Jean-Pierre Perreault's contemporary dance masterpiece, Joe, coming to Canadian computer screens

A version filmed in the mid-1990s is being made available by Digidance, which is a collection of four organizations, including Vancouver's DanceHouse

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      There are very few Canadian contemporary dance shows that can match the impact that Joe had on Quebec audiences back in 1984.

      Montreal choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault's show featured 32 dancers in trench coats and work boots, with their hats pulled down to just above their eyebrows.

      A writer for Montreal-based Voir declared that the pulsating presentation, with work boots creating the beat, could be "compared to a film by Jarmush or Wenders, a Beatles album, a book by Kundera or an Andy Warhol print".

      Dancer and dance educator Ginelle Chagnon began working with Perreault in 1987 and participated in a 1994 remount of Joe as the repetiteur.

      She said that in Joe, the dancers all look the same, despite their differences. And that triggers audiences' imagination as they're absorbing the performance.

      "Joe is about life," Chagnon told the Straight by phone from Montreal. "It's about society. It's about resistance."

      Video: Watch the trailer for Joe.

      She noted that throughout the whole piece, dancers are trying to climb a ramp.

      "You can interpret that as you want," Chagnon said. "I think it's a basic human statement."

      Starting on March 17, contemporary dance lovers across the country will be able to watch a videotaped version of the 1994 remounting of Joe, first broadcast on Radio-Canada in 1995.

      It's being presented online by Digidance, a partnership of four organizations: Vancouver's DanceHouse, Toronto's Harbourfront, Montreal's Danse Danse, and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

      "Someone who has never seen Joe will have the opportunity to actually receive the work, so that's fantastic," Chagnon said.

      At the same time, she acknowledged that watching the show on a computer screen cannot match the power of live performance, which truly demonstrates the physicality, dedication, and endurance of the dancers.

      As a result, she recommended that anyone watching the film try to "penetrate the screen somehow and feel like they're part of the team".

      Ginelle Chagnon felt it was an honour to be put in charge of Joe in 1994.
      Marc Boivin

      Perreault turned reins over to Chagnon

      Chagnon described Perreault, who died in 2002, as a generous man who was very fun to work with.

      The 1994 presentation of Joe included dancers from Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, Dancemakers, and Perreault's company, La Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault.

      Perreault handed over the reins to Chagnon for this performance after she spent a week with him in the studio, along with another dancer who had performed the show in the past.

      "He wanted to step away from the work because he felt like the journalists were holding him back and the producers were holding him back, always taking about Joe," Chagnon recalled.

      To learn more about the piece, she donned the costume to know what it was like for the dancers.

      A week later, she was teaching Joe to the 32 dancers and five weeks later, they were on-stage performing it.

      Looking back, Chagnon described what Perreault did as a "huge compliment" to her.

      "We understood each other about what we expected out of a performance and out of the presence of the people that were performing," she said. "Both of us loved performers."

      Jean-Pierre Perreault (right) would demonstrate moves and then scrutinize how they were performed by dancers.
      Robert Marquis

      Choreographer found his own voice

      Perreault blazed his own path, Chagnon said, in part because Quebec's contemporary dance scene had little exposure in the 1970s and early 1980s to the Graham, Limon, and Cunningham techniques.

      In contrast, she said, they were taught more widely in English-Canadian cities, strongly influencing the evolution of contemporary dance outside of Quebec.

      According to Chagnon, Perreault invented his own way of moving. And it took him many years to develop the type of signature style that allowed for a show like Joe to appear.

      "He was miming ballet a little bit," she said. "And he was miming in his body what he was learning."

      Chagnon added that Perreault didn't care very much about how dancers were trained. He was more interested in showing them the choreography.

      This would come in the form of demonstrating one or two movements at the most rather than extended phrasing. 

      "He would step back and look at it—he was always looking," she said.

      Chagnon compared his working style to that of a painter or a sculptor. The dancers were the "material" that he would rely on to create his work.

      "If it was a duet, he would take one of the two people's places and he would demonstrate," Chagnon continued. "Then he would step away again and look at it and see if that corresponded to what he had in his vision."

      Nearly two decades after Perreault's death, Chagnon confessed that she still has "Jean-Pierre's voice in my head" when she's dealing with dancers.

      "I always step away and I watch and I comment—I’m just looking at what is there," she said. "Somehow, he taught me that.

      "As I said, his voice is in my head: words, yes, but also in how to look. How to look. How to step away and take the whole picture into account instead of just small details. Always think about the whole work, the whole picture, the whole dimension of it because dance is only a part of it."

      Perreault once said that "choreography is the expression of space as dance is the expression of the body".

      "So he always thought about the bigger picture," Chagnon concluded. "It's not just about the dancer and what they're doing. It's about where they are, the tension that they create in the space, and the space that they live in."