Marie-Josée Chartier digs deep for Stria

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To create her new work Stria, Toronto-based dancer-choreographer Marie-Josée Chartier went digging—physically and metaphorically. She drew on her time searching for dinosaur bones in Alberta’s badlands, with the paleontologist cousin of her husband, the late composer Michael J. Baker. But she also dug deep into herself and her most difficult memories.

Stria refers to the ridges or furrows that tell the age of rock formations, but it can also mean the lines that mark our own skin and age—and the veteran Canadian artist loved the way the word brought her experiences together.

“Through life we store memories—some harden and really fossilize inside us and sometimes we don’t know they’re buried there,” she tells the Straight from Winnipeg’s Gas Station Arts Centre, where Stria plays before she heads to the Scotiabank Dance Centre as part of National Dance Week and International Dance Day celebrations. “In paleontology you see millions and millions of years in these marks. So I was interested in those lines and all that is stored, geology- and history- and memorywise.”

The work is about loss, grief, and love—of which the upbeat, passionate French-Canadian artist has evidently had more than her fair share. “There’s been a lot of big losses in my life and I’ve been dealing with them from a very young age,” she says of the emotional territory, best not revealed too explicitly here, that she journeys through in Stria. “People don’t realize that about me and they’re surprised when they find that out, because I love life.”

Chartier admits that excavating those painful personal memories was difficult and exhausting. But even more challenging, she reveals, was trying to find the form to communicate all her complex emotions, stories, and ideas.

At this point, it’s important to explain that Chartier has never felt restricted by traditional definitions of dance. Over her long career, she has always gone beyond movement to include theatrical elements like spoken text, elaborate soundscapes, and sculptural sets, always spiked with a bit of humour. As for Stria, it’s set against wires that slice across the back of the stage. Chartier discovered that the achingly poetic stories of her childhood, when she first endured a loss, were best told through silence, using a puppet. But a later moment of catharsis finds its expression in an extended, plaintive howl.

“At one point I go into high-pitched sounds like a cry or a wolf. That came from distilling the essence of what was going on,” she says, adding that the voice is as much an instrument as the body when it comes to dance. “When I teach, I say that the voice connects to the body in a very different way. Even when you’re not speaking on-stage, when you have voice training it affects your breathing—everything. It’s a very vulnerable art form as well: if someone is nervous we hear it right away. So it’s also important for me to be vulnerable on-stage.”

Suffice it to say, audiences won’t soon forget the intensely personal journey they take with Chartier. “I love this form of communication where it’s ‘Yeah, here we go, I’m sharing this with you,’ ” she says with a laugh before heading back into rehearsal. “That’s what I strive to do. Why do we do this? Audiences are so much more sophisticated, with TV and media. The public craves to be challenged emotionally and intellectually. They love to connect. They’re so ready for works that will come and get them.”

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