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Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal - 'Minus One'

Authentic Illusions: In the Manner of Ohad Naharin

by Denise Sum

November 4, 2004 -- Hummingbird Centre, Toronto

The program for Les Grands Ballet Canadiens’ "Minus One" bears the sub-title “Nothing is permanent”. After experiencing this wondrously eclectic performance, one becomes starkly aware of this reality. The 85-minute piece, a collection of excerpts from the oeuvre of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, is brimming with unobstructed kinetic energy and exuberant musicality that is instantaneous and fleeting in its beauty.

The viewer is left with a blurred memory, the ‘afterimages’ of the dance, but the intensity of the performance is difficult to recapture in one’s mind. There is an underlying sense of freedom in this work that concerns itself only with the present. Naharin is almost irreverent in his defiance towards the conventions of classical ballet (almost, because traces of a classical foundation can still be perceived). He takes risks by allowing dancers to have voices and audience members to get up on stage. The Montréal company departs from the notion of ballet as static and antique, venturing into uncharted territory with confidence and ease.

"Minus One" is a bold testament to the imagination of Naharin and the versatility of the dancers of Les Grands. Naharin, currently the resident choreoegrapher of Batsheva Dance Company, has worked extensively throughout the world -- creating ballets for the Nederlands Dans Theatre, Frankfurt Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and countless others. "Minus One" is a delightful sampling of his talents drawn from seven previous works: "Anaphaza," "Black Milk," "Queens of Golub," "Zachacha," "Sabotage Baby," "Passomezza," and "Mabul."

Although the various pieces were created independently, in "Minus One" they form an integrated whole. I’ve often considered the recycling of one’s own material a major faux pas and a precursor to the drying up of creativity. Happily, Naharin has proven me wrong. "Minus One" gives him the opportunity to revisit and reinterpret his older works, exploring them in greater depth while adapting the dances to fit the unique style and talents of the dancers of Les Grands.

The show begins even before the house lights are dimmed. A lone man dances on stage to recorded music. His movements could be improvised; they appear so natural and spontaneous. In an instant, 29 other dancers flood the stage and he fades into the crowd. They move as one entity, furious leaps and twists executed in perfect unison. The frantic impulse of movement jolts the audience, as if preparing them for the unexpected.

Naharin’s strongest works are those that use the full cast, such as the theatrical and provocative group number from "Anaphaza" set to the traditional Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodea” (played by rock band Tractor’s Revenge). The dancers are arranged on a large semi-circle of folding chairs, repeating a combination of movements ending in “the wave”- more often seen in the sports stadium. One dancer gets up and stands on his chair, opposing the conformity. Eventually, all the dancers shed their clothes, tossing them into the centre of the stage until they are left in their underwear. This powerful piece plays on our notions of unity and division. Despite individualistic ideals, most people feel some compulsion to belong to a larger continuum.

Clearly, though, the dancers presented in "Minus One" do not need to sacrifice their autonomy. Even when dancing en masse, the feeling is one of collaboration rather than submission. Québécois choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault once said that there is no such thing as true anonymity. Naharin seems to concur. Anonymity is just another illusion. Dance itself is an illusion, a simulated reality. I think the idea of "Minus One" is not to escape the illusion, but to look it in the eye and embrace it. The realization of beauty as illusion is extremely liberating, and this openness is articulated in the dancing. A particularly comical example of Naharin playing with our perception of reality is a vulgar woman on pointe-shoe stilts, lip syncing (from Sabotage Baby). Her lip sync is perfectly matched to the sound, but it’s also obvious that it is not her own voice.

Dancers, especially ballet dancers, are often put on a pedestal, admired from afar as strange, otherworldly beings, similar to the sylphs and mythical characters they often portray. The romanticized ballet dancer is a silent artist whose presence vanishes once off-stage. The dancers of Les Grands are exceptional at what they do. Their skill of movement would seem to separate them from ordinary people. But Naharin wants the audience to realize that dancers are simply people that dance. All dancers are human and all people are dancers.

Naharin’s choreography leaves plenty of room for the dancers’ personalities to come through. In one piece, the dancers form a line. One at a time, individuals break away and dance a solo to a recording of their voice, then return to the group. The autobiographical recordings range from serious to quirky to downright hilarious, and above all, expose the performers as real people in all their idiosyncrasies. Most of the anecdotes relate to dance. One describes his self-consciousness about his appearance that only disappears when he dances. Another still suffers from stage fright but derives the greatest satisfaction from overcoming it. Yet another tells us that she likes to watch and listen. She could go days without uttering a word. Even on stage she feels like she is watching rather than being watched, highlighting the idea that the audience is as central to, and involved in the art as the performer. They all dance, yet for different reasons, and in different ways.

Naharin’s works are decidedly provocative, and "Minus One" certainly succeeded in stirring up the audience. But nothing quite elicited as much delight as when the lights went on and the dancers came out into the audience, bringing willing viewers on stage with them to dance a cha-cha. They tend to choose people dressed in bright colours and those that look the least like dancers, in order to produce the greatest contrast. Amazingly, these “non-dancers” looked perfectly at ease on stage. It’s as if the piece wanted to show us that the divide between artist and spectator is just another illusion, and that the joy of movement is something universal and fundamentally human. It is limitless and inclusive in its scope. Naharin seems to see dance as dialogue rather than simple presentation.

After the finale, set to an electronic re-mix of “Que Sera”, the audience was quickly on its feet. "Minus One," although short is a satisfying collage of dance. The company performed with polished finesse, the multi-talented dancers showing impressive range and facility. They have the rare ability to be dramatic while still maintaining a sense of humour. Naharin’s choreography is edgy, theatrical, witty, and driven- making "Minus One" as accessible to first-time dance audiences as it is to regular ballet goers. It is really a shame that on the night that I went, the theatre was barely half full. Canadians have reason to take pride in this passionate performance of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

Edited by Kate Snedeker and Jeff.

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