It would be easy to sensationalize the work of Marie Chouinard, as many other critics have, as purely shock tactics. Her early solo work as dancer and performance artist in the late 1970s and early ’80s was overshadowed by press coverage of certain risque incidents, including auctioning herself off to the audience, urinating in a bucket and onstage masturbation. Her decision, in 1990, to step off the stage and form her own repertory — Compagnie Marie Chouinard — has seen her ceremoniously unshackle herself from the shock artist label and take on a more mature role as one of the leading choreographers involved in contemporary dance.
The company, based in a newly opened space in the chic Plateau area of Montreal, has toured extensively over the world, garnering accolades and awards for pieces such as “bODY _rEMIX/ gOLDBERG _vARIATIONS” in 2005 and “Chorale” in 2003. Although renowned for stunning visual set-pieces, Chouinard’s philosophy is also based on the poetics of the body.
“The body is the most important (aspect of my work) — the intelligence in the body, the spirit in the body and the inner light of the body is the most important thing,” said the dancer in an interview this past weekend. This echoes a statement from her company’s marketing blurb: “Her raw material is the dancers’ flesh, bones and muscles, the instinct and vital impulse of the human body whose intimate connections she exposes.”
Her latest work, “Orpheus and Eurydice,” is one of her typically incendiary reimaginings of the Greek myth. Premiering in Rome last spring, the piece, which deconstructs the story into its basic elements of creation, loss, conscience and eternity, has been gradually tweaked and adapted during its world tour.
“Before, it was longer and in two parts. I have put the two parts together, removed an intermission and made it a little bit shorter,” the 54-year-old choreographer explains. “And now I like it more. It’s more fluent.
“I don’t expect anyone to understand the show intellectually, but I hope on a heart and soul level they can follow. It’s like a landscape. You don’t understand it. You’re just there.”
The piece sets out to free the myth from narrative constraints by using a clever union of voice, dance, ethnic props and lights accompanied by a stomping soundtrack from long-term collaborator Louis Dufort and barely-there costumes by Liz Vandal. And, while not as controversial as earlier pieces, “Orpheus and Eurydice” is not without its moments: Simulated copulation, writhing dancers, strap-on penises and plenty of skin have been enough to upset audience members in several countries.
Chouinard’s influence on other contemporary artists is most clearly seen in her approach toward the body. One superb young dancer who invites comparison with the Canadian choreographer is North Carolina-native Ann Liv Young. Young has enthralled and shocked audiences the world over with her controversial interpretations of established stories, such as “Snow White,” which included nudity and penetration with dildos; and “Solo,” — inspired by Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” — which celebrated naked ways of enjoying chocolate sauce.
Yet for Chouinard, her own work is not about defying conventions.
“I don’t think about breaking rules. I just think about creating a gift, creating a vision,” she says. “When creating, you’re just creating, not breaking rules. We’re trying to find solutions of survival, solutions to breathe.”
In addition to being a top choreographer and theatrical producer (she designed the set and lights for the latest production), Chouinard is also a photographer, video-installation artist and a published poet. The multifaceted auteur has already set her sights on developing a solo piece, which she will perform in Montreal later this year and then at the Venice Biennale of art. Significantly, this will be her first time to perform in public for 20 years.
Asked what Japanese audiences should expect from “Orpheus and Eurydice,” Chouinard replies methodically: “They should expect a gift. A gift for their intelligence and for their soul. What I have to offer is very human. A good surprise. It’s also a gift of freedom.”
“Orpheus and Eurydice” is being performed Feb. 6-8 at Theatre 1010, 3-92 Senju, Adachi-ku, Tokyo ( 5244-1011; www.t1010.jp) and Feb. 11 at Shigakenritsu Geijyutsu Gekijyo Biwako Hall, 15-1 Uchidehama, Otsu-shi, Shiga ( 523-7136; www.biwako-hall.or.jp).