Iconic Montreal dance artist Margie Gillis’s 40th-anniversary retrospective is well named: In French, Florilège means a collection of remarkable things, and the program contains five of her solo works choreographed between 1978 and 1997. And each is a jewel in Gillis’s crown.
These are five works that she wanted to caress one last time, while exploring the dialogue between these earlier dances with the maturity of a 60-year-old interpreter.
Gillis has always been a rugged individualist in contemporary dance. In a city where choreography has increasingly become cool and intellectual, Gillis has always worn her heart on her sleeve. These early works made her reputation for expressive dance, and while they may now look retro, they still pack a wallop.
This concert offers longtime Gillis watchers a chance to reassess and look deeper into these dances. We too have the weight of experience that has altered perspective. Take for example Waltzing Matilda (1978), Gillis’s first acknowledged masterpiece. The solo is set to the Tom Waits song Tom Traubert’s Blues, about a skid-row alcoholic. Waits incorporates a verse from the Australian song Waltzing Matilda, the term describing wandering (waltzing) with all your worldly possessions in a rucksack (matilda).
I’ve always seen Gillis’s version as a dance of complete despair, expressing the man’s living hell through her shuddering body. During the waltzing matilda chorus, Gillis conveys almost rhapsodic ecstasy, which in the past, for me, was welcoming death. This time around, there was something else: hope.
Gillis wears a very feminine dress, and in the past that seemed a neutralizing choice. This time, however, it seemed to conjure up the woman who sent Tom Traubert on his downward spiral.
And so it continued throughout the concert, Gillis providing the audience with opportunities to revisit these works with a greater understanding.
The inspiration for Broken English (1980) is Marianne Faithfull’s eponymous anti-war song, so Gillis is garbed in a torn T-shirt and khaki pants. The dance was always centred on a soldier being shredded by bullets. With new eyes, one could discern gestures that denoted command and authority, alluding to the generals who were sending the soldiers to their deaths.
The Little Animal (1986) became more than an interior exploration of the animal within the human. Rather, it was mastery over that animal, as Gillis, in her beautiful gown, rose to become an image of serenity.
Bloom (1989) puts movement to actress Siobhan McKenna’s brilliant recitation of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The build-up to the final “Yes I will Yes” seemed much more intricate, with each repetition of “Yes” given its own subtle charge of emotion.
The final work on the program, Voyage (1997), has a score by Gaétan Leboeuf, a mix of electronica and samples of Gilles Vigneault performing his famous song Si les bateaux. Gillis, in old-fashioned dress, is on a ship, and the dance is built around the manoeuvring of two suitcases. Augmenting the fear of the new world and the pull of the old, there was also a growing defiance that formed a new subtext to the work.
These were five classic Gillis choreographies performed with maturity and wisdom. It was like an evening of old friends made new again.