It is 1986 in Vancouver. Montreal choreographer Ginette Laurin and her O Vertigo company have just debuted her latest skewering of pop culture with Chevy Dream. On stage is a vintage Chevrolet, which a male and female dancer athletically manoeuvre over, around, under and through. The piece is a clever and amusing depiction of raging teenage hormones.
By this time, Laurin had exploded onto the Montreal dance scene in a major way. And still in its infancy, O Vertigo had already attracted international attention – Chevy Dream was commissioned by the World Festival of Performance Arts at Expo 86.
Flash forward to 1992. The set is a monolithic white room, with a roof, walls, and cornices, all in realistic detail. It is unusual to have such an elaborate environment for dance. Through the choreography of La Chambre Blanche, Laurin evokes, at different times, a bedroom, a mental hospital, even a fortress. The confined space affects the 11 dancers in disturbing ways.
La Chambre Blanche was a turning point in Laurin's career. From playful works with a daredevil approach to movement, she became a serious artist, tackling weighty philosophical and psychological themes, told through multilayered, highly kinetic choreography. La Chambre Blanche also stamped the style and structure of the monumental dances that would follow.
Now, in 2013, O Vertigo is celebrating its 30th season. To kick off the festivities, the company has just finished a weeklong series of free performances at Place des Arts, where Laurin has her studio.
But alongside the customary revelry, anniversaries are a time for reflection, particularly when the artistic director is a formidable Canadian dance icon. (Laurin explains the unusual company name as follows: "I used to jump around so much when I was younger, my mother said that I suffered from vertigo.")
With a background in gymnastics and ballet, Laurin joined Montreal's modern dance-influenced Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire when she was 18. The company was a hotbed of creativity that produced a whole generation of rugged dance individualists, among them Paul-André Fortier, Louise Lecavalier, Daniel Léveillé, Edouard Lock and Laurin. Since then, Laurin, now 58, has created more than 50 works that have been performed on four continents.
It's significant that, on Laurin's website, the section devoted to her choreography begins with La Chambre Blanche. The question then becomes, what caused her choreographic shift in the 1990s? Why move away from short, ironic works to large scale, full-length epics?
According to Laurin, there were several drivers. First, she was getting older, and having children had introduced a sense of seriousness into her life. She also became interested in collaborating with other artists, particularly in exploring the images that could be evoked with the added theatricality of sets, lighting and music. "I didn't want to create choreographies with a strong message," she says. "Rather, I wanted to create impressionistic pieces which allow the spectators to write their own stories."
In truth, during the 1990s, O Vertigo represented dance on a massive scale. Stephen White, producer of Dance Victoria on Vancouver Island, calls Laurin's productions "complete works," and equates her aesthetic to Richard Wagner's concept of gesamtkunstwerk – the total integration of all the arts.
By the 2000s, however, Laurin's work became more spiritual and interior, using more minimal sets. The death of partner Bernard Côté in 2001 introduced a darker tone to her choreography, a sense of mortality.
Laurin's forays into filmmaking, photography and art-gallery installations were direct results of her need for new challenges. She also became interested in technology. For example, Luna (2001) employed technical optics that distorted the human shape, while the intimate exploration of the human body in Onde de Choc (2010) was rendered through amplification of both the heartbeat and the dance floor.
While her production focus might have changed, Laurin's signatures in choreography have remained a constant. She is known for her inventive partnering, intricate footwork and detailed gestural language. Athletic is the usual word employed to describe the speed, rigour and demands of her movement.
The quality of Laurin's beautifully crafted works has never dimmed, and her constant redefining of herself as a dancemaker is much admired. Says Clothilde Cardinal, co-producer of Montreal's Danse Danse: "Ginette continues to surprise us. Her latest work Khaos actually showed a more socially engaged choreographer with its reference to the Arab Spring."
Laurin is considered a trailblazer who helped stamp Montreal as a recognized dance hub and who defined Quebec and Canadian dance for the rest of the world.
"I'm proud that I resisted turning dance into a recipe for success by repeating myself," Laurin says. "I'm continually developing my creative process by trying other things."