Arts

Montreal dance and its leading ladies are getting a major spotlight at the Venice Biennale

Choreographer Marie Chouinard is leading the festival's dance program, and she's showing the international community what her city's got.

Choreographer Marie Chouinard is showing the world what Montrealers already know

Louise Lecavalier and Frederic Tavernini in Lecavalier's 'So Blue.' (André Cornellier)

Having trumpeted Montreal as a dance centre for years, famed choreographer Marie Chouinard now has a chance to show the international community what she means as she begins a four-year term as director of the dance program of the Venice Biennale — the latest edition of which kicked off this weekend (with Canadians a prominent presence across the board). Of the 13 dance shows that she's programmed, six are by Montreal choreographers, including Chouinard herself. And to add further lustre, Montrealer Dana Michel will receive the Biennale's Silver Lion award for innovation in dance.

"For my first year, I thought it would be interesting to show work from Montreal, which is an absolutely fascinating creative city," said Chouinard from Venice a few days before the Biennale opened.

Chouinard is an old hand at the Biennale. She presented a work when the Biennale introduced its dance program in 1999, and since then, Compagnie Marie Chouinard has returned three times. This year, the troupe shows her latest creation, Soft virtuosity, still humid, on the edge.

Chouinard has invited a mix of established Montreal stars and up-and-comers to join her for the Biennale's nine-day dance festival that begins June 23. Former La La La Human Steps star Louise Lecavalier will perform So Blue, a smashing 2013 duet with Frédéric Tavernini that was her first choreography. Meanewhile, veteran Benoît Lachambre, — whose flights of extraterrestrial fancy are well known in Europe — will present Lifeguard, which has its North American premiere in Montreal in late May.

Dana Michel. (Camille McOuat)

41-year-old Dana Michel came to dance in her mid-20s, but she has risen quickly with just a few works that examine her African roots, feminine identity and multiculturalism. In Venice, she'll perform Yellow Towel, a 2013 solo that was widely hailed in Montreal and New York.

Charismatic dancer/singer Clara Furey will perform a duet with Slovakian dancer Peter Jasko called Untied Tales. 27-year-old Daina Ashby will present her solo, When the Ice Melts, Will We Drink the Water? as well as a second work, Unrelated. Both works won prizes at Montreal's 2016 Prix de la danse.

Women in arts are not always  honoured . At awards ceremonies, I see the overwhelming majority of nominees are men. But my choices were absolutely based on my enthusiasm for the artists, not just as an affirmation of women.- Marie  Chouinard , choreographer and director of the Venice  Biennale's dance program

It is not mere coincidence that almost all of Chouinard's invited Montreal choreographers are women.

"I think I'm only the fourth woman to serve as an artistic director at the Biennale in a hundred years," said Chouinard. "Women in arts are not always honoured. At awards ceremonies, I see the overwhelming majority of nominees are men. But my choices were absolutely based on my enthusiasm for the artists, not just as an affirmation of women."

Chouinard also wants to take advantage of Venice's gorgeous cityscape by programming a host of outdoor events.

"Venice lends itself well to this kind of performance. There are no cars; there are open-air squares and the weather in summer is nice. I've invited the choreographers either to put on something new or to adapt one of their theatre pieces for outside viewing. I really like to see works in an everyday location like a promenade where passersby suddenly come across a few dancers. And I'm encouraging them to perform without music so it will be about dance and body image in an urban setting."

Marie Chouinard, Biennale dance artistic director. (Max Tremblay)

Her own company members will stage a performance/installation piece on the outdoor Campo Sant'Agnese, a short walk from the famous Santa Maria della Salute church, which greets vessels entering the Grand Canal. The piece, In Museum, was first staged at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. Campo Sant'Agnese will also be the outdoor site for 20-minute-long works by Michel, Lachambre and the three choreographers invited to participate in a Chouinard innovation, the Biennale choreography college.

Biennale colleges were already in place to allow filmmakers, composers, dramatists and even dancers to spend several weeks honing their craft and exchanging ideas with other Biennale artists — so Chouinard figured that young choreographers should get a chance, too. The new college's first three participants — Irina Baldini (Italy), Chloe Chignell (Australia) and Joaquin Collado Parreño (Spain) — will have six weeks to create original works that they will present at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale. Meanwhile, Lachambre will make a new creation with the 22 invited international dancers of the Biennale dance college.

With films, after-show talks, prizes and as many as five shows a day, Chouinard's Biennale dance card is quite pleasantly full — and the world is about to see what Montreal's really got as a result.

La Biennale di Venezia. Until November 26. Venice, Italy. www.labiennale.org

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