In this weekly column, Robert Everett-Green writes about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Modern dance is not a retentive form. Notations and videos exist, but in terms of the thing itself – dancers moving in space – it takes determination and resources to keep a piece alive for a long time, or to revive one from a period whose tastes may be different from those of the present.
Bagne Recréation is one such reawakening, at Place des Arts's Cinquième Salle, of a landmark 1993 duo that Montreal dancer-choreographers Pierre-Paul Savoie and Jeff Hall performed all over Canada and abroad. It's an intense dance drama about two men in a chain-link cage, acting out their captivity on the fence and each other's bodies.
Bagne is an intensely physical piece, and even in this revised form recalls a dynamic phase in Quebec modern dance. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time when a heightened physicality came into many Montreal choreographers' work, inspired by the likes of Pina Bausch. Le Festival international de nouvelle danse, which was then a major global showcase, brought several kindred spirits to town, including Wim Vandekeybus's Ultima Vez and Lloyd Newson's DV8 Physical Theatre. But Montreal's engagement with physical theatre quickly took on a tone and flavour unique to the city, and became part of its artistic signature abroad.
Everyone had a different take on it; the kinetic theatre that Gilles Maheu made with Carbone 14 used a broader range of resources than, say, the propulsive dance works Édouard Lock created with La La La Human Steps. But in most cases, it was an art of extremes, in which moving bodies sometimes looked like projectiles, props could resemble weapons and sets became barriers to struggle against. A dancer's trajectory might end in collision with another body, or with the chain-link fence in Bagne. The high-contact look was crystallized for many in the sudden horizontal spins Lock developed with Louise Lecavalier, who careened into her partners with enough force, sometimes, to knock them down.
You could say that physical theatre was also the essential catalyst in the formation of Cirque du Soleil, which has become Quebec's most prominent cultural export. Without all the elements of wordless theatrical narrative imported by Guy Laliberté, Cirque would be nothing more than acrobatics in a tent.
Other key participants in Montreal's long tryst with physical theatre haven't fared so well. Carbone 14 faded out in 2005, after two decades of arresting work. La La La collapsed under financial stress in September, to the shock and dismay of many. Lock's two-year international touring cycles and high-profile partnerships with the likes of David Bowie had made him a global superstar of the Montreal dance scene.
In that context, there's something a bit elegiac about the revival of Bagne, though Hall and Savoie seem motivated less by nostalgia than by a desire to rework the piece for the current moment. They have cut and changed sections, and given it a bleaker ending. Bernard Falaise's excellent new score has fewer markers of outside life than the original sound collage by Edward Freedman, and makes the men seem even more isolated in their cage. That has the effect of underscoring the possibility – always present – that this very gritty representation of prison life can be taken metaphorically.
The choreography is still lean, and remarkably elegant: No jailhouse fight ever looked as beautiful as the tangles Milan Panet-Gigon and Lael Stellick get into. As they grapple and separate, or crawl through each other's dreams, the line between social being and human animal gets very thin. Their movements alone or together are so many assertions of frustrated power by those who lack the power to leave the room. When they fling themselves at the fence, clinging there like startled insects, you feel that there's nothing left in their world but the desire to escape.
That's perhaps the most enduring success of this piece and this production: that even during their most brutal moments, the dancers wear their emotions on their flesh. You can see the artifice in the way this thing was made, and the calculations needed to spare the dancers from harm, but the effect over all is of a work of dance theatre that's honest through and through.
Even so, Bagne Recréation didn't hit me the way the original version did when I saw it in 1994. Maybe that's because the culture has become more attuned to violent narratives. Two men in a cage is now a standard TV wrestling scenario, and extreme sports are in vogue. The shock value that Bagne had two decades ago has been worn down by no fault of its creators, or of the two excellent dancers who perform this new iteration. Time has passed, conditions have changed, and so have we – though scenes from this hard and touching show will stay with me, like memories refreshed and old nightmares renewed.
Bagne Recréation, a production of PPS Danse and Danse Danse, continues at Place des Arts through Oct. 31. A four-city Quebec tour begins Dec. 8 at the Grand Théâtre de Québec in Quebec City.