Mélanie Demers knows where lies the beauty of live art

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      When Mélanie Demers was five years old she started ballet classes, although, looking back, she doesn't understand why. She wanted to be a writer as a kid.

      "I don't remember asking my mom to be in a ballet class," recalls the dancer-choreographer from her home in Montreal. "My body was not the type of body that would fit the [ballet] aesthetic, so I always felt a bit inadequate."

      That all changed for Demers by the time she was 16 though, when she discovered the more inclusive aspects of contemporary dance, which allowed her to be the person that she was. Her embrace of the form eventually led her to found Montreal's MAYDAY experimental dance company in 2007, which, according to its website, was created to explore "the powerful link between the poetical and the political".

      Mélanie Demers

      Demers laughs when asked to explain just exactly how her company does that.

      "That's interesting," she replies. "You know, like when you have a label you have to justify your label. Ummm...I don't know how I do that. I guess I try to create links between the artistic object that I create and the world. Sometimes dance can be a little bit abstract and outside of any social, historical preoccupations, and then I try to use those links. I try—for me, to my eye—to make it relevant. Like what does this art form have to say about the world?

      "Because it's a totally different thing, having to observe the world and translate it into a dance piece rather than in an essay, you know. So there is an intelligence, there is a logic, there are meanings that we can find in watching bodies move."

      With those ideas in mind, Demers set out on an artistic path that has seen her choreograph over 30 dance works and, last year, be awarded the prestigious Grand Prix de la danse de Montréal. She describes her latest piece, La Goddam Voie Lactée (The Goddamn Milky Way)—which will be performed in Vancouver from February 4 to 6 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival—as her response to the harshness of the world.

      "I first started to think about this project in the summer of 2020," she explains, "when there was a high level of tension, social tension, around Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Movement and stuff like that. So I guess I thought: what can I do, what can I say that has any relevance to these tense times. And instead of getting very close to the human conditions—something that I do often—I just wanted to take a step back and look at the world from a very very far angle. I was thinking about Nina Simone when she was singing 'Mississippi Goddam', and my idea was like, 'It's not just Mississippi that was goddamm, it's the whole goddamn Milky Way.' Like we're all under the same umbrella, we're all doomed."

      La Goddam Voie Lactée is performed by Stacey Désilier, Frannie Holder, Chi Long, Léa Noblet Di Ziranaldi, and understudy Misheel Ganbold, who is replacing original dancer Brianna Lombardo for the local run. Demers admits that it was quite a challenge finding the ideal blend of talent for the piece.

      "I am usually someone that is very loyal to the people I work with," she points out, "but I try to make a very distinct selection of who is going to be onstage. Like who do we give light to, who is going to embody my ideals and my ideas. So yes, it's always a little bit delicate, but I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by amazing women, talented artists, very badass performers, who dance but also sing but also act and who can also play guitar—they're all very versatile.

      "So it was hard to find them," she adds, "but also it's very easy to work with them. And then I like to think that selecting people that you put on stage is really, I don't know, like a microcosm of your ideal society in a way. So we have dancers that are in their 20s, and 30s, and 40s, and 50s. It's a very beautiful, diverse cast of people."

      As choreographer and director of La Goddam Voie Lactée, Demers doesn't appear on stage. But you wonder if, when she sees her creation unfold, her own dance instincts might make her want to join in.

      "Oh no," she says, laughing again, "I'm quite happy now to actually leave the space and the light to other performers. I'm excited by crafting a work more than embodying it. I mean, I still love to perform, and it's something that I will always do, but I don't have the urge to replace a dancer. The way that I work is to really craft a role on to their personality, so people are not easily replaceable; it's actually really hard. You cannot join in and jump in in a work like that, because I use their bodies as my personal archive, so I really go deep and find their specificities and differences and put that in perspective."

      So far in her career Demers has had her dance works shown in some 40 cities across Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. One of the joys of her profession comes from seeing the different attitudes people have to her work from place to place.

      "That's the beauty of touring a work," she says, "to actually submit it to another gaze, another culture that will probably analyse it under a different light. You know, there's a big deal about touring, that it's really prestigious and glamorous, but for me what is interesting is to actually be in contact with that friction between what I created in a small studio in Montreal and what people can receive from my perspective, and then how they can interpret it. I think that's where lies the beauty of live art."

      La Goddam Voie Lactée will be performed at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from February 4 to 6 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, copresented by the Dance Centre.