photographs by Michael Slobodian outweigh the text, and while excellent in themselves, they don’t (perhaps cannot) communicate the technical inventiveness or emotional power of the duets. They freeze or pinpoint a tiny second of movement, so they cannot give an adequate sense of fluidity or connexion. They can suggest but not explicate. It would have been more useful to have matching rehearsal and performance sections side by side for comparison, but the book does not provide for this. Certainly the rehearsal shots of Kudelka’s physical interaction with his dancers speak volumes about his method: he supports Laurence Lemieux with his right arm holding a part of her waist in Duet 1; he is cradled by Victor Quijada in the same duet; or he demonstrates a mode of contact with Andrea Boardman for Sylvain Lafortune; or, in Duet 9, he helps to fortify Lafortune’s support of Lemieux on his shoulders. Just as interesting are the photographs of the dances themselves, where the kinetic nature of the choreography (such as of Sasha Ivanochko and Marc Boivin in Duet 3; Anik Bissonnette and Mario Radacovsky in Duet 4; or Anne Plamondon and Victor Quijada in Duet 7) is also supplemented by moments of exquisite grace (Andrea Boardman and Sylvain Lafortune in Duet 13; or Laurence Lemieux and Victor Quijada in Duet 15). These are a pictorial record of a unique dance, and they speak to breathtaking technical brilliance, without necessarily suggesting the dance’s humanistic quality. Ironically, however, this shortcoming serves as an alluring springboard for the reader’s imagination, though what is imagined may or may not be correlated to the actual dance in real time.