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Theatre & Performance Shows at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques explore memory from radically different angles

Dancer Jocelyne Montpetit left her childhood home near Montreal's McGill University in the early 1970s, at the age of 20. She never lived there again, but the house came back to her after her father's death, crammed with things and laden with memories.

Even after she had emptied it, the old house remained full for her emotionally, so she created a solo dance within its walls, called Runaway Girl. She performed this haunting piece twice on the weekend, as part of this year's Festival TransAmériques (FTA).

Runaway Girl was a dense, hour-long meditation on how places and objects seep into our consciousness and retain traces of the dead. Montpetit, who had a long and formative encounter with butoh dance in Japan, slowly felt out the doorways, windows and ruined wallpaper of the house's main floor, as if communing with the spirits of the place. Rooms she may have lived in with no special awareness became resonant chambers for an evocation of unrecoverable times and people. At one point, she lay under a veil in the front room, like a restless corpse laid out for a visitation – a common use for these kinds of rooms during the 19th century.

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Montpetit and her scenographer Shin Koseki left certain evocative objects in the mainly empty rooms. An upstairs bedroom contained ballet shoes, child's school scribblers and a Leonard Cohen LP playing on a turntable; a closet under the stairs held a collection of Tintin books and vintage dolls. The house has neither a functioning kitchen nor bathroom. It's truly a former home, a relic of past experience and a place of uncertain function. By the end of Montpetit's piece, however, it felt as if it had survived all these years just to be revived in this way, through a profound act of kinetic memory.

Sunday's performance included a delayed-action coup de théâtre that I won't reveal, since there are more shows coming, June 2 through 4. I have never experienced a theatrical ending that made a more subtle and powerful use of an audience.

Runaway Girl was about the persistence of memory. 7 Pleasures, another FTA dance offering at Usine C on Friday, was about getting rid of memory and starting over. What if being naked and touching others were not weighed down with social, moral and legal meanings? To find out, Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen stripped her 12 dancers bare and created a sensuous experimental zone where everyone's body was a tabula rasa.

As a concept, 7 Pleasures recalls Meat Joy, Carolee Schneemann's "ecstatic group ritual" from 1964. But Ingvartsen's work is less ecstatic than analytic, each of its seven sections starting from a separate "what if?"

What if you pile your naked performers in a heap at one corner of the stage, then have them slowly roll and flow together over a sofa, across the floor and under a table? What if everyone detaches from this unitary group-body and explores some item on the stage – a table, a rug or a chair – as if it were the first object ever experienced, and the only one worth knowing? What if touching, slapping and shaking your body or anyone else's were an ordinary social thing we all did, without necessarily thinking we were involved in an orgy?

None of the results seemed deliberately erotic, though the edge of erotic experience was often close at hand. Pleasure and discovery without eros was the order of the day, though some scenes also featured pain, mild domination and physical distress. Those, too, can be pleasures for some people. Simple and clear-eyed as it was in many ways, 7 Pleasures confirmed that in this culture, there's hardly any state more complicated than being naked with others.

FTA, which continues through June 8, features 27 works of dance and theatre, including productions from Canada and abroad. Here are a few other good bets among the remaining offerings:

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  • Time’s Journey Through a Room: Writer-director Toshiki Okada builds a personal and social drama from the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, using the traditions of the Japanese ghost story. (May 29 through 31, Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui)
  • Entrez, nous sommes ouverts: Quebec City’s Bureau de l’APA collective likes to invest low-tech machines with fantasy and surrealism. Its latest show explores one of the humblest devices of modern life: the button. (June 1-3, Espace Libre)
  • Woodcutters: Polish director Krystian Lupa adapts a typically dark story by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, fusing theatre and cinema in a show that pokes at the damage art-making may do to artists. (June 2-3, Place des Arts)
  • Pour: A new solo choreographed by one of the shining young talents of Quebec contemporary dance, Daina Ashbee. (June 2-4, La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines)
  • La fureur de ce que je pense: Quebec novelist and sometime sex worker Nelly Arcan died by her own hand in 2009 at the age of 36 and still haunts the province’s cultural scene, most recently via Anne Émond’s feature film, Nelly. Marie Brassard enlists six actresses and a dancer in a theatrical evocation of Arcan and her work. (June 3-6, Usine C)
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