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Valerie Simmons photographs the many intimate personae of dancer José Navas

A naked man in an animal mask stands in a moss-laden alleyway. Motion blurs as someone finds liberation from a fabricated cocoon. Mountains of discarded paper loom as a solitary figure looks on at the excess. These are some of the scenes from the forthcoming show at Galerie Dentaire, a collaborative exhibit from photographer Valerie Simmons and dancer/choreographer José Navas, who is also the founder and artistic director of Compagnie Flak. The exhibit features two series of photographs from Simmons, one entitled Trois Battements, and the second entitled Personae, which shares its name with Navas’ upcoming solo dance performances at Place des Arts.

The black-and-white images from Trois Battements evoke themes of restraint and escape, and depict Navas in a variety of entombing costumes. When asked what inspired her to bind a dancer in such restrictive material, the photographer ponders the impetus behind the project. “I think I was feeling held back in those days. I guess I wanted to witness something breaking free.” Rich colours and diverse settings populate the Personae collection, with Simmons drawing inspiration from the characters in Navas’ solo piece. The images of Personae place the male nude against striking backdrops, both in studio and outdoors. One particular photo sees Navas standing before imposing towers of paper in a recycling plant. While driving past the factory one day, Simmons noticed sheets of paper flying about in the air, and the fluid motions reminded her of some of Navas’ movements. The duo returned to the plant and created one of the most ephemeral pieces of Personae.

Though he’s rehearsing every day for his twelve-night stint at Place des Arts, Navas took a break from rehearsal to speak about his collaboration with Valerie Simmons.

Photo: Valerie Simmons

How did your collaborative relationship with Simmons begin?
About four or five years ago, a gallery asked Val to create a series of portraits of me, but we didn’t know each other. At first, I wasn’t interested, but the gallery insisted. Val and I decided to meet, and from that meeting came a series of pictures. It was a wonderful collaboration. Since then, we’ve become admirers of each other’s work, and I wanted to continue this collaboration with her, but in a different way. So I gave Val carte blanche for her to create images involving the personas from my solo dance piece Personae.

How did your experience as subject differ between the two shoots?
In the first series, Val used different materials to wrap up my body, like paper and strings, and she took beautiful black-and-white pictures in studio that were almost bondage images. In the second series, the only thing Val asked was that I be naked, so these are naked versions of the characters in my show. The difference is now we know one another a lot more. It’s different when you know one another as artists. You come to the collaboration with your own baggage, but you also come knowing the potential of the other person. There is something more intimate in this, so you brainstorm, and take the work a little bit farther.


Photo: Valerie Simmons

As someone who deals so much with movement, how did you work with the physical restrictions of Trois Battements?
It was strange for me! Usually, I know how motion in a photo shoot works—I know how to do that and I enjoy it. When she started to do this series, it brought out a completely different side of my movement. I thought it was great. There was something more emotional about what was coming out. I was working with a woman I knew very little, and I was fully naked. Immediately, you become intimate, because you have to be in order to do a shoot like that. There's something very emotional in that series that I enjoyed.

Sound and music are an integral part of your dance pieces. What kind of aural environment accompanied your photo shoots?
For one of the Personae shoots, we were indoors and Val played the soundtrack from my show—that informs what you’re doing. Then there are the pictures that we took outside, where all we had was the sound of our heartbeats! We were so scared that someone would pass by, so we were very aware of the sounds around us.

Photo: Valerie Simmons

Can you talk about the experience of bringing the personas out of your dance piece, and having them photographed? 
It’s a little bit scary. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, but I trust Val very much. I think she’s a wonderful photographer. I have a very specific image of the dance show in my head, and when you perform something on the stage, you want to keep your own vision intact. It will be interesting to see the images. I don’t know how easy it is to see your show interpreted by someone else. But, it was my idea, so I have to be a good boy and go for it!

Trois Battements & Personae
Vernissage on Saturday, January 7 at 5 p.m.
Exhibit runs from January 6 to 25 at Galerie Dentaire | 1239 Amherst 

January 11-14, 18-21 and 25-28 at 8 p.m.
Cinquième Salle, Place des Arts | 175, Ste-Catherine O. |