If Vincent Van Gogh were alive and creating dance theatre in Montreal, he might well make work like Dave St. Pierre’s. Both artists display sure flashes of genius embedded in frantic energy, as well as a voracious will focused unflinchingly on the creation of terrible beauty.
Van Gogh painted virtually all of his masterpieces in a little more than two years, before a combination of wretched health and despair did him in. St. Pierre has been steamrolling European stages and packing Quebec theatres for seven, fighting physical ailments as serious as the painter’s. Fortunately, he lives in a time when medicine can work miracles. Diagnosed at 17 with cystic fibrosis, an incurable, degenerative lung disease, St. Pierre has worked against the clock for more than half his life, finally undergoing lung transplants two years ago.
During the brief rehearsal for Le cycle de la boucherie, currently playing at Théâtre La Chapelle, he was back in hospital again with an intestinal infection, directing actors with the help of video recordings. Hemorrhoids and shingles made his presence at rehearsals excruciating, but none of this backstage turmoil showed on the night I caught the performance.
As audience chatter settled into silence, St. Pierre was planted firmly in the centre of the packed audience. He began by holding auditions for nine actors seated on folding chairs arranged along the back wall of the stage, calling each forward, asking banal questions about their backgrounds. The painfully funny session seemed aimed at destroying their confidence and reducing expectations. Finally, having chosen his line-up, he orders them to strip naked.
Knowing it was all part of a rehearsed piece hardly dampened the frisson of shared embarrassment. Not only does St. Pierre break down the proverbial fourth wall separating audience from performance, he draws us into the action, needles us into taking the actors’ sides, sharing their discomfort. Of course, the cast follows his dictates and demands with superhuman ease. But so clever is the transition between rehearsal banality and polished performance that the imaginative leaps are easy to take.
St. Pierre struts around the stage, working cues from his laptop planted on a table to the side of the stage, reading from notes scribbled on his clipboard. A tiny, compact guy in black sneakers, non-descript pants, and a white shirt fastened with a bow tie, he exudes a kind of Chaplinesque charm, barking directions and opinions directly at actors or at the audience, with the house lights sometimes raised to full glare.
The heart of the piece consists of two scenes reworked from previous shows: one involving a mock tragedy set in a clownish McDo ad, the other a searing erotic pas de deux that turns bloody before it becomes tender.
A stunningly theatrical finale welds it all together. Le cycle de la boucherie has both the loose feeling of a work-in-progress and the dense aroma of something that has been simmering for ages.
At one level, it’s theatre about theatre, a dubious idea, but it does work. Following the journey is a riotous experience. Many moments veer off into cringe-territory, only to swing back and settle into awesome symmetry.
When St. Pierre’s troupe played Sadler’s Wells Dance Theatre in London this past summer, several British critics were horrified to be assaulted, pestered and driven to distraction by nude actors “waving their willies” in the faces of people sitting close to the stage. (The Telegraph gave it a zero star rating.) Others were blown away by innovation and sheer imaginative power.
Apart from a few bottles of ketchup splashed over the naked chest of a dancer playing Ronald McDonald’s death scene, there is nothing palpably disgusting or particularly offensive about this work; a binging scene with apples and fat girls is shockingly beautiful. Wild mood swings between hilarity, harangue and tenderness abound. Ultimately, this is a work of profound generosity, compassion and audacity.
At 37, St. Pierre has already joined a pantheon of boundary-breaking Québécois talents emerging from unassuming backgrounds to conquer world stages. In the past few years, he has won major prizes and accolades in Europe, a route paved by Marie Chouinard, Robert Lepage and Wajdi Mouawad, to name only a few.
Experiencing his work is exhilarating, breathtaking. And yet for anyone struggling to keep believing in theatre, it’s also disconcerting. Dave St. Pierre is, to be sure, inimitable. He raises the bar. His existence is bad news for timidity in our midst.
Le cycle de la boucherie continues at Théâtre La Chapelle through December 17. Additional performances have been added. Box office: 514-843-7738. For more information and to see video excerpts, go to www.lachapelle.org.