By Anita Malhotra
Renowned Montreal-based choreographer and dancer Marie Chouinard is known for her groundbreaking dance works and exploration of the human body. Starting in 1978, she built her reputation with highly personal, experimental solo works, some of which attracted controversy. She formed her own dance company, La Compagnie Marie Chouinard, in 1990, and her more than 50 dance creations have been performed to acclaim in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Chouinard has received many national and international awards, including the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Order of Canada. She was recently appointed Director of the Venice Biennale’s dance section for 2017-2020. She is also active in other media such as film, multimedia, drawing and poetry, and has even created an iPhone app.
Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Marie Chouinard, who was at her home in Montreal, on July 10, 2017 about upcoming performances in Ottawa of two of her recent works: Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights and In Museum V2.
AM: How did your dance piece Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights come about? What was the impetus behind that work?
MC: First of all the impetus for me is always creation. I love to create. This is a passion and a joy, and my job is to create. Why did I create this specific piece? I was invited by the organization of the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch to create a piece and perform it in their festival. There was this immensely big event organized in Holland around the death of this man 500 years ago. I love Bosch, I love this painter, and I immediately said, “Yes, I will do that.”
AM: How did you go about translating the three parts of the painting into dance?
MC: The three panels of the triptych are full of bodies – full of people moving to different positions. There are hundreds of bodies everywhere in those paintings. So for me it was like seeing a snapshot of a moment in an immense dance of so many people everywhere. It was a joyous exploration to try to put all the bodies of the dancers into these positions and then say, “Okay, what might have been the movement before that and what might have been the movement after that position?” It started like that.
AM: So you’re actually recreating what we would see in the painting itself.
MC: Exactly. Especially all the human movements, the body, because there are so many things in the painting of Bosch. You have little devils and little monsters and little animals and all sorts of bizarre things. But I put all my attention on the human body.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about In Museum V2?
MC: This is another world. This is a performance danced outside over a period of two hours where the audience can come and go. Members of the audience are invited one by one to come to the dancer and share an intimate desire or a personal wish. The dancer then does a spontaneous dance that is a call to the stars, a call to destiny, so that the wish might be realized.
The audience member communicates his or her wish in a very discreet manner –whispering into the ear of the dancer. So it’s a very intimate connection and at the same time, the dance itself is shared with everybody.
AM: You have performed this piece in the past, but this time others are performing it.
MC: Yes, when I created this performance it was a three-hour-long solo that I was dancing in a museum. Now I’m very happy to offer it to my dancers. In Ottawa, two dancers – Carol Prieur and Valeria Galluccio – will perform in rotation.
AM: Do you still dance sometimes?
MC: Oh, yes.
AM: Can you tell me about your daily routine?
MC: I am doing so many different things. First of all I’m a choreographer, but I’m also an artistic director of a festival in Italy at the Venice Biennale and the director of two colleges over there.
I’m creating pieces not only for my own company but for other companies in the world. I’m also the general director of my company. I’m writing, I’m doing visual arts – it’s very joyous, intense and multi-faceted. And I’m still training. And I’ve raised my family. I have a son – he’s now 20 years old.
AM: Where did your first interest in dance come from?
MC: This question brings me back to when I was a kid swimming. Swimming in the pool and remembering the love I had for organized gestures in the water to pull the water back so I could advance – the movement of the head and the breathing, the sound of the bubbles in the water, the regularity and the precision of that. After swimming for many lengths of the pool suddenly I got into another dimension of being.
I guess that was my first introduction to the love of dance. I had been taking ballet class before that but I had not experienced such a profound, connective feeling with movement and the breath.
AM: And you had early experiences with theatre as well?
MC: Yes, I took many theatre classes when I was in my teenage years.
AM: You’re known for breaking choreographic boundaries. Where does that impetus come from?
MC: I don’t think my impetus is breaking boundaries – my impetus is creation. My impetus is exploring unknown lands. Creating means you do something that has not been done before. You put something into the world. I guess that putting something into the world is sometimes bringing people outside of the box. But I’m not thinking of going outside of the box, I am out of the box.
AM: You must have had some negative reactions at the beginning with some of your controversial works.
MC: Since the very first creation there was a buzz and a feeling of love for my work. I’m so lucky. It’s a very big privilege to create art and that your art gets appreciated. My dancers have now been touring the world for the last 30 years. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful.
AM: There are a lot of musical and sound elements in your work. Why do you integrate music and sound?
MC: Because my art is an art in time and space, with bodies and sound and light. As an artist I am totally engaged in all aspects of my creation. I’m taking care of the scenography, the video, the costumes and the sound – everything but the music, which is created by Louis Dufort. Louis Dufort is a little genius. I love his music and I am so happy to work with him for 20 years now.
AM: As I perceive it, there’s a lot of sexuality in your works. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MC: You use the word “sexuality,” but I just think I’m using the body. I’m just engaging the body into movement. When you look at a flower, would you say you are witnessing a sexual moment? It is. A flower when it is opening is a sexual activity. And when the trees are blooming, you don’t say, “Oh, this is sexual.” When I offer a flower I’m not thinking that I’m offering the sex of a plant. I’m just offering a flower. Well, in creation, it’s the same. When I create a work, I don’t think sex. I just think life, the force of life, the impetus of life, the beauty of the bodies.
AM: You have written a book of poetry – Chantier des extases. Why did you write it?
MC: Because I’m a creator. Because I’m also drawing, doing photographs – I’m creating so many things. Because I have joy in creation, because I like to create.
AM: You also created an iPhone app called Cantique. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
MC: You can download it for free on your iPhone or your iPad. It’s kind of a game. Using the icons, the player can alter the dancer’s face and the sound in real time, creating an original choreographic dialogue with endless possibilities. It’s beautiful, joyous and surprising. It is about communication between human beings.
AM: How would you encourage non-dancers to be part of the love of dance if they haven’t had formal training?
MC: First of all they could just walk in a wood or walk by a lake. Just walking and feeling the breath as they walk and feeling all the body parts as they walk. Feeling the wholeness of it and the breathing at the same time. Perceiving that mind gets into the realm of perceptions and sensation and communion with the environment and the soul and the spirit of life. That’s already a lot. If you get that, wow!
La Compagnie Marie Chouinard will perform Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on July 14, 2017 and In Museum V2 at the National Gallery of Canada on July 15. For more information about Marie Chouinard and her work please visit mariechouinard.com.