Review: Ce n’est pas la fin du monde (Sylvain Émard/Harbourfront Centre/NextSteps)

PasLaFinDuMonde-by Valerie Simmons_625 1

Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre presents Sylvain Émard’s Ce n’est pas la fin du monde as part of its dance program

The world feels strange. The air seems thick with unknowns: frequencies we can’t see, invisible clouds of data, other people’s secrets. Everything is changing so quickly, and there are so many questions that we hardly know how to ask. Is there something we’re supposed to be doing? Some insight we’re missing, or some revelation waiting to happen?

Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard‘s Ce n’est pas la fin du monde (It’s not the end of the world), performed one night only at the Fleck Dance Theatre on February 28 as part of the Harbourfront Centre’s NextSteps program, brings audiences face-to-face with the uncertainty of our anxious zeitgeist. It may not be the end of the world, but it’s not the most comfortable place either.

This work is about as reassuring as the title suggests. Which is to say, not very. (If you have to say so, then something’s wrong.) Emard focuses on that uneasy feeling specifically, but he’s neither self-righteous nor nihilistic about it. Instead, he seems to be saying that this stress we feel about our changing times and the fate of the world is also a tension that can become generative if we let ourselves enter into the uncertainty with eyes open.

That’s what we do as an audience for an abstract performance like this—we try to attune, rather than to understand. Ce n’est pas la fin du monde is a work of pure contemporary dance: there’s no story and no answers. Rather, there’s a parallel universe, and for the duration of the performance you can see it and go there with your feelings.

The world of Ce n’est pas la fin du monde is occupied by seven dancers, all of them men. By contrast, the world of contemporary dance is mainly occupied by women, so the presence of so many men in a performance feels unique. When people talk and write about Emard’s work, they usually refer to the male-ness of it, or how he portrays masculinity.

Emard’s masculinity isn’t stereotypical. The men of Ce n’est pas la fin du monde are not “manly” men, whatever that means. Instead, they are men who desire to hold and be held by each other. They want to be respected, but they also want to be supported. But they have a hard time doing that.

As you can imagine, it feels a bit awkward. Not because they are men who show desire for one another emotionally, but because they struggle and fail to satisfy each other. They release themselves repeatedly into each other’s embrace, but they can never quite make it stick. This duality is expressed continually through the choreography—on the one hand, a lovely sensuousness, and on the other, a clumsy fragility.

Put these two things together, and it looks like an urgent attempt to grasp some fleeting beauty. I don’t know what to say about beauty, except that it makes more sense to me when it’s broken and someone’s trying to fix it. Odd gestures—slapping their own backs, collapsing their arms around their faces, kicking their heels tightly behind them—are interwoven with more ecstatic movements to form an atmosphere of effortful longing and vulnerability.

Ce n’est pas la fin du monde is organized into a sequence of solos, duets, trios, and group movements. Whenever not performing, the dancers hang around the back of the stage, focusing intently on whoever among them is under the spotlight. By having them take turns, Emard increases the sense that they are trying to solve a problem or find an answer to a dilemma.

Their plight is pictured effectively in the set design by Richard Lacroix. A cloud of cardboard boxes hangs over the dancers’ heads, through which streaks of light break down upon them like the sun through a stormy sky. It’s as if the atmosphere has become so dense with compounds and molecules that the trash has started to hang in the air in floating islands, ominous and magical.

One recurring gesture gripped me: picture a limp body that is hoisted up by a harness, the way a person might look as they are lifted from the ocean by a helicopter. Again and again, Emard’s dancers thrust each other into the air in exactly this posture, as if they might be rescued from this chaotic, drowning world if only they assume the position.

But nothing comes to save them—no rope from the dark cloud to carry them up into the sunlight. That would be a different story, not the one we’re in. Like the dancers in Ce n’est pas la fin du monde, all we have down here is each other.

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Image: (l-r)Justin Gionet, Georges-Nicolas Tremblay; photo by Valerie Simmons

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