Minimalism, dance and the quest for the ultimate human expression

Sadness Quartet (aka Quatuor tristesse). Photos by Denis Farley

Every year the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) brings exciting works of contemporary dance, art and theatre from around the world to Montreal, celebrating both the veterans and the new, up and coming creators making waves on the international art scene. Among these celebrated artists on this year’s festival line-up is a renowned choreographer and artist, Montreal’s own Daniel Léveillé, with his most recent contemporary dance piece, Sadness Quartet.

Originally a student enrolled in Université de Montreal’s prestigious architecture program, Léveillé was immediately drawn to dance upon arriving in Montreal. “I kept going back to studying dance, at night,” he says. “I reached the point where I was good enough to be able to take classes in the mornings with the pros. So at that moment I had a choice to make.” The affirmative decision to pursue dance was the catalyst to a career that would span over four decades.

His origins, though seemingly unconventional, inspired much of his creative process as an artist. “I was always extremely sensitive to spaces, to art, lighting,” Léveillé recalls of his time studying architecture. “To build a choreography and to build a building, it’s not that different — it’s an empty space you have to fill either with human bodies or with concrete and metal.”

An early awareness of appearance, form and structure eased the transition between the two disciplines, but Léveillé emphasized that dance carries deeper importance than purely aesthetic value. In his own work, Léveillé is known for his characteristic minimalist style, in which his dancers appear onstage often partially clothed or nude, exuding both the vulnerability of nudity and the strength of a body engaged in deliberate movement.

“Minimalism is trying to reach the core of something, eliminate the extras,” he says. “This way you make the audience really focus on only one thing. The concentration is extreme in the audience.” The movements themselves are stark and powerful, often juxtaposed with stillness that carefully suspends the tension he builds between the dancers’ bodies onstage. Léveillé compares these moments to the aftermath of a high diver’s stunt; the calculated performance of an extreme act finalized by the inevitable disappearance into the water, leaving only ripples on the surface. “I think there is extreme power in the stillness,” he says. “People will feel that in my work because of the simplicity. And in doing so I think I make people more aware in the complexity of the human being.”

As Léveillé sees it, contemporary dance is in many ways the antithesis of ballet, a type of dance that is firmly rooted in perfected traditional techniques, and while not robotic, can be boiled down to formulaic movements in sequence. “In contemporary dance we are more attracted to exposing the human side, and human beings are not perfect,” he says. Contemporary dance is a living art, he says, a process of continual discovery, learning from itself and evolving over time and between dancers.“I think (contemporary dance) is the most complete form,” says Léveillé. “When we are not speaking with words we can be more precise, because you can never find the right words to say exactly how you feel. But when not having to use words you are just expressing, and it doesn’t have to be translated.”

Where great works of literature are routinely lost in translation, dance transcends languages, he says, filling in the gaps of understanding where vocabulary is lacking. “I chose a form of art with which I can write — by doing so I’m not dancing,” says Léveillé. “Like writing a theatre play, it is the actors who bring it alive. It is the dancers that make the piece alive.” Léveillé sees his role as a creator who uses the body as an artistic medium, rather than just a dance teacher. “I was not teaching dancing, I was not teaching executing movement,” he says. “Since almost forever I have a rehearsal director with me, which is a really crucial role.” His rehearsal director plays the role of the translator between intention and movement, the technical components of dance and the emotional narratives that drive them.

“Dance seems to me to have a part that dancers will express on stage that I do not control,” says Léveillé. “Dance is the human side of fulfilling the frame I have written for them, with their bodies. I’m giving them frames, I’m giving them actions, but what they do with it is what it is to dance.” Having to relinquish much of the creative control to the dancers that perform his work requires deep relationships, those Léveillé has been grateful to form over the years. “Most of my dancers have been with me for 15 years, so they really know me. Certainly I know them much more than my brothers, than my own family, because this relationship is so intimate.”

His newest work has been a long time in the making, with the emergence of a title finally capping off the tumultuous struggle to articulate three years of an ever-evolving creative process. “The goal is to name it as precisely as possible,” Léveillé cautions, “because if you don’t, there is a chance you will put the audience on the wrong track.” When he finally found the words, Sadness Quartet came to fruition in 2018.

Sadness Quartet unfolds onstage just short of an hour, in three parts with four dances, punctuated by moments of stillness. Though the title may weigh heavily on audiences, Léveillé adds, “It’s not melancholy and it’s not depression — it’s sadness. It’s something we experience every day.” Through this work, he seeks to illuminate the nuances of the collective affliction and its many symptoms. “It’s better, I think, to make a friend of sadness than to try to compete with it,” he says. “It will be there.”

With a career spanning over 45 years and an impressive list of achievements, including the recent honour of winning the Grand Prix de la danse de Montréal in 2017, Daniel Léveillé appears to have mastered the craft and set a precedent of excellence in the Montreal contemporary dance scene. But he is far from done; Léveillé’s enduring curiosity and desire to push the limits of the form is what drives his ongoing artistic exploration. “There is still something I don’t understand about dance,” admits Léveillé. “To answer the question, ‘What is dance?’ Frankly, I don’t know.” ■

Sadness Quartet will be performed at Édifice Wilder (1435 Bleury, Salle Rouge) as part of the Festival TransAmériques (FTA) from May 30 to June 1, 7  p.m., $34-$40

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