Skip to main content

Maïgwenn Desbois’s Avec pas d’coeur began in talks with her dancers, facilitated by a dramatherapist, about the attractions and frustrations of intimacy in their lives.

How do you go on a date if, as an adult, you have trouble looking another person in the eye, or can't figure out how they're responding to you, or don't have a clear idea of what "a date" entails and what its limits are? All those puzzles may confront someone with an intellectual disability, who like everyone else, needs and wants love.

Maïgwenn Desbois is a Montreal choreographer who has spent the past 10 years working with performers who, as she said in a phone interview, "are different, who have a different perspective on life." Her latest piece, which premieres on a Tangente program  at Montreal's Monument-National on Wednesday, explores how intimacy and love have affected or eluded three dancers whose different perspectives are partly due to unusual genetic conditions.

Desbois's company is called Maï(g)wenn et les Orteils, and she is the only "neurotypical" person in it. Anthony Dolbec has Asperger syndrome, which intensifies certain abilities but also limits his capacity for reading social cues. Gabrielle Marion-Rivard has Williams syndrome, which shows in an outgoing disposition and a talent for music, but also makes social interaction a challenge. Roxane Charest Landry has Fragile X, which raises bars to learning and can make her anxious in social situations.

They have all been Desbois's student at the Centre des Arts de la scène Les Muses, a Montreal school for people with learning and intellectual handicaps. The germ of her company began to form in 2008, when she choreographed a duet for herself and Dolbec, who had been studying dance and music at Les Muses for five years.

"It has become my motor of creation," she said of the process of discovery and work that eventually drew Rivard and Landry into what became a formal company structure. "To listen to them, to try to understand them, it all comes from that."

The new piece, entitled Avec pas d'coeur, began in talks with her dancers, facilitated by a dramatherapist, about the attractions and frustrations of intimacy in their lives. "I had to respect their limits, though the more we worked, the more they spoke, and the more they surpassed their original boundaries." The piece's title suggests steps taken by the heart, but also contains a hint of negation, in that hinge word "pas."

Early on, Desbois realized there would have to be singing in the piece, "because they have all done voice studies at the Centre des Arts, and because song is an excellent medium for expressing fragility and love. The songs and the microphone symbolize very much la crise de la parole, as well as their need to speak and express themselves."

One song, written by Landry, "tells of her incapacity to enter into loving relationships. The scene in which this appears becomes a kind of combat between her and the rest of us, as she refuses to speak or sing into the microphone, and we try to force it on her." For that one scene, Landry's colleagues become the whole demanding outside world, as well as an externalization of Landry's own need to connect.

Another scene hinges on Rivard's capacity for openness, and her naivety. "She's very generous and luminous in her way of moving," Desbois said, "but at one point when she's singing, a sexual act is being suggested nearby, very playfully and poetically, and it's as if she doesn't understand what's going on around her."

Dolbec's narrative in the piece, Desbois said, is one of "great distress and frustration," after years of trying without success to make a loving connection with a woman. "And that distress exists in very strong opposition with fragility."

Desbois also brought a story of her own into the work, which is that "my partner and I can't have children, so we decided to adopt. This subject came up during our session with the dramatherapist, and it turns out that Anthony, Gabrielle and Roxane have all decided that for them, it would not be a good idea to have children. So there is that paradox, that I who wanted to have a child could not, and my three interpreters don't want to, although they all could."

Desbois's dance includes a strong component of gigue contemporaine, an updated form of the traditional clog dancing of Quebec. Gigue contemporaine has become a vigorous creative form in Montreal, supported by a biennale whose fifth edition took place last year. Bigico, the biennale's producing company, is also co-presenting Avec pas d'coeur as part of  its four-production regular series this season.

"Gigue comes into my work very naturally," said Desbois, who spent 10 years dancing with Marie-Soleil Pilette, another leading light in gigue contemporaine. "For me, it adds a texture, both sonorous and emotive. The rhythm of the feet brings out something that words can't express. It's like adding another voice to the work, which takes us further in the expression of the body."

It took two years to complete Avec pas d'coeur, and for Desbois's colleagues to reach the point at which they felt fully confident about revealing themselves before a crowd of strangers. "Whenever there was a movement or a sequence or tableaux that didn't work for them, I didn't leave it there, I changed it," she said. "I want everything in the piece to be solid for them."

Maï(g)wenn et les Orteils perform Avec pas d'coeur at the Studio Hydro-Québec in Montreal's Monument-National from March 16 to 19.