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theatre review

Louise Lecavalier and Rob Abubo in Mille Batailles.Andre Cornellier

Louise Lecavalier's surname means "the horseman," which is more or less how she appears in her new dance, Mille batailles, seen at Montreal's Monument-National on Tuesday. Kitted out in black shiny pants that flared like chaps, she even galloped across the stage several times, which is not at all the kind of movement that made her the star of the ultimate New Wave dance group, La La La Human Steps.

No, she wasn't giving her own twist to Rodeo, Agnes de Mille's cowboy ballet from 1942. Lecavalier's rider was developed from Italo Calvino's novella The Nonexistent Knight, about a medieval courtly warrior so ideal that he has no physical existence.

Calvino's knight makes himself known by the movements of his empty armour, and by a voice heard through the metal. Leaving aside the voice, that could serve as an obvious personal metaphor for a performer who spent decades as a vessel for someone else's choreographic vision, and who only recently began expressing her own.

But Lecavalier seems to have found in Calvino's empty armour not an image of herself so much as a tool for getting away from herself, and from her accustomed ways of moving. Mille batailles is partly about erasing something, which may be why much of it looks stripped down and restricted, as a knight's actions would be limited by actual armour.

Lecavalier began the piece alone, hardly shifting along the floor while elaborating an angular play of arms. All her old speed was there, but only above the waist. The first section was done straight toward the house, the pale moon of Lecavalier's face encircled by the tight hood of her black jacket. Eight sheets of plywood formed a squared-off backdrop that was later mimicked by a floor lit like graph paper.

She did the next section mainly in profile, with lots of right-angle bends from the hips and the elbows. We might have been watching a systematic catalogue of every movement available to a body of simple joints, though more marionette than iron shell. But Lecavalier has always had a hot stage temperament. Even the most mechanical sections of Mille batailles had a passionate urgency, as if her frantic semaphore were the only thing keeping her from madness.

By the third section, a double had appeared: Robert Abubo, playing the knight's squire, and also more neutrally offering another set of limbs that didn't come with Lecavalier's kinetic history already installed. Sometimes the pair moved like planets in orbit, or like opponents, at one point jousting from one corner of the playing space to another. They also snaked their legs up the wall and did things that looked like outgrowths of contact improvisation, linked by a hand or two as their bodies responded to a single flowing impulse. These were the most organic parts of the show, and the least characteristic of its overall look.

All of this was accompanied by driving, wave-like improvisations from guitarist-composer Antoine Berthiaume, playing off to one side of the stage. I sometimes wondered if Lecavalier shouldn't have cut loose more often from the tyranny of Berthiaume's drum machines, but perhaps she needed that to perform the physical self-estrangement at the root of this piece.

Horses came and went throughout the piece, implied by a broad-legged stance, or a series of hopping kicks, or by the way one dancer burdened or supported the other. Lecavalier literally carried Abubo off the field of battle at the end, his body draped over her back like that of a wounded warrior trusting his animal to get him home.

Lecavalier is a genuine star in Quebec and a beloved presence in Montreal. The opening-night crowd gave her a huge ovation, for a striking piece that will be seen during a future season at the co-commissioning National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Milles batailles, a production of Louise Lecavalier's company Fou glorieux, continues through June 2 at the Monument-National's Salle Ludger-Duvernay, as part of Montreal's Festival TransAmériques (fta.ca/en/).