NO GUILT: Interview with Paul-André Fortier personæ home

Montreal-based dance critic Aline Gélinas spoke to Paul-André Fortier during production of No Guilt on April 4, 1994, in Toronto.

Aline Gélinas: Did you know the quality of the interpreter before working with her?

Paul-André Fortier: I saw her dance with the Toronto Dance Theatre and then with the Danny Grossman Dance Company, but I didn't know her very well personally. We had met each other a few times, but I didn't know her as a woman, I didn't know her much as an interpreter either. When she asked me to create a piece for her, in the beginning it was a surprise, then I was a little bit terrified, because she was a great performer.

She intimidated me because I was after all at that time a young choreographer, and to create a piece for dancer I didn't know was a bit frightening for me; I was developing things, but I still didn't have a choreographic language. I didn't really have much experience in terms of directing a performer, so working with someone who was the master of a technique that I didn't know was a challenge.

At that point I usually created for dancers with whom I worked every day, people that I knew very well, like Manon Levac or Louise Bédard, who had already learned my way of moving, and who developed my way of movement through rehearsals or the research we did for creation, so I didn't have any idea of how to start with Susan.

Aline Gélinas: So how did you approach this? Did you go through accessories or the form?

Paul-André Fortier: At the beginning we worked in the studio without any specific idea. I didn't have any theme, I didn't have a choreographic idea as such, so to get to know each other, I started to work on the vocabulary, the connections of movements, to see how she, who didn't know about this kind of movement, would react. She was a very tall woman, with a "fear of falling", if you like... and at that point, and still, in my choreographic language, falling is very important; loss of equilibrium is important. What interested me was the moment when the body recovers when it is about to fall to the ground.

She had trouble with this because, first of all, she's tall, and the taller one is, the more one is afraid of falling. It was a vocabulary that was completely foreign to her. She had worked all her life to try to be in balance, and I was asking her to be almost constantly out of balance.

At the beginning, I found myself in a situation that was rather difficult. I was used to working with performers who had already mastered my language. Now I was dealing with somebody who learned very slowly, who could not go beyond what I was asking, who had to work very hard to get there. I often found myself paralysed.

When I create things - that was the case then, and it is still the case now - things go very quickly. There is a lot of research work in the studio where I experiment in terms of movement and so on. There is a moment when an idea appears that is very rapidly structured. I need the performer to be able to work at a very rapid pace, because I don't really have a memory. I'm lazy, and I don't want to note down the steps that I make; with the performers in my company at that time, I was working with people who memorized things very quickly. I gave them three movements and they did five because they went beyond what I was asking. With Susan, she had her habits of performance, to stick very closely to what the choreographer asked, not to go beyond that, so there were all these adjustments that had to be made.

I also realized that from the technical point of view, since my vocabulary is very particular, something I make up as I go along in my creative life, Susan had an enormous amount of work to do simply on the technical level, to appropriate this kind of movement. It was very difficult for her, and very frustrating for myself at the same time. So we worked for about two weeks together; there was the idea of the rocks that appeared.

I had already done two other pieces where I used rocks, and in "Création", the rocks came from two sources. There was work I'd done with Françoise Sullivan, who used rocks to encircle the dancers or set up spaces, and there was the work I'd done with Jacques Cardon, a French artist, who had created people - characters - with rocks attached to their heads; my work was partially inspired by his work. He had come to Montreal to work on the choreography with me. So "Non Coupable" was the final piece in the trilogy of the stones, consisting of "Fin", "Création", and "Non Coupable".

When you do a commissioned piece, there's a very special character - one rarely finds new ideas emerging. I think that a commissioned piece with a performer I knew very well would have been different, but with an interpreter I didn't know very well, and whom I didn't know psychologically, or physically, in those situations one goes back to things that are familiar. I'd already done two choreographies with stones; the idea of stones began to impose itself, and I began to work on it.

On the other hand, since Susan was working very slowly, she took a long time to learn the steps, she wasn't very familiar with the vocabulary; I think it's her nature in any case to work slowly. I needed someone who would respond very rapidly to my inventions when they happened in the studio, so I used the time when Susan went back to Toronto to ask Louise Bédard, who was one of my dancers, to work on the piece with me. I think I constructed the piece in one afternoon with Louise. First of all, she didn't have to make any effort to memorize the steps because it was easy for her; also in terms of execution, it was familiar to her, she was aware of the language of gestures, so I was able to see the piece.

When the dancer learns very slowly, one doesn't have the opportunity to have an overall idea of the choreography, to see what one is one going to keep and throw out, what is going to be emphasized, and so on. Louise enabled me to create the piece very quickly.

When Susan came back, I said, the piece is done, and she had to learn it. Louise showed her part of it, we put it on video, and Susan was thus able to learn the piece. But even though I used the body of Louise and the physical intelligence of Louise, the piece was intended for Susan. I don't think I could have created it for somebody else. The way in which the images are put together... even if it was done very intuitively and spontaneously - I was still full of Susan, of her appearance, her body, and her height. She's a very tall woman; she took up a lot of space when she moved. I could not have created this piece with somebody like Michèle Febvre or Louise Bédard or another of my performers; it was really for Susan.

Aline Gélinas: Did you think that the piece could have been danced by a man as well, or was it too specifically feminine?

Paul-André Fortier: Once the piece was created, Susan took a long time to master it, purely in terms of the body language, because of everything that it upset in her habits as a woman and as a dancer. She was, I think, overwhelmed on both levels. She took a long time to master and tame these two aspects, and to dare to show herself on the stage with something she wasn't sure about. When the piece was brought before the public it had qite an impact. Many people were very troubled or upset by this female character who rocked and suckled rocks, and who turned a large rock in her womb and so on.

Susan finally appropriated the piece. The choreographer creates the situation, creates a series of movements, but it needs a performer who completely invests in the piece and appropriates it completely. If that doesn't happen there's nothing going on, there's no possible art or communication with the public.

When Susan danced - she was invited to come to my company with that piece - I watched her and I was overwhelmed, because she really embodied the dance; the dance had become embodied in the choreography through Susan's capacity to give form to the dance, to make the dance visible.

That's what makes dance happen or not. It isn't always the choreography. I think the choreographer is somebody who puts things together, but he is not the one who is going to embody the dance. He has his own responsibility in directing, and in orienting the performer, but the embodiment belongs to the performer. She revealed my own dance to me. That was quite extraordinary.

In this revelation she made of my own dance, she gave me the desire to dance it. But I think it was simply a desire, and it never went beyond that stage, because it's a piece for women; it had been created for a woman. It's one of the memories I have - I have to think back twelve years - it was a kind of archetype, a kind of mythic character or personage, in this huge woman who had rocks attached to her wrists, and who suckled and so on. These were stones or rocks, but they were also a metaphor of everything we drag with us since the origins of man until now, and these stones, depending on who sees them, have different meanings.

It isn't a story about a woman who is blind and who considers that these rocks are children or something, it's a lot of things, it's much more open, I think, than what you see in it at first. It's a kind of myth: a female form of a Sisyphus myth.

I think that Susan intuitively understood all this, and I think that the movement contains that - I think she was careful to listen to what the piece contained in terms of purely physical sensations, and by listening to these movements, she managed to embody the dance.

I wanted her to listen to the dance, that it be purely a matter of sensation and not of perception. In neutralizing the gaze, one focuses on the body that carried these huge weights, as if the stone is the child, but it's also the universe in its entirety with which she has to negotiate her own space, her own place. It's also her points of reference, when she loses them and finds them again. Susan very intuitively and very powerfully grasped that and gave it expression on stage.

Aline Gélinas: You have seen Susan dancing it; you have seen Peggy dancing it. Could you comment on the difference, what belongs to the piece and what belongs to the dancer?

Paul-André Fortier: Ah well, I've seen more than two dancers doing it, in fact, I've seen Michèle Febvre doing it, and Manon Levac, so actually I've seen four very strong performers. Not all of them bring it to a mythical level. I think the one who went the furthest in that direction is Susan, because it was made for her and she made it her own; when it's created for you, you don't reproduce things, you produce things.

When you learn it from someone else, even the choreographer, if it was not created for you, you reproduce things, and there is a delay before you produce something that is your own. Michèle Febvre did something that was totally different; she took the piece totally somewhere else. Manon Levac was the younger dancer who did it, and she brings something else to the piece. Peggy is also taking the piece somewhere else. I have no problem with that because the essence of the work remains there, whoever is performing it.

What interests me it is when the performer reaches a point where she is able to make it her own. I don't stick to the precise movement; I'm not worried that the dancer is or is not faithful to the original movement. I create in silence - I don't create the piece on the music. So everyone has to find their own rhythm, their own way to deal with the space, the movement, and then later on with the music. But they first have to find it inside themself, in terms of themselves, in terms of movement more than anything else, of finding the way to put it in their body. It should belong to the body, and not to the mind.

I've witnessed that it takes more time when they learn the piece from Susan or from me, to make it their own. When l created it for Susan, she went through it very slowly and she built it, and the first time I saw it, it was her. This was absolutely magic.

But even though I know what she gave, and what she was doing with the piece, I can accept other ways to deal with the imagery, or deal with the piece itself, with the movement.

Aline Gélinas: When you say that Peggy goes somewhere else, could you be more specific?

Paul-André Fortier: Well I have not seen her perform it very often, I think twice. The first time, I felt it looked too much like something that was learned, not something that was absorbed and that was her own. The second time she got much closer to her own self and forgot about... she saw Susan dance it several times, so she had that in mind.

I don't want her to be a clone, I want her to make the piece her own. I think that she has - technically - more strength than Susan had, because she's younger than Susan was, I believe. Technically she is extremely, extremely strong, so it's not in that aspect that the problem is; it's more in the soul, she hasn't yet managed to unveil the soul of that woman, and that's what I wish she would do, but I cannot do it for her. I think that my role is to help her to listen to the movement, to listen to the feelings of the movement, to listen to the sweat, to dance with the sweat, to dance with the difficulties of the piece.

There are technical things - pirouettes that are very difficult, off-balances that are very difficult, and she almost has the same kind of problem that Susan had at the beginning. Because she's not familiar with that kind of vocabulary. It's as if she speaks a language she doesn't master; you know just a few words and you try to make sentences with this. So we still have to work on that, for her to make it her own.

Aline Gélinas: Will it be on the level of the meaning of the piece, because this kind of work always works on the level of meaning for the audience, it's never perceived only as movement?

Paul-André Fortier: Yes, and I don't think the dancer has to work on the meaning; the piece carries the meaning, and the dancer carries the piece. The dancer doesn't have to worry about what it means, she has to worry about what she does when she performs it. The stones are heavy, she's carrying them, they're cold, it hurts with the ropes around the wrist, it hurts - and that's what she has to listen to. If she listens to that, and she's falling, she's constantly falling, and she's blind; all she has to do is to deeply listen to that, and let that lead her to her own soul, and not impose a soul that is artificial, but just be there, be Peggy Baker and listen to your body, your tall body falling in space.

Mainly that is something she's not used to, so - just listen to that, let yourself be frightened by your own fall. The way the piece is structured, and the presence of the stones, the costume, the lighting, and everything: the audience will read what is there, but on top of that what she's going through purely in the physical aspect will communicate through that, and something unforgettable will happen.

Because this is what the dance is; the dance is not in the head, the dance is in the body, and I think Susan was very clear about that, in the way she performed it. She was not making stories, she was not giving herself images, and feeding herself with drama, and all that bullshit, she was just doing it.

I think she found the piece very difficult; technically and in terms of energy, she was never on top of the piece, so there was always something frightening for her, and we could read it while she was dancing it, but it was all drawing into the character, into the dance itself, and this is what made her so vulnerable and so extraordinary, because something absolutely true was happening. It was not a make-up, it was a real thing happening, and this is what was so magic.

Peggy is still fighting with the movement, she doesn't listen yet to her own body, and I hope she will achieve it.

Aline Gélinas: Just one more thing. This was done twelve years ago. Is there a feeling of "this is the old me"? Does it still feel your own?

Paul-André Fortier: Of course. There is no "old me". It's part of my history as a creator, and, although I would not do a piece like that now, this is how I was doing it then. If I do what I do now, it's because I've done that. So I don't negate any of what I've done, although it's always disturbing to go backward (laughs), to things you were doing twelve years ago. But then going back to that moment, it explains things that I learned not knowing I was learning them; putting this in perspective, I look at what I'm doing now, and I can measure the ground I've covered since then.

I think this piece was very important. One of the aspects of it was that Susan was not a young dancer, and she was a solo performer. And now I am a solo performer. I know that when I decided to dance solo in my mid-forties, it was very much related to the experience I had with her. When I did that, I didn't know it would lead me to this, and I don't say she is the reason why I am dancing solo now, but I know it is related. Things feed... you know, it's a long process, being a creator and a performer; it's not something immediate, it's something that is inscribed in time. For me it's normal - I'm not surprised with myself that I'm doing solo.

About Aline Gélinas, interviewer:

Aline Gélinas (1956-2001) wrote extensively about theatre and dance in Montreal. She contributed to the daily La Presse and the weekly Voir, as well as to a number of specialized publications. She taught dance history and in her later years devoted her time to editing books on dance, to writing fiction, and to performance.

Interview edited by Susan Macpherson