Danse Mutante. Photo by Mathieu Doyon

Agora hosts a four-part dance experiment

We spoke to Mélanie Demers about letting other choreographers remix her work in Danse Mutante.

Danse Mutante is a four-part dance experiment at Agora de la danse in which choreographer Mélanie Demers has invited three choreographers — New York-based Ann Liv Young, Bamako-based Kettly Noël, and Ann Van den Broek, whose company WArd/waRD works out of Rotterdam and Antwerp — to remix and rethink Demers’s original duet, Cantique. For each night of Danse Mutante’s run, audiences will see both Demers’s source material, and her three invited collaborators’ wildly different takes on the same, during a two-and-a-half-hour “marathon” performance featuring dancers Francis Ducharme and Riley Sims.

After seeing Young’s segment in rehearsal, I spoke to Demers about this danced Ship of Theseus and the complicated creative and ethical implications of upending creator control.

Nora Rosenthal: How much agency do the choreographers have to change the original work?

Mélanie Demers: A lot. I was surprised by how radical the interpretation is. At first I thought it was going to be some sort of an exercise de style where it’s more formal but I chose three really radical artists who had to dive into the process and reclaim the work, so they made radical choices. 

NR: Why these three choreographers?

MD: One of the questions that was asked of me when I was trying to come up with a concept was “Who would you be afraid to work with?” And Ann Liv came to my mind. I had seen her work in different festivals in Europe. We didn’t know each other, she didn’t know me at all. Her name came to me and I wrote to her. I had almost forgotten I had asked her and nine months after she answered me back with a one-liner: “Of course I will do it,” and that’s how it started.

NR: Are there any key differences or relationships between the various versions of Cantique that have really caught your attention or surprised you?

MD: I think that my version [is] sort of a blank slate. It was almost like I created something where I thought I would would want to welcome someone to just wreck it. It’s interesting to see what stays and what remains after so many changes. It’s a reflection on mourning, on creation and destruction, and what we leave behind. It’s very fascinating to see it unfold for such a long time. It’s not usual for a dance piece to last two and a half hours.

NR: I have some questions about Ann Liv Young’s contribution that I saw in rehearsal. I’ve also seen her perform in Poland years ago and I see what you mean when you’ve said she has no inhibitions. The performance I saw then felt very confrontational in ways that definitely interested me, but having seen the rehearsal for her segment of Danse Mutante, I had some pretty serious reservations about the way some of the material was presented. I like crassness in art, but what I saw was a sketch dance-comedy about rape, so I’m very curious about what you think about this segment of your project and if you have reservations about the content or the tone.

MD: This is a very tricky question. I think that the concept of the whole show is to let things unfold and to lose a little bit of power over one’s creation. As an artist I invite people in my world to corrupt it, so of course I chose artists but I don’t choose the work that they do. I have to support the artists. I can have my own reservations but I don’t want to disclose them because I have to defend it, I have to allow change and freedom to happen and I have to allow people to address these issues. I can understand that people can have reservations but it’s not my place to comment on it.

NR: Do you really think you have to defend it no matter what in this context? If you were to come in and see this piece, would you have reservations?

MD: It’s hard for me to say. I think I could have reservations in terms of the themes, the concept, the aesthetic, the interpretation, of course. As a creator I think that I have to be in solidarity with what is being created. Then I think that together, as a group of artists, we can welcome any kind of criticism. 

NR: To use a specific example, there’s a moment where one of the performers, during the rape scene, plays a deaf person, but they play the character in such a way that she also appears cognitively impaired, and obviously cognition and deafness have nothing to do with one another, so nebulously conflating those two things seemed like offence for offence’s sake. I found myself trying to understand the underlying goal of what seemed like a very cruel scene and coming up empty. Could you help me clarify the intentions of the scene?

MD: I think that’s why I had reservations about welcoming a journalist into a creation process. This is creation, this is not the end scene. Plus, Ann Liv, she live-directs the actors. So one night it can be this, the other night it can be something else. So this is also part of the risk that we take. There’s a lot of improvisation, so the dancers are always on the grill depending on what she decides to throw at them. What you saw is a rehearsal. Perhaps sometimes it can be offensive, perhaps not. Having said that, you have to take the show in its complete aspect so perhaps this mutation has this specific feel and then what Kettly does is a response to this. 

NR: I understand that this is a process that happens in part on the fly and that what I witnessed was a rehearsal, but all that being said, there must be an underlying structure or underlying themes, yes?

MD: Yes, that character always comes back. The character that you find offensive always comes back.

NR: Okay. So this is a reflection of something that will be performed.

MD:  Yes. Again, I don’t know what will happen the day of the premiere.

NR: As you’re nearing your premiere, having sat through the rehearsal process and the creation process, how are you feeling about the collaboration as a whole right now? Are there things you would do differently next time? Is this something you’re going to explore again in the future?

MD: I think it’s changed my perspective on creation, on collaboration, on power dynamics, on who has the last word in a creation. For example, what you’re talking about — we are fully aware of the possible flaws in the show and I’m not in full power or in full control of this, so it’s a very uncomfortable posture and it’s very new also. I think it challenges the hierarchy in creation. It challenges what people expect of a creator. 

NR: Because you’re eliminating aspects of the dance hierarchy, do you anticipate the criticism that by spreading responsibility around so equally there’s nobody who can step up and say “I was responsible for this idea”?

MD: I think that it will definitely be something that I’ll have to feel responsible for. I chose those three artists, I chose to give a platform to them and I was… I am still in some sort of conflict between what I would want to create and what is being created. This work is the concept of having four visions of the world. I think it’s the accumulation of vision that will perhaps allow us responsibility. So it’s not really to deflect responsibility, but to share it. ■
Danse Mutanteis on at Agora de la danse (1435 Bleury #102) Sept. 17–21, 7 p.m., $22–$35