There exists a fertile space in between contemporary dance and performance art. It's kind of like a petri dish bubbling away in a warm laboratory – sometimes you peer in and see something immensely exciting. Sometimes it's weird forms that you don't recognize and you think: "What even is this in here?" Sometimes it can be scary, or disconcerting. In these moments, it's helpful to remind yourself of the number one job of the petri dish; growing culture. Festival Quartiers Danses presented a double bill last night that did exactly that.

<i>The Eventual De-Expression of RGS2</i> by Yvonne Coutts © Ben Welland
The Eventual De-Expression of RGS2 by Yvonne Coutts
© Ben Welland

The evening opened with The Eventual De-expression of RGS2 by Yvonne Coutts of Ottawa Dance Directive.

The performance begins with the house lights still up. Debris covers the stage – cords everywhere, a clothes rack with a fluffy white coat looking for all the world like a decapitated poodle. An industrial ladder straddles upstage right with a feather-covered light fixture glowing between its legs. A bearded man in a suit methodically goes about tying a piece of fishing line to a standing snare drum and holds it taut, outstetched. He pulls out a cello bow and a woman appears, barefoot in a spangly evening gown. And so begins a conversation between the two. The dancer, Kay Kenney, sits on the floor in front of a floor lamp and executes a series of ritualistic movements; grabbing her own face and manipulating it side to side. The tempo changes as her musician cohort Jesse Stewart switches to percussion. Kenney lets herself tune in with the tappa tappa tap of the snare drum, her head bobbing around until it reads as meditation. The arms are a blur. Her face is a meaningful blank.

It felt funny to watch The Eventual De-expression of RGS2 in a buttoned-up proscenium arch theatre in Place des Arts. We could have been sitting in a smokey cross-disciplinary DIY space somewhere in Mile Ex, sipping lukewarm cans of PBR. Actually this piece belongs anywhere, it's one of those works where the context (black box theatre, white box gallery, performance lab, dark alleyway) shapes how a person might engage with it.

The second piece, Mere Human from MAYDAY's Mélanie Demers, featured five dancers. One, who looked like a beardy-but-well-coiffed version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starts spouting off a bitchy stream of invective smothered in a peppery pop-culture sauce.

“We are lions tigers and bears and you are a bunch of puppy dogs. We are in the best shape of our lives and you... you're looking kind of chunky.”

(pointing to himself) “Princess Diana.” (pointing to the audience) “Lindsay Lohan.”

The vocal bravado was at odds with the dancers' listless staggering around the stage. Their legs bending like rubber, they gave an artful stumble followed by an “et voila” of posturing and show-offy arms. As the piece gained momentum, we began to see the internal dynamics emerge between the dancers as they paired off to unpack darker corners of the choreography. They smooshed their faces together, threw each other on the floor, partnered ferociously. It was extremely physical and the dancers' technique was very solid– something that unfortunately doesn't always happen with choreography that sits on the avant-garde end of the spectrum.

Mere Human was poetic and deeply personal; a little microcosm of society trying to navigate the intricities of life as best they can. The performers did an admirable job walking the wobbly line between studied artifice and authenticity. To be vulnerable and brazen at the same time is not an easy feat, but Jasmine Inns, Kay Kenney, Marilou Lepine, Simon Renaud and Riley Sims managed it, and managed it well.

In the warm darkness of Cinquieme Salle, the audience stared into the nutrient agar and waited for a eureka moment in the petri dish. We were in luck this time.

****1