Daina Ashbee’s period piece

We spoke to the choreographer about Pour, on this weekend at the FTA.


Dancer Paige Culley

Periods evoke strong reactions, regardless of whether you’ve ever had one or even if you’re experiencing one right now: frustration, respect, disgust, curiosity.

Rising Montreal artist Daina Ashbee started thinking about that cycle while working on Unrelated, her breakout 2014 choreography about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The themes of violence, cycles and women’s bodies, she says, “bled into each other.”

“I was already conceiving of the idea around menstruation, because it was such a painful experience for me, and I wanted to think about using dance, trance and transformation and repetition to deal with that,” explains Ashbee. The resulting work, Pour, returns to Théâtre la Chapelle (where it first premiered last September) as part of the Festival TransAmériques this month.

Pour is a singular, stark show about the pain and transcendence of menstruation — with nary a drop of blood.

Dancer Paige Culley begins clothed simply in jeans and a t-shirt before stripping down and starting a long trip across an icy-blue Styrofoam platform. Her movements are at one moment still and then shockingly violent as she slaps her body across the floor. The soundtrack is sparse, and mostly you hear Culley’s cries fill the cavernous room. With coconut oil and water slicked across the floor, the dancer starts to glisten.

Periods to me are inextricable from pain and the mixture of blood and water that sets out to destroy your underwear monthly. Activists have tried to make us more comfortable with the taboo visuals, whether by showing bloody vaginas on t-shirts or running marathons while bleeding. Why depict this female cycle without the gore?

“I don’t want to need red to describe it. I’m hoping people can feel it and they can have that capacity just through dance so we’re not relying on other things,” says the choreographer. “That’s the idea of me really trying to push performance dance and body work because what I don’t want to do is rely on music, costumes, paint, colour, words or text or projected images.”

The repeated movements force your brain to call up flashes of pain, sex, violence, seals slapping against the ice. With the stage stripped, the choreography and your mind begin to do their own dance.

(While developing Pour, Ashbee had originally started stockpiling her own blood in Tupperware containers in her freezer, thinking it could be used in the show. Instead, it was later displayed in a bowl in the theatre lobby.)

Ashbee, who is of Cree, Métis and Dutch descent, grew up in Nanaimo, B.C. She danced and acted in Vancouver, and for a spell, in Los Angeles, eventually landing in Montreal at the age of 23. Recognized by Montreal’s dance establishment, the choreographer has started a multi-year residency with Agora de la danse, and is balancing touring (hello, Venice Biennale) and performances while developing new pieces.

Picking up accolades and buzz for Unrelated and her second piece, When the ice melts, will we drink the water?, Ashbee’s rising star as a choreographer is built around her experience: “It’s just natural for me to be creating this intimate, personal kind of dark work.”

First-hand and female, yes. But also, universal.

“We all have a relationship to periods,” says Ashbee. ‘We should make sure women are comfortable in their bodies with it, and if they need help, that they can express that.” 

Pour will be performed as part of the the Festival TransAmériques at Théâtre la Chapelle (3700 St-Dominique) on June 2 and 3 at 9 p.m., and June 4 at 3 and 9 p.m., $35/$30 students. Visit fta.ca or call 514-844-3822.