Monsieur Auburtin is intimate, unusual, and insightful

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      A Les Productions Figlio production, presented by the Chutzpah Festival. at the Dance Centre on Friday, March 28. No remaining performances

      To tell you Serge Bennathan’s new work is a poetic memoir of his life in dance, including brushes with legends like Rudolf Nureyev and Pina Bausch, might give you the wrong impression—that it’s a name-dropping greatest hits of the French-trained Canadian choreographer.

      His deeply personal new piece, which finds him on-stage again for the first time in years, is much more complicated than that.

      It’s not just that it’s a distillation of so many of Bennathan’s interests over the past five decades, both here and during his long term heading up Dancemakers in Toronto from 1990 to 2006: his love of mixing words, dance, and music; his candid humanity; his passion for the arts. What makes it work is that while it is sometimes self-indulgent, it avoids the over-polished or cloyingly nostalgic. He’s got too much edge and brutally honest humour at work.

      Those who have followed his career will be fascinated by some of his revelations here as he tells his story, mostly seated at centre stage in front of a laptop. We meet a boy who grows up in an anonymous, working-class French apartment complex and ends up taking dance with the title’s inspirational Monsieur Auburtin because he hates the flute so much. He’s a kid who steals motorcycles and sells the parts but who won’t miss ballet class.

      Later, we meet a long-haired bohemian who shows up cockily for a performance only 15 minutes beforehand and gets admonished by his director; or a stubborn youth who refuses to believe he’s been passed over for an audition for the ballet in Marseilles, staying in the studio till the legendary Roland Petit decides to take him with him. And then there’s a young man in a new city taken under the wing of the prostitutes who live in his low-rent hotel.

      In the context here, it’s interesting to watch the older man reflect on the bravado of his youth. These confidences carry perhaps more resonance than his more grand statements about artistic inspiration because they speak so specifically to the sacrifice, redemption, and escape that art can offer.

      The rich, French accent that Bennathan has never lost in his decades here brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the storytelling. Adding to the intimacy and atmosphere of the production is the presence of musician/composer and long-time collaborator Bernard Chenier on-stage, his moving piano and guitar bringing the stories to life.

      More innovative is the way Bennathan chooses to use his two dancers, Erin Drumheller and Kim Stevenson. Instead of miming or literally enacting any of his stories, they appear in rectangular spotlights to his side somehow embodying whatever emotions he might have had during the incidents he’s describing—running mad in the boyish glee of meeting a ballet hero, or just standing and staring forward during a meditative moment.

      The experience is intimate, unusual, and heavily weighted towards the written word, but offers illuminating insight on a well-known local artist driven to tell his story—and to share his passion for an art form that has transformed his life.