PuSh Festival: Danse Lhasa Danse pays tribute to the late, beloved Quebec chanteuse

Choreographer Pierre-Paul Savoie has recruited dancers, instrumentalists, and singers to pay tribute to Lhasa de Sela

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      Choreographer Pierre-Paul Savoie has formed a deep, lasting friendship with a woman he has never met—and unfortunately, never will.

      Quebec singer Lhasa de Sela, known to her legions of adoring fans by the single name Lhasa, died in 2010 of breast cancer at just 37. With her three albums, which effortlessly traverse world-music, jazz, and folk territory, she spoke to people around the globe. And Savoie was one of those who listened.

      But after she passed away, he began to dig deeper into her music, and found her smoky voice reaching him in new ways. He was particularly struck by her final album, Lhasa, recorded before but released after her illness, and almost prophetically focused on mortality.

      “I thought, ‘Wow, she got so deep into what it is to be a human being,’” Savoie tells the Straight from Montreal, before heading to Vancouver for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. “She talked about a taboo in a way that also made it very consoling. The more I talk to people about her, it’s really universal how she touched people—and not in a superficial way, like pop music. It was spiritual. She spoke with this integrity.”

      Driven by the desire to pay tribute to her music and help it live on, Savoie embarked on an ambitious, multidisciplinary project that would do her justice. Danse Lhasa Danse is the result: a show of seven dancers, five musicians (including members of Lhasa’s band), and four singers bringing her work to life, all complemented by artful video projections. Inspired by the singer’s unparalleled range of rhythms and influences, Savoie recruited six other choreographers—from the edgily contemporary to those influenced by bharata natyam and flamenco—to interpret her songs.

      “We’re not there for ourselves; we’re there for her. We’re there to transmit it with all the powers we have and let Lhasa’s words speak,” Savoie says with passion.

      Because Lhasa was a compelling performer, the concert component was integral to the feel and look of the piece. Savoie puts the singers, musicians, and dancers in a triangle on the stage to work off each other’s energy. “I make them look at each other, so the whole time you feel the connection between those three elements. Everybody is working together and you feel it.”

      Expect Lhasa herself to make some appearances. At one point her voice is heard talking, at another her vibrant laugh echoes through the hall, and a deeply moving image of her walking away, seemingly floating across water, helps close the show.

      Savoie enjoys the fact that Lhasa’s fans are getting exposed to dance in all its diversity, and that a new generation may be hearing her work for the first time.

      “I reached my goal to make her work resonate longer and make it discovered by new people,” Savoie says. “Yes, the show is witnessing her career and art form, but it’s also very universal. We’re all living and dying, and we all love in between; it’s not Lhasa’s story anymore, but theirs.”

      Danse Lhasa Danse is at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (January 18) as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.