At the beginning of Lucy Guerin’s work Weather, running from 22-26 October at the Cinquième Salle at Place des Arts in Montréal, it takes a few moments to realize that it’s the solo dancer himself who is creating the sound of the wind. As the whispers gradually crescendo to gales, his body twists and turns and bends, both creating and reacting to the force of nature.

Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle © Heidrun Lohr
Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle
© Heidrun Lohr

Eventually two other dancers appear, stepping rather stiffly to a strict industrial beat. Over a lengthy period of time the music and the stepping increase in speed and dynamics, building almost to a point of exhaustion. Other dancers enter and exit, their own movements creating a ripple effect on the stepping duo, momentarily blowing them off course and disrupting their strict maneuvers.

Finally all six dancers occupy the stage, alternating between choreographed motions and more improvisatory passages. Their interactions are captivating: at one point they connect like molecules, joining hands one by one in a segmented formation. At another point they line up, arms rotating and interlocking like pistons in a crankshaft. Sometimes they are hieroglyphs, sometimes they are bird-like, sometimes they practically twerk. Synchronization alternates with staggered imitation. The dancers come together and separate, but they are obviously part of an integrated whole, where the actions of one affect those of the others.

In Weather, Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin wanted to explore the way the human body connects to the elemental forces of weather. Air is literally made visible through movement. As she explains: “The human body shares with weather the qualities of moving air, water, mist and heat.” This is indeed the effect she achieves in her choreography: the dancers make manifest the invisible elements through which they move. Each individual dancer’s movements create a reaction in the other dancers’ movements: they have an impact on their environment and are likewise deeply affected by it.

Guerin’s environmental concerns are driven home when, part way through the hour-long piece, hundreds of white plastic bags fall from a large square fixture hanging over the stage, a sort of lowered ceiling comprised entirely of white plastic bags. Like humans – more precisely, because of humans – plastic bags have left their mark on the planet, and are also well suited to making the ephemeral – air – visible. The plastic bags become part of the choreography. When the dancers move, the bags move; when they are still, so are the bags. The two male dancers share some moments when one makes a hat for the other out of a bag, then traps his head in the bag, cutting off his air supply, then inflates it and wraps it around his entire body. Before long a finger pops through, then another. This bit of humor effectively dispels the feeling of claustrophobia created moments before by the image of suffocation. Air, the element in which we live and that gives us life, can also be taken away from us.

At the end of the bag segment all of the dancers lie on their backs, feet towards the audience. They hold hands, arms outstretched, and use their feet to push themselves back against the bags, clearing them away from the center of the stage to create a space to end the work.

The final scene was to me the most powerful: one dancer sits in the center of the others, making relatively subtle, almost blasé movements with her hands and arms. Her seemingly mindless, childlike flicks and turns, however, have a huge impact on the movements of the other dancers, who alternately rotate their hips, shake, turn, and so on, puppets to the central, unthinking, puppeteer. The lights gradually dim as one dancer is left twirling in space.

Guerin succeeds in walking the fine line between artistry and preaching, between celebrating the beauty of weather and its impact on our physical and emotional lives, and the deep disappointment we all feel about the damage we inflict on the environment. Some of the segments went on a little too long: the mechanical stepping of the couple near the beginning, the playing with the bags near the end, the extended bit of vocalization during the bag episode. The work’s strength lies in the touching juxtapositions between choreographed and improvised movements, between robotic motions and free forms, and, of course, in making the invisible visible.