Snake puppets and pasties: the avant-garde burlesque of Marie Chouinard

With her outrageous take on 'Orpheus and Eurydice,' Chouinard braves the extremes of avatnt-garde audacity and Vegas vulgarity

Carol Prieur and Manuel Roque in 'Orpheus and Eurycide', photo by Marie Chouinard

It’s amazing how much the eye can take in a span of 12 hours. Yesterday I experienced a perfect storm of artistic extravagance. It began with watching one of the more shocking scenes of projectile vomiting I’ve ever seen outside a gross out comedy—at a morning press screening of Roman Polanski’s Carnage—Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two  couples whose Manhattan civility goes to pieces in a human train wreck reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Then I began the afternoon ogling a bazillion-dollar 144-diamond tiara at a preview of Grace Kelly: From Princess to Movie Star, the new exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, while fantasizing about staging a Lightbox heist. In the evening, I attended the Canadian Stage premiere of Orpheus and Eurydice, an outrageous dance piece by Quebec choreographer Marie Chouinard, which reinterprets Greek myth in a high-art orgy of bare breasts, black dildos, primal screams—and puppet serpents wriggling from mouths and loins. If the road to excess does indeed lead to the palace of wisdom, by the end of the night I should have been filthy rich with enlightenment

I’ll catch up to Polanski’s Carnage in another blog—and maybe I’ll even get around to reviewing the glittering gowns and jewels in TIFF’s Grace Kelly exhibit, which premieres tonight with a royal visit from “Their Serene Highnesses” Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco. But I’m still reeling from Orpheus and Eurydice, which showed that avant-garde dance—goosed by a shameless kick of Vegas vulgarity—still  has the power to shock. The warnings before the show were explicit. Audiences were told to expect mature themes, nudity and 15 seconds of strobe lighting. As I looked around the audience at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, I wondered how this elderly-skewed  theatre crowd would handle the onslaught of flesh they were about to witness. There’s something supremely weird about seeing an acrobatic performance of convulsing half-naked bodies attended by folks whose limbs are so ancient that navigating the stairs to the washroom becomes a heroic odyssey.

Dorotea Saykaly in 'Orpheus and Eurydice.' Photo by by Sylvie-Ann Paré.

But the audience was rapt, agog . . . or thunderstruck. I’m still not sure which, but I don’t think I heard a cough during the entire performance. It just goes to show that people will sit still for the most avant-garde outrage as long as they’re being handsomely entertained. Chouinard’s troupe performs the entire dance bare-breasted, with pasties, which are in some cases chained together. The women are in bare feet with white furry earmuffs and leggings. In some scenes the men, also half-naked, strut around in high-heeled shoes and strap-on phalluses. The roles of Orpheus and Eurydice are swapped back and forth by various dancers of both genders, as the story is and twisted inside-out and spun into carnal taffy. (Capsule synopsis of the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl Greek legend: Orpheus the musician falls in love with Eurydice, who is bitten by a snake and dies; he uses his music to cajole the gods into letting him follow her into the underworld, but as he leads her out, he disobeys the cardinal rule—”Don’t look back!”—and she’s lost to him forever.)

The performers dance with their voices as much as with their bodies. There’s all manner of guttural screaming, yelping, growling and howling. It’s neither singing nor acting. The voice is treated as a writhing physical object, another plastic element in Chouinard’s choreography. With miming gestures the dancers drag the words out of each others’ mouths, as if pulling serpents from their intestines, and haul them around the stage as if on an invisible leash. The conflation of music/poetry and the phallus/snake becomes a prevailing motif, spelled out most ingeniously in a sequence that has the dancers manipulating snake puppets that undulate from their mouths. This is a show about inner demons that keeping pushing their way out of the body, kicking and screaming.

With cirque-like sweep, the show covers all the bases, hurtling through romance, tragedy, satire, farce, cabaret, clowning and vaudeville. Sometimes it goes from one extreme to the other in a flash. There’s a lovely tableau of male dancers wearing dildos that’s in silhouette, which makes the illusion graphically convincing. At the sight of it, the audience laughs at first, but then is slowly seduced by the sensual beauty of the movement. Then boom! Up come the lights—a garish blast of broad daylight—and the phalluses are revealed to be ugly black strap-ons, as the scene morphs into a grotesque frenzy of carnal greed. The night and day of sex.

The avant-garde extremes of the dance are framed by shameless bits of Vegas vulgarity, from a cheesy game-show routine to a crowd-surfing incursion of a near-naked dancer, who climbs over the seats of mortified audience members while contorting her body into erotic yoga poses and producing an underworld repertoire of unearthly sounds. Chouinard is as eager to please as she is to shock.

In the end, the nudity is the least shocking thing about the show, which unfolds as a demonic assault on the senses. Yet all this unfolds on an exquisite set that’s a marvel of minimalist wit. And amid the carnival, there are delicate moments of breathtaking beauty, including a filigree sequence of Hindu-like gestures, in which each dancer becomes a calligraphic figure in an erotic frieze. Those ornamental compositions reminded me of the only other Chouinard piece I’ve scene, 24 Preludes by Chopin, which was staged by the National Ballet in 2008. It, too, involved near-nudity, with dancers in Mohawks wearing sheer scrim-like costumes, with narrow “landing strips” of black fabric covering private parts. But it was, well, more tasteful. And as much as the  National Ballet is trying to shake up its image these days, I can’t imagine Karen Kain’s company performing anything as wild as Chouinard’s Orpheus and Eurydice. It runs to Nov. 5 at the Bluma Appel Theatre.

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson

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