What does it mean to be a man in this day and age? Danse de Garçons, playing at La Nouvelle Scène until Saturday April 16, explores this question and answers it with a few different ideas: competition and collaboration, physical and emotional support and domination, roughness and tenderness, and in its final breathtaking image the precarious balance between the extremes the show ultimately portrays.
First created by the company Danse K Par K in 2013, Danse de Garçons was initially inspired when 6 actors saw the dance show Uprising by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter (Shechter’s work was last seen locally at the NAC last November, in the three-part barbarians). They headed to choreographer Karine Ledoyen for help, their mission in mind: to create a wordless dance show with only actors. The result was the show now being presented by Théâtre la Catapulte (with one concession to Ledoyen: there is one professional dancer in the show).
The piece starts with the more clichéd masculine attributes that come to mind: running around the space to connote physical activity and strength, vulgar crotch grabs while making eye contact with the audience, and the collapse of a structure of wooden planks that evokes the destructive power of masculine force. The crotch grabs don’t last throughout, but the running does, and the planks become an ingenious tool by which many of the moments in the piece are (literally) framed.
The vulgarity gives way to competitive dancing (think the Haka more than ballet), which gives way to each performer forcing himself to keep moving, despite the heavy breathing and pouring sweat on the part of each performer.
At the centre of the choreography lies the concept of the game, or perhaps more appropriately the struggle. A number of open-ended games constitute the main moments in Danse, with the most palpably tense one being an elimination game: each performer, in this section, holds a plank upright wherever he is standing onstage. One performer lets go of his plank and runs toward another performer, who in turn lets go of his plank and runs off so that the first performer can catch it. The process repeats on and on, and each time a performer doesn’t quite make it in time to stop the plank from falling over, he is eliminated from the game. By the time the game concludes, each performer has a fresh coat of sweat and the audience is on the edge of their seats waiting to see how long it can keep going. It can’t go on forever, but to see the concentration in the performers’ eyes as it goes on is to perceive the drive to stay in the game.
There’s quite a bit of collaboration besides competition – the planks, which are almost constantly moved around the space, form a walkway more than once, in which one actor walks on top of them and other actors run to keep the pathway in place so that the first actor can keep moving. One actor climbs over another actor’s head and shoulders, down his back, between his legs and back to his chest and shoulders without ever touching the ground – the actor being climbed supports the other performer the whole time. The fact that the other actor, the climbing one, is blindfolded the whole time speaks to the necessity of trust and intimacy between men, which, due to destructive gender stereotypes, many men are unlikely to actively seek.
One seemingly crucial aspect to masculinity would seem to missing: the masculine perspective on sex. The foreword from Jean Stéphane Roy, artistic director of Théâtre la Catapulte, offers a hint as to why this was left out: “Faced with a wide variety of models of masculinity, consumer of pornography being even knowing what sexuality really is, the boy of today is confronted with the heritage of the battle for equality between the sexes without even being able to understand the essence of what it is.” (This sentence appears in the program in French). Sexuality isn’t explored here because this piece is about masculine identity, and not the relationship between a man and a woman, or even a gay man and another man. There are definitely a few moments that, taken out of context, could absolutely be interpreted as having homosexual overtones, but within this performance there is still a very innocent air to them. One moment features all the actors piling up on top of each other while each actor struggles to get to the top of the pile. Yes, there are faces unintentionally shoved into crotches and the like, but I remember a similar game when I was younger, which we called Dogpile. It wasn’t sexual then and it isn’t here either (I don’t remember accidentally groping anyone, but I do remember how much I didn’t want to be crushed by everyone else).
There is one explicitly gay kiss about a third of the way through – and honestly, I don’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t the focus of attention; the other performers were running around and kneeling elsewhere, doing other things, at the time. Both performers kissed with a certain amount of desperation, so perhaps it was a non-sexual attempt at creating physical intimacy. It still stuck out to me, although the rest of Danse de Garçons fits together quite neatly.
Another moment that could be interpreted in a sexual manner is a wrestling match between two performers, where the goal is quickly established that the first one to completely strip the other of his clothes is the winner. This moment seems to speak more to humiliation and vulnerability than sex – the loser curls up and struggles to stand, before exposing himself to the audience so that he can walk forward. The planks come into it, but the other extreme to abuse and humiliation ends this moment when one of the other actors embraces the nude one, picks him up, and cradles him. A metaphor for sexual violence? Maybe, but I at least saw the nudity as symbolic rather than illustrative – the nudity wasn’t the point, but the domination that led to it was.
In the final moment, the performers set up a line of planks down the central length of the playing space, and balance the others on top of it, creating a line of seesaws. The nude actor is laid gently atop one, and the other performers lie down on the others, struggling to find balance. Given that this show has at this point shown the extremes of masculine nature, the balancing act is a beautiful depiction of the quest for moderation between them; the message is driven home when the performers, struggling to balance on their backs, reach up, toward the heavens, to assist their balance. If that doesn’t represent the fight for transcendence, I don’t know what does.
The simplicity of Danse de Garçons, design-wise, puts most of the focus on the performers and the choreography, although set designer Dominic Thibault should be commended for the structure of wooden planks at the beginning, which looks so strong but comes crashing down almost immediately once the performance starts. It’s impossible to tell just from watching the show whether the wood was the idea of Thibault or Ledoyen, but their efforts have nicely synthesized. The lighting and sound design both work around the tensions of each moment, with sound coming in at tense moments and fading out as the tension does, leaving us with just the sound of the performers gasping for breath. The lighting sometimes fades as each game ends, but it always comes back up at the beginning of a new sequence.
There is of course no one answer to the question of what it means to be a man, just as in a dance piece there is no one strict interpretation of it. Danse de Garçons does create fantastic energies between its male performers and engages the attention of the audience the whole way through, so I would invite you to see this piece at La Nouvelle Scène so that you can make your mind up for yourself (there are no words, language barrier is not an argument you can make).
Danse de Garçons
A Danse K Par K Production
Presented by Théâtre la Catapulte
At La Nouvelle Scène 15 April 7:30 pm & 16 April 7:30 pm
Choreography by Karine Ledoyen
Artistic Consultation by Daniel Danis
Scenography and Costumes by Dominic Thibault
Lighting by Sonoyo Nishikawa
Sound Design by Jean-Michel Dumas
Assistant Choreographer and Stage Manager: Ginelle Chagnon
Performed by: Charles-Étienne Beaulne, Jean-Michel Girouard, Éliot Laprise, Jocelyn Paré, Jocelyn Pelletier, Fabien Piché, and Lucien Ratio
*Please note there is nudity in this show