Hissing haze fills up the entire room. I start to feel a little bit anxious. The performance opens up with a song, each cast member playing an instrument, slowly increasing the volume to be almost unbearable. The energy is here; it’s rising. “The Goddamn Milky Way!” resounds through the surrounding speakers. White lights illuminate the dense fog, then quickly switch to bright pink in colour. Sharp palm leaves sketch their outlines in the haze. Five female dancers wear jumpsuits, from light pink to bright red and orange.
“This new work by multidisciplinary artist Mélanie Demers features some of the best contemporary performers from Montréal and is accompanied by the music of singer-songwriter Frannie Holder,” says the NAC. And multidisciplinary it was—Mélanie masterfully combines movement, soundscape, props, and costumes to create an avant-garde work that is hauntingly absurd, jarring, and uncomfortable at times. As it should be; you’ll see.
Demers founded her own dance company, MAYDAY, in Montreal in 2007. Since then, she has choreographed more than 30 works, seen in Europe, America, Africa, and Asia. In an interview the morning of the performance, Mélanie says, “I was inspired to create La Goddam Voie Lactée during the summer of 2020 — the rise of the George Floyd movement, and the wave of #MeToo. But I would never want to impose a theme on the audience. People always want to know what’s going to happen, but it’s good to come in with no expectations — you try to decipher what’s happening and that’s the process of seeing a show. Our spirits and minds are always narrowing to what we know; this is a way to expand our perspective on the world, not narrow it down. Dance is another art form that draws on another type of intelligence, and that’s what we need to tap into.”
I truly did not know what to expect when I came into the show and I think that was to my benefit. So I won’t spoil it too much for you. The work is powerful. Meaningful. Emotional. I’ve felt the anger and frustration that the women on stage feel. It’s familiar — this work truly said to me, “you are not alone,” and I felt like I understood Mélanie at that moment. And her laconic explanation was clear: “This work isn’t about femininity, but about looking at the world through the lens of femininity. Women filter the state of the world.“
The work is called The Goddamn Milky Way and it emerged from Mélanie’s two previous works that were supposed to tour internationally but got cancelled because of the pandemic. It’s violent at times, representing mourning for opportunities lost. And, also because of the pandemic, this is one of Demers’ first works where the dancers never touch physically. Instead, they orbit around one another, like planets in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy.
When I ask about Demers’ creative process, she looks out in the distance, recalling the memories of how the work came together, “Each time, I undertake a new process. It’s very mysterious, to embrace chaos. I come utterly unprepared so I can grasp what is there in the room. Creation is to extrapolate meaning from chaos. Because I’m a choreographer, my main material is human beings; I can’t ignore that my material is alive with their own dreams, ambitions, desires, stories, histories. My process starts with selecting who will be in the room and half the work is done. Not who will move but who will share chats, dreams, the latest book they read. This is the base of the process. We start by talking a lot—a sense of women together, a sense of sorority—sharing things we usually don’t.” I felt this connection between the dancers in the 75 minutes of the performance.
This work is Demers’ expression of her own female psyche, while a new work Cabaret Noir explores her identity as a Black woman in a white world, and another new work, Confidante Publique, explores a woman at the age of 60, revealing herself to society. Demers’ work is a deep reflection on who she is and a deep opening to the world, inwards and outwards, the bridge between yourself and the world.
Mélanie and I also chatted about the obstacles of bringing the work to the audience, between the pandemic and the convoy. When I mentioned there is also the obstacle of the audience coming to see the show, for the same reasons, Mélanie asks, “Is the role of art to distract or weave what you are experiencing with the anger, sadness, trauma of the work? It’s a potential to create grace.”
La Goddam Voie Lactée is playing at the NAC Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5 at 8pm in the Azrieli Studio; tickets can be purchased here. Mélanie will also present two more works this year, Confession Publique (2021) and Cabaret Noir (2022).