A toast to pain: This choreographer is commemorating distress through dance
'I really see myself as an observer of the patterns around people'
Whether it's a torn ligament or a text breakup, most of us spend our lives trying to avoid pain. But in the case of Montreal choreographer Virginie Brunelle's latest work À la douleur que j'ai (The Pain That Lingers), hurt is not something to be avoided — it's something to be celebrated.
"I wanted to make a toast to pain," Brunelle laughs while on a break from rehearsal. "It's been a central point in a lot of my pieces, and realizing that was the start for this work. It's not so much about pain in the moment it occurs [but] the traces it leaves in the body, after it's started to fade."
Brunelle exploded onto the Canadian choreographic landscape in 2010 with Foutrement, a gritty, classically-tinged look at the brutality of love. Since then, she's quickly gained international recognition for her kinetic, occasionally violent, emotionally complex works, with tour dates across Canada, Europe and Latin America. Along with Dave St. Pierre and Frédérick Gravel, she's been hailed as part of a new generation of Quebecois choreographers reshaping the form.
Dance was not much on Brunelle's mind when she was growing up in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, a small Richelieu Valley town 40 minutes from Montreal. Her first passion was music, specifically the violin, which she took up at a young age. Her entry to the dance field came at the age of 19, when a choreographer friend needed to cast a non-dancer in a show and offered Brunelle the part.
It was a decidedly late start, especially for a woman. While it's not uncommon for men to enter the field in their late teens or early 20s, most women aiming for professional careers are already training seriously before junior high. None of this was a concern for Brunelle, though. She thought the show would be a fun one-off activity. But the experience unlocked something unexpected in her.
Pain is an easy subject in a way because it's so universal, which makes it an efficient way to touch an audience. You can really pierce through and make them feel it.- Virginie Brunelle
"With the violin, I had a very physical way of playing," she says. "Whatever I was performing I would express it not just with the notes but with my body. In dance, I found a new way to transfer emotion that I had been trying to do with music."
Shortly after, she began formal dance studies, first at the Cégep de Drummondville and then later at UQAM, where she graduated in 2007 with a focus on choreography.
"I immediately realized I had potential as a creator and that being an interpreter was very limiting," she says. "I also had the limits of being an older woman starting in dance, so it seems like the right direction to go."
Her early works are known for a certain aggressive athleticism. The sounds of bodies colliding are as much a part of score as the music. The sweat, the frantic breathing and the red marks the dancers leave from gripping each other are features of the work, rather than byproducts of it. À la douleur que j'ai continues with her signature aesthetic. But despite the focus on agony, it takes, perhaps, a slightly softer approach.
"I really see myself as an observer of the patterns around people," she says. "Pain is an easy subject in a way because it's so universal, which makes it an efficient way to touch an audience. You can really pierce through and make them feel it."
À la douleur que j'ai. Choreographed by Virginie Brunelle. Until Mar 11. Theatre Junction Grand, Calgary. Mar 16-18. Vancouver International Dance Festival, Vancouver. April 6-8. National Arts Centre, Ottawa. www.virginiebrunelle.com