la suite canadienne

Oliver Godin’s documentary La suite Canadienne celebrates creation and collapses time

4 out of 5 stars

La Suite Canadienne, the latest documentary from the prolific filmmaker Oliver Godin, depicts the behind-the-scenes of a project by amateur dancer and saxophonist Adam Kinner. In 1958 on Radio-Canada’s l’heure du concert, a ballet called La Suite Canadienne by Ludmilla Chiriaeff was performed. The performance featured dancers dressed as Quebec peasants travelling across a colonial fantasy. The recent rediscovery of this footage inspired Kinner to reimagine the dance as a reflection on nationalism, colonialism and identity. 

In English and French, the documentary is composed largely of rehearsal sequences occasionally interrupted by archival footage and fleeting fantasy sequences. We watch bodies in motion, discuss costumes and identity, and even basketball. The filmmaker himself occasionally appears onscreen, holding sound equipment, briefly interjecting (often with a playful air, such as a sequence on a swing, as the subject and filmmaker/recordist engage in a kind of recording dance). The film becomes an extension of the performance, not merely a document of practice but a means of further inquiring into the fundamental questions the piece addresses. 

Despite the occasionally dark subject matter, the film (as well as the ballet) remains fundamentally upbeat in its approach. Rather than a portrait of art as a tortured experience, it remains fundamentally celebratory. We witness not only the joy of creation but the joy present in collaboration. The documentary showcases how the dancers work together and how the presence of filmmakers further transforms the interactions and thought-process of La Suite Canadienne

More than just the images and scenes, though, the documentary comes alive in montage. In the same way that Kinner’s project is collapsing time, bringing back to life a piece of history, Godin’s camera collapses linearity. Conversations unfold through different spaces and periods, seamlessly built onto each other. Is it merely a thoughtful association of themes and ideas, or something more planned out. The film effectively captures the realm of imagination where spontaneity and improvisation rule. It shows the importance of time within the process of creation, not only in the sense of effective distance from the initial 1957 performance but in the increasingly limited space to develop and work through artistic ideas in our current era that values efficiency and reduces artistic practice to “content creation.” 

The performance itself doesn’t guide the viewer to obvious, sentimental ideas about the nature of identity. The work is done in appreciation for the craft and imagination of Ludmilla Chiriaeff. The fluidity of the dance movements, removed from their original context though a utopian peasant fantasy initially intended for the Queen of England, comes to represent a vision of Quebec that is similarly utopian. It favours beauty and grace, but the transformed context and the layers of interpretation and themes offered by the dancers and filmmakers create a work that offers an all-together viewpoint where the nature of Quebec identity is not insular but one that seems to expound outward — the reflection on history positions the hope and innovation of the Quiet Revolution. 

Whereas the original performance of La suite Canadienne focused on the “purity” of the peasant, a pastoral and ultimately conservative fantasy, the new one focused on the liberation offered by the Quiet Revolution. How education and a new appreciation for art, high and low, became an opportunity for people’s worlds to be expanded. It showcases the freedom offered by expanding the imagination that could and should be at the heart of Quebec’s identity. The transformation of this choreography into something that reflects these ideals becomes an incredibly powerful vision for the world, where the past can be engaged thoughtfully and with compassion. 

As deceptively simple as La Suite Canadienne is on the surface, it captures a hopefulness within Quebec society that often feels forgotten – if not an outright relic of a past that never existed. The creation of this performance bridges linguistic, cultural and historical moments to create something new – one that looks forward. While the “behind-the-scenes” documentary is a genre within itself, rarely has it felt so thoughtful and collaborative as it does here. Even in his most humble projects, Godin offers an aspirational vision of Quebec. ■

La suite Canadienne is now playing in Montreal theatres.

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