Jacques and James fuse art forms

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There are many reasons why Jacques Poulin-Denis is able to meld theatre, music, and dance so fluidly in his work—some more startling than others. The Montreal artist has defied labels throughout his career, moving easily between composing soundscapes for himself and other dancers and performing spoken text along with his own choreography. He not only runs his own dance-theatre company, Grand Poney, but is founder of the sound-art collective Ekumen.

For part of the explanation, you can look back to his parents, both teachers who encouraged him at a young age to try music and theatre; later, as a teen, he discovered dance at CEGEP in Quebec.

“Dance brought out the theatricality and music for me. Dance for me was the place where all these things could connect,” the affable artist explains from Montreal, before heading out here for a double bill called Jacques and James with his friend, former Ballet B.C. dancer and plastic orchid factory cofounder James Gnam. “I had this interdisciplinary realization that I wanted to blur everything.”

His ability to fuse forms, as he’ll do in his story-based solo Cible de Dieu/Target of God here next week at the Firehall, also grew out of his own preferences. He loves theatre, and of dance he says humbly and candidly: “A lot of the discipline and rigour is not natural for me. I do have training and I try to use my training, but I often feel like an impostor.”

Poulin-Denis pauses and says there’s something else that’s important to mention that he usually never talks about in interviews. “It was a car accident in 1999,” he begins. “I had just finished one dance program and I was going to Toronto to start another.” The accident was so bad that his right foot had to be amputated.

That must have been a devastating blow for a dancer, but it says something about Poulin-Denis’s determination and creativity that he found new ways to explore his art form.
“It brought up a whole bunch of questions about physical capacity. I figured there had to be a place for me in contemporary dance and I just had to figure out where that was,” he explains matter-of-factly, adding it took him about a year and a half to set his new direction. “I had to rethink a bunch of aspects of my work, and I didn’t know if I could go on in dance; I thought I couldn’t audition for big companies. And that’s when I went back to theatre and music. So it did influence the ways that I see my work and the interdisciplinary path that I did go down.”

You can’t help but think about the role fate has played in Poulin-Denis’s work when you look at Target of God’s subject matter: billed as an existential tale of a doomed antihero, the piece considers one man’s huge life changes at 27—in astrological terms, the year when Saturn returns to the place it occupied at our birth.

Like Gnam’s James, cocreated with Lee Su-Feh as a meditation on that dancer’s 300-plus performances in The Nutcracker, Target of God is full of humour.

“It had nothing to do with my accident, but things were breaking down around me—computers, my school—and I had to create this piece for a theatre festival at that time,” Poulin-Denis explains of the piece. “So it’s just about when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and we have to persevere.”

He adds: “It’s that notion of destiny, and how hardships can also be triumphs, and what we should learn from them.” Those sound like words that Poulin-Denis doesn’t just explore on-stage, but lives by. 

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