Upon glimpsing the strange harness that leashes Montreal dance innovator Benoît Lachambre to a massive scaffold of metal and rope, you would think that his work Snakeskins is about entrapment, enslavement, or restraint.
But Lachambre, a master of mining sensation in the body, reveals the hallucinatory creation is all about release and freedom. This may seem paradoxical, until you find out the physical effect he creates from writhing and undulating while in the harness that attaches a rope to his neck.
“I’m suspending myself by my collar and putting my feet on the scaffolding, and that releases my spinal fluids. There’s a lot of beautiful sensation of freeing tension from around the spine,” he says, explaining the show’s title refers to letting go of the old self and fear.
The artistic director of Par B.L.eux is speaking to the Straight from Montreal, where he’s just about to remount Sweet Gyre with local dancer Lee Su-Feh, before coming here for the Vancouver International Dance Festival. “It actually frees sensation to create imagery that is very, very rich.”
In fact, the work first arose as a dance exercise Lachambre developed where he oscillated his spine—a move he nicknamed “the watersnake”. But it then grew, as creations so often do with Lachambre, out of many other inspirations and collaborations into the haunting, interdisciplinary work that will come to the festival.
Costume designer Alexandra Bertaut helped him develop the harness he calls an “exoskeleton”, while Hahn Rowe provides the otherworldly live music during the production. A photo by Belgian-based artist Christine Rose Divito forms a giant puzzle in what Lachambre dubs the “preshow”. Dance artist Daniele Albanese is the reason Lachambre refers to Snakeskins, in its subtitle, as “a fake solo”: Albanese got involved later in the work, after Lachambre had sold it as a solo, and now appears, in a Mexican-wrestling-style mask, as a sort of helper and voyeur throughout the piece.
What’s with the masks that he and, later, Lachambre and Rowe don? Lachambre loved the masks’ mythological power: the looks worn by the luchadors actually often date back to ancient times and symbolize spirits and animals. Lachambre has also worked in some subtle references to Mayan and other aboriginal mythology: his choreography, in some ways, alludes to the sun dance, and there are motifs in Divito’s photo imagery that refer to the Mayan calendar and beliefs as well. And let’s not forget that the Maya worshipped Kukulkan, a feathered, flying snake that Lachambre also evokes through his movement and use of the 60 white theatre ropes on-stage.
But the most striking thing about the show remains this huge contraption that suspends its creator, scaffolding with ropes radiating out from it and exaggerating perspective. “We’ve created a structure that seems very, very heavy, yet it is very, very light,” the affable artist explains. “It creates vibration when I move, too. I like that very, very much. It’s a constant reminder of the energy and it transmits it to the audience.”
There is a sense of peril to watching him scale and suspend himself from the structure, too, but Lachambre assures, “It seems dangerous but it is not. Everything is very well calculated.”
The Vancouver International Dance Festival presents Snakeskins at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from next Thursday to Saturday (March 12 to 14).