The opening of Festival Quartiers Danses in Montreal opened with AXISTURN, which was essentially three solos served with a grainy side of multimedia.

Jeff Hall, <i>Falling</i> © Anthony McLean
Jeff Hall, Falling
© Anthony McLean

The first solo, Jeff Hall's Falling, began as a physical stand-up routine that segued seamlessly from the opening night speeches; he recounted his back-story, flipping between French and English before finally settling on French.

Hall is one of those performers who come late to dance from a sports background, and he recounted his first contemporary dance class at university. The first thing his tutor told him was not to dance, but to be still, feel the air surrounding his body, to imagine himself in a cylinder. “Comment pourrais-je savoir ce que c'est que d'être dans un cylindre? Je n'avais jamais été dans un cylindre! (How would I know what it was like to be in a cylinder? I've never been in a cylinder before!)

Immediately following this class he pronounced contemporary dance “bullsh*t”, but despite this false start he made a career in dance until a life-changing event stopped him in his tracks: a major fall left him unable to walk. The process of training his body to walk again was a sweaty, grimacing, uncomfortable one that was shown to us in snippets as the piece moved from a storytelling format to contemporary dance; we witness Hall shaking on the ground in a fetal position, levering himself in and out of wheelchairs. Finally he morphed into a self-flagellating Christ-like figure, arms outstretched as he slowly, agonizingly, found his feet again. All in all, the piece was surprisingly funny and quite moving.

The next solo of AXISTURN continued along a similar theme of imprisonment and fragility with a thread of masochism. In her piece, Autres frequences, Lana Morton is a buttoned-up civil servant who feels imprisoned by her skin-tight burgundy suit, her routine, her office furniture. Using aerial straps as a choreographic device, she literally ties herself to the space, swinging lethargically against the grain of her life. Finally, she sheds her clothes, takes down her hair and unleashes herself in every sense.

The first two pieces echoed each other; a choreographic portal into the experience of a fragile figure going through a period of struggle and release. The third solo, Sœur d'une autre mer by Katia Gagné, was more abstract, reading as a movement study rather than a piece to be introduced, unpacked and resolved. Her quality was compelling and Gagné has an unusually mobile and expressive back, which she showed off to best advantage with both choreography and costuming. But basically, what we were looking at was a lot of arm-waving in a raincoat with films of crashing waves and a live digeridoo thrown in for good measure. Sœur d'une autre mer was quite beautiful in parts but I have to say it didn't really go anywhere.

Katia Gagné, <i>Soeur d'une Autre Mer</i> © Irene Zoi Kilakos
Katia Gagné, Soeur d'une Autre Mer
© Irene Zoi Kilakos
My most major objection to AXISTURN was the film work jammed in between each solo – it felt so unnatural and seemed to be just a way to forcibly bind the three pieces together. Obviously they really wanted to draw out the links between the solos, but it felt like trying to get toothpaste back in the tube: probably not a terrible concept but in practice messy and awkward to pull off. It didn't help that the films themselves felt B-grade and hackneyed, like a straight-to-video reboot of The Blue Lagoon. Dancers on the beach. Dancers looking at monkeys. Dancers in a tropical forest. Dancers frowning into the middle distance whilst having very profound thoughts.

I woud have liked to see the work stand on its own merit, which would leave the audience to do some of the linking, instead of forcing the issue with invasive multimedia. Ultimately it begs the question: are we as an audience comfortable with an experience that hasn't been crowbarred into a neat cohesive package? I really would like to think so.