In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
The newest glass wall facing Montreal's Place des Festivals has a translucent surface pattern that resembles the spots of a giraffe. Passersby will soon be able to see clips of dancers in motion projected onto its nine-storey surface.
"The outside should reflect what is happening on the inside," says Alain Dancyger, executive director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (GBC), one of four dance organizations moving into new quarters inside the nearly completed Espace Danse. In a district where exterior walls routinely double as projection screens, Dancyger's remark could be taken for a very Montreal tweak of architect Louis Sullivan's dictum that form should follow function.
GBC will take over its new digs next month, after 37 years in a converted garage building that had no elevators, insufficient washrooms and studios where ballerinas had to take care not to bump their heads on the ceiling during lifts. The ballet will join two contemporary-dance presenters – Agora de la danse and Tangente – as well as École de danse contemporaine de Montréal.
All the companies are getting better and more versatile spaces than they had before. They're also being challenged to think about how to relate to each other, and to their new environment in the Quartier des Spectacles.
For Agora and Tangente, the shift in location is immense. The two presenters – which unlike GBC, have no resident troupe of dancers – were both formerly based in a more residential district, in a building owned by the University of Quebec at Montreal, which served notice some time ago that it needed the space for other purposes. Now the two are in a district that teems with street life even in winter, and is jammed with people during the big jazz and comedy festivals. Espace Danse is smack in the middle of the zone groomed by powers both public and private to serve as the beacon for Montreal as a cultural centre.
"We want to be very present during the first year," says Frédérique Doyon, Agora's guest curator. That means adding a few more productions, building bridges with the thousands who work in neighbouring office towers, and becoming more conscientious about addressing the company's potential new public in both official languages, she says.
Agora will share spaces with Tangente, including a variable performance studio that seats 160, a foyer and a box office. Each presenter will have its own studio for residencies and new creations. Both organizations are oriented toward providing resources, facilities and performance opportunities for independent dancers and companies. They are the gateways through which any number of shoestring companies and unaffiliated choreographers can gain a presence at the Quartier des Spectacles.
That's an important development that could improve the Quartier's image in some eyes. It's not hard to find artists in Montreal who grumble about the corporate feeling that the Quartier exudes, and the shade that this clamorous cultural zone has thrown on more exploratory arts activities elsewhere in the city.
Tangente will get street-level exposure to the public through a couple of large windows in a corner creation studio, which can be a black box or a fishbowl. When the curtains are open, "We'll have a very light-filled room, and passersby will be able to see dancers working," says Tangente co-founder and curator Dena Davida. The 60-seat space can also become a white box, shrouded entirely in white curtains for immersive performances, she says.
GBC already had a presence in the Quartier, through its regular performances at Place des Arts across the street. But Dancyger says the more central location will further the company's holistic approach to its art, which includes therapy. In 2013, GBC launched a National Centre for Dance Therapy, which will occupy four studios in the new complex and offer accreditation in dance therapy that can't yet be found at any of Montreal's universities. The therapy centre is expected to participate in clinical research and social innovation – a theme also at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which has teamed up with Concordia University for new explorations in art therapy.
"Ballet should be accessible to everyone," says Dancyger, who isn't just talking about getting people into shows. Ballet movement can also be the basis for therapeutic and educational programs for those whose bodies are not fine-tuned performing instruments, he says.
Espace Danse is housed in a redevelopment and expansion of the Wilder Building, which was built in 1918 by a furniture manufacturer. The other main tenants are agencies of the Quebec government, including the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, to which all the companies will soon be appealing for increased grants to fund their expanded activities.
The price tag to develop the dance part of the Wilder Building complex was $99.2-million, two-thirds of which came from the province, with another $7-million from the federal government. The companies are expected to raise $25.8-million, and have so far collected just over $20-million. GBC board president Constance Pathy gave $13-million.
Montreal's recent experience of innovative cultural buildings includes an instance of a great facility that the tenant couldn't afford to run. Excentris, the cinema space and performing-arts centre built on Boulevard St-Laurent in 1999, was shuttered 16 years later, after the non-profit group that ran it went bankrupt. Excentris was in a different business and neighbourhood, but stands as a cautionary example.
The smaller companies at the Wilder will be particularly stretched to continue their activities with their current budgets. Agora and Tangente, who have already presented several shows in the building, are both facing higher costs for technical crews, security, cleaning, building management and box-office services, says Davida.
"The cost of this space is much more than we've ever borne before," Davida says. Tangente, which is not active as a creation hub during the summer, is counting on rentals of its spaces during those months to provide some much-needed income, she says.
GBC will also do occasional rent-outs of its space in the building, including an atrium that can accommodate about 350 people. But "the extra revenue is more a consequence than a goal," according to Dancyger, who says his main concern is to make his company as vital as possible to all the people of Montreal.
That optimistic spirit is running strong at Espace Danse. Here's hoping that the means will follow where the intention leads.