Amid issues like the real-estate crisis, the fight over music education, and the TransLink plebiscite, it’s at the top of every Vancouverite’s mind these days: with this high cost of living, what is important in life, and why does everything have to come down to money?
Those are questions that should resonate when a new Montreal-Vancouver dance-theatre project debuts here. Called The Value of Things, it explores a theme rarely confronted in choreography: the economy.
“I thought it was an interesting artistic challenge to put that on-stage and do a dance work about finance. It had been addressed in theatre but not so much in dance,” explains Jacques Poulin-Denis, artistic director of Montreal’s Grand Poney, after rehearsal at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. He’s sitting in the lounge with his collaborators and fellow performers in the work, James Gnam of Vancouver’s plastic orchid factory, which presents the piece here, and his brother Gilles Poulin-Denis, a dramaturge and playwright who’s based in this city.
“What’s interesting about this piece is we’re used to hearing financial jargon in a certain context, but it’s not often we see it used that way artistically, with a lightness,” adds the younger sibling, describing a work that mashes up text, live music, and dance.
Jacques conceived The Value of Things in 2011, when the now-defunct Sun News challenged Canadian dance icon Margie Gillis about why Canadians should fund the arts if they don’t have clear financial worth. “It became that things had to be economically viable to have value,” explains Jacques. “And it’s my sense that that’s our society now: if it doesn’t make any money, it’s not worth anything.”
To build the new piece, he wanted to form a close-knit group, bringing Gnam aboard after meeting him through the Dance Centre’s international Triptych project. Both enjoyed working with improvisation together, using instinct and tearing apart structure, the men explain. “We were like play buddies, in a way,” Jacques says with a smile.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, the collaborators, along with on-stage musician Francis d’Octobre, developed the work here, in Montreal, and even in Berlin. Of his intermittent work on the project, Gilles says he mostly helped with structure and intention. For the West Coast version, he’ll also perform. “I don’t dance except with this guy,” Gilles says laughing and gesturing to his brother. “I dramaturge and write plays. Because we’ve known each other for so long, it’s easy for me, if I’m dramaturging, to come in and say certain things. And maybe I have more influence than other people.”
The group experimented with many props, but in the end, most of its central images are cardboard boxes (more than 200 of them!) that get moved, intricately arranged, and pulled apart.
“I like boxes because they become more enigmatic,” says Jacques. “With globalization, we ship boxes all the time. And we could put whatever we wanted in the boxes.” Referring to a sequence the trio has just rehearsed, where they hop up and down—their feet planted in the boxes—while Jacques, a musician and electronic composer in his own right, raps, he adds: “In that scene, we become products ourselves, in a way.”
Driven by the music, surrounded by “things”, the male group stages an elaborate struggle to organize, accumulate, and hoard its belongings, ultimately questioning the way we measure ourselves. It’s already struck a chord back East: Montreal’s Voir voted The Value of Things the best show of 2014 when it debuted there.
At the same time, the theme also hits home for anyone in the arts who has ever filed a grant application. “As artists in B.C., we’re often asked to find value in what we’re doing,” Gnam explains, laughing as he adds that people also question the worth of what he does for a living. “So it’s interesting that trying to unpack its value is in the DNA of this work.”
Plastic orchid factory and Grand Poney present The Value of Things at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from next Wednesday to Saturday (June 17 to 20).