Marie Chouinard brings Surrealist art to life through dance

by Michaela Ledoux | 9/23/14 1:44pm

Figures donned in black dance with extraordinary energy to heavy drum beats on screens speckled through the halls of the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The clips preview the upcoming visit of the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, a premier dance troupe from Montreal. A convergence of artistic media and efforts, the performance, pre-show talk and dance master class will bring to life India ink drawings of surrealist artist and poet Henri Michaux.

Born in Belgium in 1899, Michaux was raised in France. He is known for his stellar poetry as well as his a painting style that defied the traditions of visual art.

“His whole world was language,” Hood Museum of Art director Michael Taylor said. “He was restricted by the conventions of the written word. That’s when he started to do painting.”

After discovering Surrealism, an artistic movement that stressed liberation from the conscious mind, in the late 1920s, Michaux made his foray into art. His travels around Asia in the 1930s drew him to use calligraphy in his works, which became a distinct part of his style.

The Compagnie’s dancers wear black, echoing the lines of ink that comprise Michaux’s work. Although Michaux’s work is based off the dramatic contrast between the black ink and white page, Marie Chouinard said that she found that simplicity fueled the “absolute poetry” of the movement.

Chouinard said that she had been a longtime reader of Michaux’s poetry when, 20 years ago, she received a book of his drawings as a gift.

“It took me 20 years to realize that this is movement,” Chouinard said. “The notation of choreography is in the book. From drawing to drawing, there is choreography there somehow.”

The company was created in 1990 when Chouinard, previously a solo dancer, felt she could not create a piece by herself, Chouinard said.

“I wanted to be everywhere — I wanted to multiply myself,” Chouinard said. “I felt that dance was a solo process. Finally I had to surrender, [and] I felt the only way out to create the piece was to hire dancers. Then when I had dancers with me, I loved it.”

Chouinard’s style is characteristically emotional, and she said she aims to create work “that can reach people in their soul.”

“My medium is to use the body as an entity that is fully intelligent, fully organic and fully sensitive,” Chouinard said. “My aim is to create a work of art that can reach people in their soul, mind and spirit.”

Her work, Dartmouth Dance Ensemble guest director John Heginbotham said, creates a picture, using bold, scenic elements with “a very strong, athletic and technical base of movement.”

Although Heginbotham has not yet seen any of Chouinard’s shows live, he said that from what he has heard and seen in the dance community, she has created a “strong” space for herself as a choreographer and director.

“She has a particular voice in the dance world,” Heginbotham said. “She’s unique. She’s very bold.”

Taylor will give a pre-show talk in the Kim Gallery of the Hood called “Understanding Michaux.” Taylor said that when Hop programming director Margaret Lawrence contacted him about the Compagnie, it was “serendipitous” that the Hood had Michaux’s “No. 8” (1960) in its collection.

“In ‘No. 8,’ every inch of the page has been activated,” Taylor said. “It has an almost hallucinogenic quality — it’s an intense work that when you immerse yourself into it, you see a whole world.”

Michaux had an affinity for letting the pen explore the page and finding the forms later, Taylor said. As a result, he said, there is a deep connection between “image and self” in his paintings.

Taylor said he is excited to see how the dancers will use their bodies to communicate to the audience the “spontaneity” that he sees in the paintings.

“When I first saw the piece we have, I thought it could have been dancers, as there is athleticism to it,” Taylor said. “This translation from one art form to the other will be a rich and profound one.”

Alongside the pre- and post-show talks, Paige Culley, a member of the Compagnie since 2011, taught an intermediate dance master class on Tuesday. In master classes like these, companies teach their approach to dance and what they consider important in technique and expression, Hop publicity coordinator Rebecca Bailey said.

“Anyone with some dance background could benefit from diving in and getting a taste of the movement the company does,” Bailey said.

Inspired by the Compagnie’s performance concept, Hop Garage invited members of Sugarplum to dance and recreate drawings created by attendees. A group of easels, sketch pads and markers were placed in a corner of the Garage, where a mirror backed the area for the dancers. The colored lights of the Garage filtered the area with a kaleidoscope of hues.

Because many of the drawings were of flowing lines, they lent themselves to contemporary style dance movements, Sugarplum member Shany Sun ’16 said.

“As a dancer, I haven’t really interacted with artwork,” Sun said. “It was an interesting experience. It made me think a lot more creatively about my dance than I usually do.”

Hop Garage attendee Josephine Cormier ’17 said that the Compagnie’s concept makes sense, as lines are the basis of all art.