Movement transcends words in Serge Bennathan's heartfelt Contes Cruels

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      A Productions Figlio presentation. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, May 23. Continues until May 26

      French-born, Vancouver-based choreographer Serge Bennathan has been interweaving dance and poetry for years now, but in his latest experiment, the action definitely speaks louder than the words.

      That’s in part because of his sharp eye for combining performers—in this case a quartet of the most physically powerful, electric talents working in the city today. On a stage stripped to its flies, Josh Martin, Hilary Maxwell, Molly McDermott, and Katie Lowen bring extra force to the production’s pummelling movement. The overall impression is of humans struggling, reaching, and lunging—fighting to simply exist.

      At times, the performers raise their hands high, creating a sea of fingers gently grasping skyward; at others, they frantically flail and flicker their arms to the point of exhaustion. In one striking sequence, the dancers pulse in unison, hands raised and pumping in front of their faces, forming a kind of collective beating heart.

      There’s a stunning central duet by Martin and Maxwell that’s as muscular as it is emotionally intense. He lifts her high to stand on his shoulder; later he collapses, in slow motion, broken at her feet.

      As Bennathan talks, from the side of the stage, about a vision of a mother who can’t hear her son trying to reach her through time and space, Martin jumps to wrap himself desperately around her torso.

      Bertrand Chénier’s haunting, minimalist score and James Proudfoot’s dim, brooding lighting add to the often introspective mood.

      The themes are less defined here than in previous Bennathan works like Monsieur Aubertin and Just Words, and some of the poetry, which jumps between French and English, gets lost in translation. Bennathan’s writings, mostly performed by him at a mike on-stage, but also sometimes by his dancers, are an amorphous, earnest meditation on mortality, courage, and love. The choreographer has said he was inspired by the person who held Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he lay dying after the shooting at Ottawa’s National War Memorial in 2014. Though she was a complete stranger to Cirillo, she is said to have repeated to him, over and over, that he was loved.

      The text here never gets specific about that, and it’s hard sometimes to understand the details of the poetry spoken from a handheld sheet of paper.

      But it’s still fascinating to watch Bennathan on-stage, sometimes directing the movement, sometimes observing the dancers, sometimes simply moving back to let them embody his thoughts.

      Bennathan’s work comes from deeply personal places, and the fact that he steps in and makes that visible may be one of the most radical things he does here. He’s baring the process at the same time as he is doing that most unfashionable thing: baring his heart. Meanwhile, his wildly committed dancers are baring their souls.