MARIE-JOSEE CHARTIER performing in ALLEN KAEJA's DESCENT Series G, August 11 at 6:30 pm, August 12 and 14 at 9:30 pm; and dancer/choreographer of SOUS NOS YEUX Series M, August 16 and 19 at 6:30 pm, August 18 at 2 pm. Rating: NNNNN
There's an unforgettable recur-ing image in Marie-Josée Chartier's new piece, Sous Nos Yeux. She inserts a finger into her mouth and pulls sharply, distorting her already dramatic face into something even fiercer. "People see different things in it," Chartier tells me a couple of weeks before the work's much-anticipated Toronto premiere at the fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists (fFIDA). To some it looks like she's a fish being pulled by a hook. To others it looks like she's forcing her face to express an emotion -- any emotion -- when she's feeling lifeless.
Then she tells me the image's true, or rather original, meaning.
"When you have leukemia, your gums swell up," she says. "Michael's gums completely covered his teeth, and with chemotherapy the gums began shedding. I spent hours and hours cleaning them up, scraping things off. The image came from that."
She pauses. Her words, like the impressions she creates onstage, are clear and heartbreaking.
Last year, she watched her husband, composer Michael J. Baker, die of leukemia. She cancelled all of her professional commitments, essentially living in the hospital with him. Sous Nos Yeux is the first piece she's created and performed since his death, and it's obviously influenced by her past year.
The title refers to something happening under your nose, something you have no control over. "It could be good or bad. It's not an easy piece. But it is what it has to be."
The creation process was different this time. After Baker's death, and after Chartier felt ready to work again, she went into the studio every day and kept a written journal, recording her thoughts and impressions. She grabbed CDs of music randomly, improvised, videotaped herself, then spent a lot of time waiting, not imposing her will on the dance.
"I went with my impulses," she says. "I listened to my body, to how I was feeling on any given day."
Then, one day she put on the scratchy, suspenseful music of Alison Cameron, the artistic director of Array Music. She had known the work for more than 12 years, but suddenly the dance piece gelled. "I really connected to the music, to what was inside."
Unlike much of her previous work, the set for the new show is minimal, with only a rusty car brake drum (Cameron uses one in her score) for Chartier to manipulate. The movement itself, which she demonstrates for me in the rehearsal hall, suggests images of dragging one's feet, crawling into a fetal position and then staggering forward, wondering what the next move is.
And what is Chartier's next move? At fFIDA she's also performing Allen Kaeja's Descent, where she sports long antennae and transforms herself into some kind of angel or warrior. Next year sees a major full-length commission from Dancemakers.
She's also preparing a CD of Baker's music. And she's ready to remount Trousseau-True Nature, the wondrous piece she helped create with the all-female collective Urge that draws on voice, music and theatre.
Not bad for a dancer who fell into choreography after an artist friend asked her to choreograph something for an exhibit 14 years ago.
"Experience makes you trust yourself, your talents and your strengths," says Chartier calmly. "Getting older and wiser allows you to make the best from what you've learned. The good and the bad."GS
fringe festival of independent dance artists (fFIDA) 19-day dance festival featuring local and international companies. Continues through August 19. Pwyc-$10, pass $100. Off-Site Series, various locations; 416-410-4291. Mainstage Series, Buddies in Bad Times, 12 Alexander; 416-975-8555.