Thierry Smits's fiery ReVoLt ignites an inner uprising

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      The opening 10 minutes of ReVoLt are as intense as dance gets: alone in a spotlight, Australian performer Nicola Leahey fights to breathe, as if some force is trying to strangle her from the inside.

      “It’s frightening at the beginning; it’s suffocation,” admits choreographic innovator Thierry Smits, speaking to the Straight from Brussels, where his Compagnie Thor is based. “It’s ‘I have to try to get out of this situation. I have to get more freedom of movement.’ There’s a real feeling of oppression, and then little by little in the cycle of the piece, there’s more liberty of movement.”

      ReVoLt has been described as a sort of embodiment of political uprising—a conflict that explodes within the dancer. In fact, the fiery piece was inspired in part by the female Peshmerga fighters Smits had seen arming themselves against ISIS on the news.

      “I was like, ‘Wow, these women really know what they are fighting for. They’re not just fighting with words, but fighting with weapons,’ ” Smits recalls. “I thought it would be nice to do a kind of combat for a woman trying to get out of her imprisonment.

      “There is still a lot of work to do around violence against women around the world,” he adds. “My mother was a very engaged feminist, so I was exposed at a very young age [to these ideas].”

      Dancer Nicola Leahey.
      Hichem Dahes

      But with Smits based in Brussels, you also can’t help but think of this fight for freedom in terms of what he says is happening at this moment in the Belgian capital. Asked what it is like living in that city right now, only a month after terror attacks, he says it feels peaceful and people are still going out to art shows and living their lives. But he adds, “There was a moment of panic and drama—and now there’s just more police and more extreme right and more military, and that’s the negative side of it: less liberty.”

      Still, it’s clear Smits loves his hometown. Brussels is a celebrated centre of contemporary performance today, and he clearly revels in that. And its multicultural makeup has helped contribute to that vibrancy, he says.

      “One-third of the population is an immigrant, is a foreigner. It’s huge. It’s a small city but it’s very, very cosmopolitan and international.”

      Even in this mostly open-minded cultural milieu, Smits stands apart as a bit of an anomaly. The veteran artist is known for creating a hugely diverse range of work—everything from the cabaret and theatrical to larger, more abstract dance creations.

      “It’s true that when I finish a work, most of the time the next one is in total opposition to what I did before,” he says. “It’s not easy, because most people in the art market need to be able to say, ‘Oh yes, he’s doing his style.’ But I’m very quickly bored of what I’ve done.”

      Before working with Leahey, he had never crafted a full-length solo work for a woman, and wanted to make a work for the strong, charismatic, and committed dancer. Dressed in a long camouflage T and flailing her blond mane, she digs deep for the piece, physically and emotionally.

      “At the same time, it’s very structured, very formal—she’s not crying or anything,” explains Smits, who makes ample use of blackouts throughout the stripped-down, pummelling piece. “It’s more about the repetition of small actions. It’s quite cold in that way—and violence is cold. That was the target.”

      ReVoLt is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (May 5 to 7).

      Nicola Leahey in ReVoLt.
      Hichem Dahes