Marie Chouinard kissed my hand when we parted. With over 50 shows under her belt as either dancer, choreographer, or dance company director, I was flattered to have such a grounded and inspiring discussion with her, even with our interview being sandwiched between rehearsal and her numerous other obligations.
Marie is a staple at contemporary dance festivals and has won numerous awards including being knighted by her native Quebec! Her unique, provocative and experiential style stretches the definition of a dance performance, using everything from sacks and crutches to nudity and the dancers’ own sounds of exertion microphoned.
Here Marie reveals how she came to dance even though she despised the dance scene, and how her interest in all forms of art led to her becoming a full artistic director and creator of every aspect of her pieces. However no one would call her ‘not a dancer’. While we spoke she effortlessly emphasized her thoughts with an automatic physicalization. The link between her thoughts, breath, and the exploration of physical movement seem intrinsically linked even as she just lounges back in a chair chatting.
You can view her upcoming work here in New York at the Martha Graham studio or next up in London at Sadler Wells. It’ll be quite an experience. After reading this interview you’ll better understand why…
LV: Can you tell me a little about how you came to dance?
MC: I started when I was 16 years old. I started late but I was a swimmer.
MC: Yes. What I liked the most in swimming was the coordination of the movement, the breathing, the perfection of the movement. For me what was important was swimming very, very, very long.
LV: For endurance?
MC: Like two kilometers, not so long, but not to race, this I did not like. But I liked to make the movement at exactly the right angle. So this was my first approach to movement. And then somehow I wanted to become an actor. So I thought if I’m going to be an actor I need to have a body because I felt I did not. In the water I was okay, but in the air, in the normal life… So I started taking ballet classes, and then it became a passion. I just kept taking classes. But I never wanted to become a dancer, I just loved taking classes. And I was wondering, okay what am I going to do in life? I have no idea. But I love classes. I quit school, and I just want to do classes, classes, classes, classes, classes. And then I started teaching just to support myself. But I never wanted to be a dancer.
LV: But you enjoyed the exploration?
MC: I just kept doing it. Watching dance performance, I thought it was boring as I was not interested. I thought for sure it was not an art form. Besides that I was very interested by art, by paintings, by culture, everything, you know. I was reading too, but because I hated the dance scene somehow, I never made the link.
LV: What did you not like about it?
MC: I thought it was just boring. And then suddenly one day I saw a performance by Simone Froite. She’s a solo performer, now into her eighties maybe. I saw her performing in the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. And she was there, dancing alone. There was a musician with her, and she was dancing barefoot. For me already that was, like, okay! She’s barefoot and then she was moving with her weight and the sensation of kinetic sensation. You could feel that she was really feeling the dance. There were moments of improvisation. I was fascinated. I thought, wow, dance can be an art form. So then it was like whoah! And I started creating. It was just that, I just needed to see something…
LV: So different.
MC: Yeah. And then all the technique I had suddenly I could use it. But I was not using it as ballet. I had a technique. I could move. But I was not about creating my first choreography with even one movement of ballet in it, even though I was training in ballet. But it didn’t matter, I was a dancer. So that’s the way it started.
LV: Speaking of your first piece, because that really exploded you, from what I read, it was very evocative and very…
MC: No, it was very simple, and it was 1978. It was cultural sterilization. It was a study of geometrical movement. I had a performer. The musical instrument he was playing was a grill from his oven. He had put it onto a wooden box and he was just doom doom, duca duj doom, doom, doom. So that was the music, it was beautiful. And it was an hour long solo.
LV: What gave you the freedom to do that immediately starting off?
MC: Because I was an artist.
LV: That just came naturally to you?
MC: Yes, because my thing that I was passionate about was art. And parallel to that I was trained as a dancer, but I had never made the link. And suddenly I made the link.
LV: That makes sense. So since you’re passionate about the art, are there certain artistic habits that you have that you would say put you into peak performance? Are you a meditator? Do you dance every day?
MC: Well as a dancer, I train. You are working hours and hours and hours every day. It’s work. It’s not meditative at all. I still train, even though I’m a choreographer and I’m almost never dancing now.
LV: Almost never? It’s obvious in the way you move…
MC: But it’s because I’m still performing. Like last November I was performing a solo work in Japan. So I’m still performing, but very rarely because what I’m more passionate about is to create. So last weekend I was in Montreal with my companion. We were performing the Rite of Spring and Afternoon of the Faun. I have meetings, I am preparing a new choreography for them, then I come back here. I am working on the choreography for them. Then I go back to Montreal. Then in Montreal I’m working on a new choreography that will be put on by my own company in August. Then I have a project in Europe. I go there, then I come back. So I’m always going one place and another working simultaneously on many different projects.
LV: So we were just talking in the elevator about what you’re working on now for Martha Graham. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
MC: I came in December. It was my first time in New York with them. And so the first day I had the twenty dancers of the company and I was just like scanning them, giving them things to do because I had no idea if I was going to do a solo, a duet, a trio, a quatro, I had no idea. I did not know those dancers, so my first thing was to see, okay, who’s there. And then at the end of the day I chose eight female dancers. Then the next morning I knew I was going to create a piece for eight women dancers. The day before I did not know.
MC: Yes, because I want to create with dancers I like. So for me that was the most important thing. First I choose my dancers. Then I see what I do.
LV: Is there a specific quality you look for that sparks you with dancers?
MC: I look for not feeling mannerism in the dancer, that they are not stuck with bad habits in the body, that they are free, fluid. I can mold them how I want and they are responding. If I want them to be dynamic or calm, and they are really responding, and that they really have the qualities of an interpreter, that they can really embody the movement with their soul and feeling–this is what I’m looking for.
LV: I notice in your work now, there’s a wringing quality.
MC: It’s multi-directional, twisting and spiraling in every direction all the time.
LV: And that originates from your fascination with the human body and what it can do? Where does that come from?
MC: It comes from the joy of working with those articulations. That’s my medium. So what can we do, where can we go, what can we do? To me it’s just because this is my material. So I’m just working with it, just exploring every angle.
LV: I wish I was videotaping you.
MC: Why should I always move like this? Come on!
LV: Breaking out of the box.
MC: It’s the only thing I’m working with, the body. Not the only thing because I’m also creating the lights, and creating the costumes and doing video work and so many different things. But when I work with the body, what can I do? I can just explore all those movements.
LV: So you’re the full art director of everything, every little piece?
MC: Yes, I’m a creator.
LV: An artist.
MC: Yes. So that’s why when I approach it I want to have a vision of the lights and everything onstage. The way it’s presented is as important.
LV: Where do you get your initial inspiration? How do you decide which ideas to go with?
MC: I don’t go with ideas. Creators don’t work with ideas. An idea is an idea, anybody can have an idea. Idea or nothing. It’s not that.
LV: What is it then?
MC: It’s not an idea. It’s an intuition of a state of mind, body, something incarnated. It’s an intuition of a reality. It’s not an idea.
LV: So you’re working off these bodies of these eight women. How else do you decide what the story is?
MC: I was interested in intricate duets where the bodies don’t touch but they are always interweaving together. We wrapped the vocabulary around that. Then I was thinking, ah yeah I would like them to have a hood on their head. And then I say okay. bring your hoodie. Then not everybody had their hoodies. One has a shirt, so I said okay put the shirt over your head, and I though, wow I prefer that we have a shirt! So I developed the costume right from the beginning where they have those shirts over their head. This one is just a T-shirt, but now it’s a shirt and a collar. We make it very rigid so it creates architectural, like a sculpture. It creates a shape, so it’s a variation on this idea of hiding the face. And then, but I won’t tell you because you will see.
LV: Yes, I will see it.
MC: I knew I wanted to work on interweaving bodies not touching, and then I’m interested in different kinds of things with their faces. I have elements like this. I work on them and don’t really know the story and then suddenly so it’s not a story, but it’s a process. We start like this and you finish. They go through an experience during those twenty minutes. Something happens, and it ends differently than it started.
LV: I got to watch Soft Virtuosity and Henri Michaux. It feels a bit like looking at an ink blot test. I was wondering if you had a specific goal, something that you wanted the audience to walk away with.
MC: I wanted to create a piece of art. That’s it. And I hope that they have an experience. I hope that they have insides, breathe, feelings, you know what you get from a landscape. You get something! What do you get from meeting someone? What do you get from seeing an artwork? You get something, so I want to give something that I cannot name but that is on the level of the something that is a mixture of your intelligence, your sensitivity, your soul, your breathing, your thought process, your relationship with life, whatever, we are going there.
But this is what is beautiful about art. You cannot define it so specifically. But you know when it happens. It’s not so often that you are in front of a piece of art that really touches you. I remember once I was I think 19, 18 years old. I was on my first trip in Europe, and I was visiting museums of course because I was interested in the art. And then I remembered clearly being in front of a painting and I started to have a shake in my body. From a painting! And for me it’s like thank you God. It’s so strong that it’s like if somehow you got instantaneously to meet the mind of the painter. It’s like there’s a spirit, the spirit of the painter or what he was thinking about or what he was feeling. Suddenly you get it and it’s an experience, it’s a meeting, and it’s a real encounter.
There is an encounter suddenly, and you feel you change. You don’t know how, but you feel that you’re not the same anymore. You went into another dimension of reality somehow, you know? So for me that’s art. And because I love those moments so much, I’m always eager to look for a new exhibition, for a new performance, because I’m looking again to fall in love with a work of art.
LV: To have that connection.
MC: To have a connection. So that’s why I keep on, and keep on doing it because I hope I can give that moment I had in front of that painting to people. But how can I name it, you know? It’s not that I want to tell a story, it’s not that. It’s on the level of deep experience where you feel suddenly that maybe somehow you feel you are in contact with the backdrop of everything, or you are in contact with the underlying of everything. You get me, yeah?
LV: I do get you. Yes, and it’s hard to articulate, but I think you do it really well. If not verbally definitely with movement.
MC: Yeah because I’m moving at the same time as I’m talking.
LV: So coming up next is the Martha Graham performance. And then after that you’re going to be in London at Saddler Wells. How do you navigate all these different…
MC: No, I don’t go everywhere. My dancers, not me. They are keeping all those works alive in their bodies. But I do not follow them because once it’s created and once I’m happy with the way they interpret it, I can fly like birds and go onto a different project.
LV: Wow, so you’re constantly creating. How do you balance getting in new work and then traveling from country to country? It seems like you’re very busy.
MC: I’m quite busy but at the same time what I like so much is doing nothing, like little moments of doing nothing. I like it so much. I get an hour here and there. I appreciate a lot just being.
LV: Yeah, that’s very artistic, right?
MC: I don’t know.
LV: I think it is! I think for a lot of people it’s hard to just be present, and in order to be inspired I think that’s a necessity.
MC: Yeah, you’re right. In order to be inspired somehow you need to breathe. But that’s because inspire is like inspiration.
LV: Mmm. That’s some deep wisdom right there.
MC: From the language. There are little secrets hidden in there.
LV: Well I look forward to breathing at your next show. That was lovely.