Choreographer Serge Bennathan puts poetry in motion with Just Words

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      Poetry and dance make beautiful partners, but actually speaking text while moving poses all kinds of logistical and emotional challenges.

      In dance, words can never be Just Words—though that is the title of Les Productions Figlio’s latest work by Serge Bennathan. Karissa Barry, who performs the trio with Hilary Maxwell and Bennathan himself, says her biggest challenge has been a solo in which she gives voice to Bennathan’s devastating poetry while moving through his choreography.

      “It’s a poem about being abandoned by someone you love and not knowing why. It’s really from the gut,” she tells the Straight over the phone on a brief break during a busy day of rehearsals. “I’m having to feel the movement first before I say it, instead of saying it and reacting to it. It’s a challenge not having the words dictate the movement.…I’m not projecting the way an actor would; I’m having to find that real place in myself. It’s a little scary.”

      For Barry and Maxwell, it’s all part of the adventure of collaborating with Bennathan, the French-born former artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers who has spent many of his subsequent years here—creating works from 2007’s theatrical The Invisible Life of Joseph Finch to last year’s autobiographical Monsieur Auburtin—investigating the space where the written word and the moving body can intersect. Maxwell describes Bennathan’s latest piece as a sort of journal of an artist’s life, encompassing his reflections, memories, and dreams.

      Hilary Maxwell, Karissa Barry, and Serge Bennathan.
      Michael Slobodian

      “Basically, it’s a tribute to dancers: love, artists, and the coura-geousness of dancers,” she explains over the phone. “It’s the beauty, the strength, the pain, the vulnerability: all the aspects that come into the life of a dancer.

      “I was thinking about the process and the beauty of working with Serge and his movement—and I experience this every time with him: it’s so physical and asks the body to reach these extremes, so there’s this physical depth to it, but it’s emotionally and intellectually challenging, too.”

      For Maxwell’s solo, Bennathan experiments with words and choreography in a different way than he does in Barry’s case: she has recorded his poetry in her own voice, and composer Bertrand Chénier has incorporated it with the musical score. But, again, it’s never as simple as the movement following the words in a literal way.

      “It’s quite physical and speaking it [live] might have been difficult,” Maxwell allows, but adds the voice-over has an additional effect: “It also feels to me like an inner voice. I’m standing in space, then my poem starts to play and it’s like my thoughts are being expressed from my head and I start to move.”

      Working up to the physical extremes poses challenges for Barry too, who says Bennathan has found an intricate way to work words between the more gruelling thrusts and explosions of the choreography.

      “If I’m in extension with my upper body, my diaphragm is going to be raised. I have to drop it in order to project out, so I really have to time when I say things,” says Barry, explaining that in earlier, shorter versions of Just Words at last year’s Dancing on the Edge festival, Bennathan did all of the speaking as a sort of narrator. “He’s been really encouraging me to take my time to set it up and wait till I get my stamina.…He’s crafted it very smartly. We’re playing with finding those pockets of space to speak the text.”

      As language and movement become more and more integrated in Bennathan’s intense process, Barry is fascinated to see other boundaries blurring, too.

      “The movement itself, when we’re not speaking, is very aggressive and powerful and grounded in a lot of masculine energy,” she says. “But then what he’s speaking has such a feminine, sensitive quality. We’re digging deep. It’s quite a nice balance when the roles of gender kind of switch and at the end we all end up feeling the same. It’s not like this man and two women on-stage anymore.”

      Just Words is at the Firehall Arts Centre from next Wednesday to Saturday (April 27 to 30).

      Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell.
      Michael Slobodian