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The newly minted Governor-General’s Award-winner created her first-ever choreography, So Blue, from countless hours of improvisation.André Cornellier

To say you're a beginner when people are celebrating you for the work of a lifetime could be false modesty, but for Louise Lecavalier it's true. Lecavalier, one of Canada's most recognizable dancers during her 18 years with La La La Human Steps, got word of her Governor-General's lifetime-achievement award at the start of an international tour of So Blue, the first-ever choreography she has created on her own.

Lecavalier broke into the Montreal dance scene three decades ago as an explosive, enigmatic figure, unlike any other. Her signature move was a sudden leap from a standing position into a horizontal spin, her rope-like platinum tresses whipping the air. It was like watching a rock singer dive into a mosh pit, except that Lecavalier did it within Édouard Lock's speedy, detailed choreography. Like called to like: Lecavalier performed with Frank Zappa and David Bowie, appearing in the 1990 video for Bowie's Fame not as a backup dancer, but as a full and sometimes dominant partner.

"She was modern dance's first, and maybe only, superstar performer, the only one with a real international identity," says Jack Udashkin, a veteran Montreal dance producer and director of Théâtre La Chapelle. Lecavalier also became the symbol of a new wave of highly physical theatrical spectacle from Quebec, which included work by Robert Lepage (Ex Machina), Gilles Maheu (Carbone 14) and Guy Laliberté (Cirque de Soleil).

Her work with La La La looked so punishing that it seems a minor miracle that Lecavalier, at 55, can still perform, much less hold the stage for the full hour of her debut choreography. There's also the question of how a woman who for so long acted as muse for others could in middle age morph into a creator in her own right.

It's a shift she explicitly rejected when Ottawa choreographer Tedd Robinson approached her in the 1980s with a proposal that she make a dance for Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers, of which he was artistic director. "She said, 'I'm not a choreographer,' " recalls Robinson. "I said, 'I think you are.' She insisted she wasn't."

Robinson's hunch, proved right some 25 years later, was that Lecavalier as interpreter had the exploratory attitude of someone who could also create. And in fact Lecavalier has never been anyone's instrument, merely accepting instructions and performing as told.

"When a choreographer asks me to do something, I'm like, 'Okay, I'll try that, and give the maximum so that you see something, and if you don't like that, I try it differently again and again and again,' " says Lecavalier on the phone from Montreal, her soft voice sounding slightly at odds with the steely insistence of her words. That repetitive variation, she says, helps her find ways to link in her own body a sequence of moves that may not, at first, form a kinetic phrase.

"It's like a game, to find a nice but unusual path between one complex move and another," she says. "Sometimes it's not a natural flow, because it's fun to find a flow where you don't think there is one." She personalizes the movement from the start, looking for an inner curve where the spectator's eye might see a flurry of abrupt angles.

"I know that Edouard's choreography didn't look circular, but my pleasure was to find something round in it," she says. "If the movement was sharp, I wanted to keep the precision, but at the same time make a flow. With a flow of movement, I could do extreme things that I could not believe I was doing." That kind of analysis also helped her protect her body. She learned to find a path of safety through movements that looked dangerous.

Lecavalier's speed, strength and androgynous presence are the flash-card traits that set her apart, but her knack for finding the unusual flow is what stands out for her colleagues. They know from the inside how much influence a dancer can have on the look of another's choreography. "That's what makes Louise so special," says Robinson. "She can make a sequence explode into something that's totally different from how anybody else would do it."

Lecavalier left La La La in 1999, after six years of dancing on a damaged hip that made it difficult even to walk. The injury occurred outside dance, though she figures that years of performance may have set her up for it. She gave birth to twin girls in 2002, worked with a few colleagues on some studio experiments that didn't lead anywhere, and wondered about her future. The turning point came in 2003, when Robinson called to ask if she would try something with him that might turn into one chapter in a program of three duets.

"He brought me back to dance," she says. "The pleasure of beginning to work in the studio with no pressure is the best. I forgot that I was 44."

For his part, Robinson discovered firsthand how relentless Lecavalier is at interrogating her material, and what powers of retention she has. "Usually people can remember seven to 10 gestures in a row, then they have trouble," he says. "She could remember immense numbers, and work on them all."

She got the hip fixed, and while working on another solo by Montreal choreographer Benoît Lachambre began to explore very slow movement – something that had always fascinated her, but that didn't fit in the propulsive idiom of Lock and La La La.

"I didn't decide I was going to work slow," she says. "It just happened, out of many hours and days of improvisation. I was discovering a different way of moving, and maybe to taste it completely, I slowed it down."

"She started assuming a semi-Butoh position," Lachambre recalls, referring to the glacial Japanese dance Lecavalier had always admired. The piece that emerged from that slow-motion tasting "was all soft and lyrical," he says, "not with the lyricism of romanticism, but a lyricism of texture. It was like a 45-minute melting." But from Lecavalier's point of view, it was also a radically new way to reach the same sweet spot she had always been searching for.

"I found it was almost the same to go extremely slow as to go extremely fast," she says. "It lets you disconnect from the ego, and get to a different level than we have every day. It's the medium speed I don't really like, where you can become overconscious of yourself."

That's the core of what she's about: letting the body break free from the mind, while taking every opportunity to analyze and play with the results. Even in works she has danced many times, she teases out small variations within the set framework, still searching for something "true and beyond our control," as she says in her program note for So Blue.

She founded her company, Fou Glorieux, in 2006, and toured internationally with a program of Robinson's duet Lula and the Sailor, Lachambre's "I" Is Memory solo, and another solo by Vancouver's Crystal Pite called Lone Epic. She made the first, solo half of So Blue on her own, from countless hours of improvisation, then asked Montreal dancer-choreographer Frédéric Tavernini to join her for the duet that forms the second half.

"I didn't know how difficult it would be to stand in front of somebody and ask them to do a movement," she says, with a light laugh. But she persisted, and created a piece that displays the speedy precision of her younger self, as well as her more recent experiments with slow movement.

Udashkin recalls seeing La La La in Turin at the peak of Lecavalier's stardom, and walking from the theatre with her afterward, through crowds that swarmed her all across the town square, pelting her with flowers and calling to her from passing cars. Those scenes may be past, but she was never about that anyway, always more interested in what might happen in an empty studio, starting from nothing, with no expectations.

"I feel really free to make many, many mistakes," she says. "And to make many discoveries."

Louise Lecavalier and Fou Glorieux perform So Blue at Festival International de Danse Encore in Trois-Rivières on June 6, Toronto's Luminato festival June 13 to 15, the Banff Centre on June 18, and the National Arts Centre Oct 8 and 9. The Governor-General's Performing Arts Awards Gala takes place at the NAC tonight.