Dave St-Pierre: A little tenderness for crying out loud

Posted: April 29th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , | 6 Comments »

Dave St-Pierre, A little tenderness for crying out loud, Warwick Arts Centre, April 26

The final scene in A little tenderness, for crying out loud (photo: Dave St-Pierre)

The final scene in A little tenderness, for crying out loud (photo: Dave St-Pierre)

‘Tough, romantic, desperate, angry, funny and full of longing…disarmingly frank and yet often profoundly private, animated by a playful and ironic wit’. These words could well describe Dave St-Pierre’s A little tenderness for crying out loud, but they were in fact applied to the retrospective of Tracy Emin’s work at the Hayward Gallery last year, which happened to coincide with the appearance of Dave St-Pierre’s company at Sadler’s Wells in June. Perhaps because Emin’s work is visual art, the words seem rather dry for the sexual subject matter, but there is a seriousness to the tone of the description, if not reverence. It is evidently more difficult to take seriously a choreographer who unleashes naked men with falsetto voices and blonde wigs into the auditorium, but unless we can get past such antics and take Dave St-Pierre seriously, his contribution to contemporary dance can all too easily be misunderstood as gratuitously provocative.  There was a welcome opportunity to see St-Pierre’s A little tenderness for crying out loud once again on these shores just last week, at the Warwick Arts Centre, as part of the International Dance Festival Birmingham.

In his hometown of Montreal, Dave St-Pierre is an iconic figure in the dance universe (and the dance universe in Montreal is rich and varied). He is not a prolific choreographer, but he has just completed a new work, the final part of a trilogy that in 2009 St-Pierre did not know if he would be able to complete. St-Pierre has cystic fibrosis and was then waiting for a lung transplant (which he has since received). He used two weeks of that time to create Over My Dead Body, a work that viewed his own departure from those he loved, his death and burial (with the incomparable Éric Robidoux, in a blonde wig and gorilla suit, as gravedigger, chief mourner and jester). For most of the performance St-Pierre was attached by a breathing tube to an oxygen tank, taking the metaphor of attachment, which pervades his work, to another level of meaning. But there was no sense of self-pity in this work; it was a masterful dosage of heartbreak, fortitude, and irreverent laughter as he mercilessly lampooned Quebec’s most visible icon, Céline Dion, in her role as celebrity patron of the Cystic Fibrosis Society of Canada. The ending was St-Pierre, unplugged from the breathing tube, dancing slowly, ecstatically, upstage through two enormous gates (heaven or hell, you choose) which slowly close behind him. St-Pierre’s fierce spirit to live his art to the very end was what triumphed. Which leads quite naturally to the performance last Thursday at the Warwick Arts Centre.

St-Pierre is uncompromising in presenting his ideas. The aspect of his works most widely enjoyed, discussed and criticized (sometimes, one suspects, all together) is the element of nakedness (not to be confused with nudity). In any performance of his you can guarantee that everyone in the cast will have left their clothes in the wings, or dropped them on stage. For St-Pierre, clothing is another form of emotional attachment. Nakedness is his metaphor.

As the audience arrives, Éric Robidoux, unashamedly naked in a blonde wig, seated on one of a long line of chairs at the back of the (evidently) bare stage, waves and says hello to anybody whose eye he can catch. He maintains a falsetto banter with the audience while other members of the company shuffle and push along rows in the auditorium, sitting in empty seats until the ticket holder arrives, sitting on laps, ruffling hair. They play like kids (the dancers are referred to throughout as girls and boys), only returning home to the stage at the sound of a bell, when Sabrina (the inimitable Enrica Boucher), the mistress of ceremonies, walks icily across the stage to take up court and begin the show. Her role is to comment on the action, and to stimulate audience participation. From the seats at the back of the stage, a girl and boy get up to face each other. In what seems like an eternity, she tries to elicit a response from her partner, who remains totally impassive. Her vocal and physical gestures increase in desperation until she finally gives up. “I’m tired” she says and walks back to her chair. It happens again with another couple. She goes one step further, flinging herself on her impassive partner, flailing wildly as she turns her violent gestures on herself. She, too, has to desist and returns dejectedly to her chair. Sabrina brings her microphone to centre stage and in her dominatrix, smooth voice, comments disdainfully, “I used to be just like her. It hurts just to look at her.” She turns to the audience. “Let’s talk about you now. You are awfully quiet. Shall we talk about tenderness? I think I can smell fear. There is no fourth wall, so when I ask you something, you have to respond.” It is at this point that naked boys are unleashed into the auditorium while the girls fight near the stage. The girls are screaming, tearing at each other’s clothes, throwing shoes, kicking and scratching. The men are by contrast having fun cavorting with the audience before returning to their seats at the back of the stage and masturbating in unison under the cover of their wigs before once more putting on their clothes.

“Congratulations!” exclaims Sabrina. “You have just survived the first twenty minutes of the show.” A boy enters with a cake for her. “What should I eat, the boy or the cake?” The audience expectantly chooses the boy. “I see there are cannibal tendencies in the audience.” She removes her thong and sits on the cake, ravishing it. “Who wants the cherry?”

A lesson in mathematics follows, a brief dissertation on the origins and significance of the number 2, at the end of which Sabrina states, “I hate the number 2”. The dancers form couples, and it becomes immediately clear from the manipulation of the girls in a grunting, brutish set of lifts and embraces why Sabrina prefers the indivisible number 1.

The boys are undressed and in their wigs again, which means falsetto voices. Another lesson in basic mathematics. Each boy in turn runs on to the stage with their bundle of clothes and announces their number. Numbers 1 through 4 manage the exercise, but number 5 (Robidoux, of course) messes up the game by miming his number and keeping numbers 6 through 8 unable to complete the game. Robidoux is a powerful force within the company, a gifted mime who improvises his role to brilliant comic effect. After several permutations of the game, the boys put on their clothes again and what follows is a ritual of violent self-denigration, a series of face slapping to the repeated chant of frappe-moi (hit me). One can see the reddening marks on their stoical faces as they increase the impact of the slaps.

In a small rectangle of light, a girl dances her personal crisis with such natural, ingenuous gesture that we could be seeing her in her room. The gestures amplify over the course of the music, a plaintive love song. During this private moment of disillusion and growing despair, each boy walks over to her, drawn to her pain and longing, to give her a kiss on the cheek, a gesture of comfort. It is one of the few moments of tenderness in the entire work. The girl walks out of her rectangle along a sliver of light across the stage, distracted, falling into the arms of whoever is there to catch her. Everyone is walking up and down the stage, like pedestrians on the street, ignoring her, caught up in their own lives. The rhythm of the walks increases to running, a panic, as the girl’s inner storm affects those around her.

Sabrina, the model of cynical self-control, is herself affected. It is her turn to break down. In using her cynicism to counter a loss of tenderness, she has missed out on the very emotion she craves. “I am so tired. I can’t entertain you anymore. You have to entertain yourselves now.” The cast brings plastic bottles of water on to the stage, holding one in each hand. Sabrina sneers at the audience. “You are shitting yourselves now, aren’t you?”

To Arvo Pärt’s hauntingly beautiful Spiegel im Spiegel, the company raises the bottles over their heads, emptying the water. The poignancy of the music imbues the movement with an almost transcendent beauty, and the movement gives a physical form to the music. While the cast slither slowly to the back, Sabrina walks among the discarded bottles, like searching for the wounded in the aftermath of a battle. Resigned to change, she removes the last vestige of her isolation – her clothes – and launches herself smoothly across the floor, gliding through the film of water like a swan. When the others join her, she sits at the side of the stage and watches the naked, frolicking, bodies losing themselves in guileless play until they each come to rest in the slippery arms of a partner. Sabrina launches herself once again, sailing around the islands of couples, in search of a welcome harbor. Finding none, she curls up by herself in the watery dark.

‘How about a little fucking tenderness’ would be a more accurate translation of the French title of this work, and in keeping with its raw meaning, the movement vocabulary is drawn directly from sexual arousal, a grammar of the private place, the explosive inner territory of the passions. St-Pierre doesn’t have far to go to find such physical expressions, but it takes a strong commitment from a company to perform in his language and they deserve the standing ovation they receive. There is something heroic in the performance, a passionate, full-on, effusive, wild and tender journey that resolves in a final apotheosis that works precisely because of what has gone before. It is a moment in the process of opening up, not the ending.

Dave St-Pierre will be presenting the final work in his trilogy, tentatively titled coup de foudre, on July 3 and 4 at Julidans in Amsterdam.