When choreographer Mélanie Demers finally makes her Vancouver debut from the vanguard of Montreal’s dance scene, she’ll be taking on nothing less than the evolution of our species.
“We started the piece and I thought, ‘Maybe I’m being a little too ambitious,’ ” she says over the phone from Montreal with a self-effacing laugh, speaking to the Straight before heading out here to present the show Animal Triste with her own company, Mayday, and Vancouver’s plastic orchid factory. “I realized I’m trying to tell a short history of humankind! But dance has the power to go to the heart of those great existential questions.”
Demers has never been one to shy away from challenges. After dancing for Montreal’s pummelling O Vertigo company for a decade, the artist says she longed to create work that would express more politics and meaning.
“Dance artists are sometimes too silent, I felt,” explains Demers, who launched her own company in 2007.
Her search sent her on a journey through Africa to Haiti and South America, teaching and working in dance. Sobered by the poverty she witnessed, she came back emboldened, ready to create choreography that was vocal, socially conscious, and politically charged. Her works are edgy and darkly humorous, and in the past, theatrical with spoken text.
Animal Triste marks a slight departure, created as it was, last year, after the birth of her first baby. “I had a new perspective on art, love, life,” she says. “I really wanted to feel what dance is, to really give it its evocative power.”
Demers assembled a diverse dream team of four dancers: Marc Boivin, Brianna Lombardo, Riley Sims, and plastic orchid’s own James Gnam. Together, they started exploring that “sad animal” (as the title translates) known as the human, a creature they follow from its primal beginnings to its search for beauty and family connection, and finally to spirituality.
“We tried to approach the physicality in a really animalistic way, but at the same time we tried to avoid clichés around that,” Demers explains, adding she and her cast all read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, the book that tracks human progress from near-ape society to civilization. “It’s really sexual, really instinctive.”
Among the most striking images in the piece are the strings of pearls draped around the performers’ necks, a costuming concept they explored early on and then adopted as an integral symbol in Animal Triste. “The pearls convey the civilized aspect of us humans, but also the parallel to tribal jewellery,” Demers explains. “They’re really something very oppressive to the dancers, having something around their necks.”
Expect intense, raw, theatrical movement, and watch Demers build, as she often does, a kind of society in her work—even if it’s a society of pearl-wrapped “sad animals”. “The ages go from Riley in his early 20s to Marc, who’s 50,” she says. “I’m kind of known for having diversity in terms of the body, language, skin colour, culture. That’s part of the microcosm I like to create on-stage. How can we be together if we’re not the same? We’re trying to invent a kind of unison on-stage.”
Mayday and plastic orchid factory present Animal Triste at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (October 19 to 21).