It look the study of another language for Deborah Dunn to fall in love with English. Lured by Quebec's arts-friendly environment, the Vancouver-born choreographer moved to Montreal in 1999, and French became a necessity for survival.
"The by-product of a new language," she says, "was a greater appreciation of English literature. Reading classics in English became an enormous pleasure for me in a French milieu."
That literary love has resulted in acclaimed choreography inspired by T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - and, in her next piece, Virginia Woolf's Orlando. But for her current dance piece, Dunn took a page from one of the greatest novels of all time: Wuthering Heights.
Nocturnes, involving six dancers representing Emily Bronte's classic characters, will be presented around Montreal throughout January. Dunn had read Wuthering Heights many times, and always at the back of her mind was the idea that the complex personal relationships at the heart of the novel would translate readily into choreography. That is, until she actually began creating the piece with her dancers.
Originally, Dunn envisioned the three female dancers as young Cathy Earnshaw, married Cathy, and Cathy's ghost. The three male dancers she saw as young Heathcliff, adult Heathcliff and Edgar Linton. These characters and their internecine connections formed the initial inspiration for the choreography, but during the creative process, the plotline morphed into elemental abstractions.
"Getting Bronte's characters onto the stage proved to be very difficult," Dunn says. "From specific people, they dissolved into generalized gothic archetypes. I just couldn't get across the story. I was resorting to pantomime, and those scenes had to go."
As art does tend to take on a life of its own, Dunn now sees the piece as representing the book's symbolic nature. "Take Jane Austen's characters," she explains. "They are well defined. They function as real people in real situations. The more research I did on Wuthering Heights, the more it became clear that it is a long prose poem rather than a novel, that the characters aren't really characters but ideas. Bronte was playing with stereotypes and archetypes."
Dunn came to dance late in her career. Her university degree from Simon Fraser is in visual arts, and she was a noted photographer and designer before settling on choreographer. "I was always physical as a teenager, and took dance classes because I enjoyed them," she says. "Gradually, I came to view physicality as a wonderful outlet for self-expression. My approach to dance is not technical, but contextual."
Dunn describes the choreographic process as one where she and the dancers created a world of their own. Nocturnes is not the retelling of a story, but one conveying images and complex relationships through partnering. Rough-hewn, weight-bearing physicality is the modus operandi over refined choreographic architecture.
In fact, Dunn now sees the Brontë family itself in the dance. The three women are the Brontë sisters. The three men are the distant father, the weak, alcoholic brother, and perhaps the third male is Emily herself, the most masculine (metaphorically speaking) member of the family.
For the original score, composer David Cronkite deconstructed Chopin's Nocturnes, which gives the dance piece its name. "I wanted a bilingual title that captures the heart of the dance," Dunn explains. "The quintessence of the piece is gothic and romantic in the true sense of both words."
Dunn defines gothic as being attracted to death, darkness, depression and despair. "Brontë saw nature as interacting with the story, and she projected the elements onto the characters. In the studio, elemental powers took over the story. I also found myself being influenced by the surrealists and absurdist humour. In Nocturnes, Bronte intensity is matched by Magritte irony."
Nocturnes tours in Montreal to Maison de la culture Plateau Mont-Royal (Jan. 13), Maison de la culture Frontenac (Jan. 18), Centre Segal des arts de la scène (Jan. 22) and Auditorium Le Prévost (Jan. 28).