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Dance maven Marie Chouinard opens up about her creative process and choreographic flashes

When she’s least expecting it, famed choreographer Marie Chouinard gets flashes of inspiration. Take, for example, a German friend who gave her the book Mouvements by writer and painter Henri Michaux, featuring 64 pages of his abstract Indian ink drawings. The work sat on her bookshelf, until one day she opened it up and suddenly viewed it in a different light. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is like a storyboard for a choreography!’ It’s been waiting for me for a long time – I’ve had this book in my library for 20 years!”

Henri Michaux: Mouvements, Chouniard’s ballet in one act for 11 dancers, had its genesis back in 2005 when Chouinard choreographed an intimate solo for longtime company dancer Carole Prieur [Ed's Note: read our interview with Carole here]. “When I was creating this solo for Carole, I knew that I was just creating part of a bigger piece that would eventually see the light of day. This is the first time I started a creation, and then didn’t touch it for so many years!” says the ebullient Chouinard, speaking to Nightlife.ca on the phone days before the Montreal premiere.

Using the ink drawings as a starting point, Chouinard creates sequences from Michaux’s shapes on the page. “I take one drawing, and then find how it can be expressed through the body in a shape, a movement, or a rhythm,” she explains.  “When I was looking at a drawing, sometimes I felt that it was emitting a sound. Then I would ask the dancers to produce that sound simultaneously from page to page.”

Chouinard mentions that she draws as part of her creative process, but her sketches come after the movement. “I draw a lot. Once I create a sequence of movement, I draw it… as a reminder to remember the whole sequence.” In this black and white, sparse universe that echoes the visuals of an open book, the ink drawings are projected, and black-clad dancers become animated Rorschachian ink splotches set to an industrial score by longtime collaborator Louis Dufort.

Dancers turned pianists
For the second half of the evening, Chouinard whisks us to a different universe inspired by Erik Satie’s haunting Gymnopédies. Although Chouinard had heard this trio of familiar piano pieces hundreds of times throughout her life, on one occasion, she had a sudden spark.  “I was not looking for music because I never choreograph to music. I don’t know why, but at one point I heard it again and I had this vision for duets.”

For this half-hour choreography, she issued a special challenge to her dancers.  “In the middle of the night, I woke up and thought, ‘This is it, I have to have them play the piano! This is how it has to be!’” As none of them had a background in piano, the dancers trained 15 minutes per day for a whole year to perfect their piece. During the work, which revolves around the theme of the duet, each dancer performs one of Satie’s three short compositions on a baby grand, which is cleverly integrated into the set.

Chouinard, who is known to inject a bit of ‘haha’ into her choreographic works, assured us we can expect a few humorous moments. “But of course…there’s always some humour. Always some drama. Always some sex… It’s there in life, anyway!”

Théâtre Maisonneuve  | Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 | dansedanse.ca