A full-evening work that premiered in Canada almost three decades ago, “Le Sacre” bears many of the signature theatrical and movement tropes that have come to distinguish Chouinard’s wildly surreal productions. The French-Canadian choreographer and former director of the Venice Biennale dance section from 2017-2020 is known for her use of bodily appendages, nudity, sound art, and outlandish props as devices to magnify the raw physicality of the human form, while simultaneously distorting it into an unrecognizable other.
Hers is a total art experience and “Le Sacre” is no exception. In that, she is close to history: Diaghilev had a vision of Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) for the Ballets Russes, the company for which Nijinsky created “Le Sacre du printemps” in 1913 to Stravinsky’s reason-bending score. While the original choreography and music tell the story of a girl chosen for a sacrificial rite (as do many of the subsequent 150 productions), Chouinard’s version focusses on the image of a bull, taken from a little-known anecdote on Stravinsky. As the story goes, the composer was inspired to write the score while travelling by train on a freight car that was also transporting a bull, an animal symbolic of spring and sacrifice.
Bull horns then, are a motif in the performance. They first appear in the scenography as a series of slender horns curving up from a stage bathed in deep orange light. It is as if we were gazing upon a no man’s land at dawn; some bleak aftermath or perhaps more optimistically, the beginning of the universe.
On all fours, a figure slowly creeps in from the periphery. Her back and shoulders noticeably protrude forward in feline form as she laboriously extends one arm and then the other, pawing her way in a horizontal path across the stage. Gradually, ten others enter the scene in the same manner. At intervals, they pause to indulge, jutting their haunches skyward and lifting one foot in an exaggerated downward dog pose. Clothed only in black shorts, their bare torsos reveal an anatomical drama: the descending shadow of ribs, a shoulder blade sliding forward, the tensility of arm ligature. There is an inner life to be seen here. Chouinard’s mastery is the way she reinscribes the raw matter and mechanics of the body so that we forget we are watching dancers at all; they appear to be more creature than human. To this point, nudity (waist-up) makes an impact. In abstract detail, we can observe all the magnificent micro-articulations and metamorphoses of the body.
This spell-binding prologue, matched to the amplified scratch of handwriting (Rober Racine’s Sound Signatures), brings to mind humanity’s earliest creative acts and impulses—say, drawing on a cave wall or naming an object. Chouinard’s pieces tend to do this: unexpectedly usher in an element of the cosmic and primordial.
From there, the high notes of the bassoon weave in, and the performance unfolds as a menagerie of solos and duets channelling animal energies and instincts (the solo is a format that Chouinard is fond of, and here she plays with overlapping one or two at a time to match the contrasting themes in Stravinsky’s music). Spotlights, in rhythm with the score, turn on and off to illuminate each dancer or duo.
In one spotlight, wrists preen and a foot repeatedly rises to the knee like a wading bird. In another, two figures thrust their necks forward like chickens in a pecking match or stand in deadlock against each other with only their foreheads touching, as if in contest for mates. There are warrior-like passages too, with sumo stances, forceful breathing, and martial gestures that slice the air in a ready-to-attack stance. Together, these sequences–many of them reassembled from an earlier Chouinard solo work and Nijinsky original, “Afternoon of a Faun”—transmit violent energies of survival and competition. During the performance, I scribbled in my notebook: “I feel Guernica…” (coincidentally, the painting of war also includes a bull).
But at times, I also sense pure joy and abandon in the solos, as dancers jump or turn compulsively around themselves with mouths open in perceptible smile, their gaze always turned heavenward.
When the horn motif returns, it reappears as vestigial limbs that the dancers hold to their forehead or groin. A trio boisterously thrust their hips with this phallic prop in hand in a gesture of raw sexual energy. Many of these movements could be comical but somehow, they’re not; rather, the dancers’ sensitive and exacting performance brings to life the mammalian, mythical, protozoan, and insect in Chouinard’s choreography.
In a luxurious passage, a dancer emerges wearing an architecture of curved horns affixed to her arms and thighs (designed by Liz Vandal and Zaven Paré). She appears floating with eyes closed like an embryo sleeping. Her horns are now delicate tendrils that gently reach out to sense the world, like hairs on a caterpillar or the feelers of an eyeless invertebrate. Later on, two figures covered in these horned tendrils crush their bodies together in a striking tableau, their eyes shut to perception but bodies gently feeling and searching. These are the quieter moments to indulge in: a kind of art installation weaving together fashion, performance, music and ecology.
As one might expect from the trajectory of Stravinsky’s score, the ending is filled with chaos and upheaval. But it feels more celebratory than other versions of “The Rite of Spring,” in which one unpleasantly anticipates a human sacrifice. Here, arms whacking, bodies contorting, and necks twitching in violent outbursts signal a final cycle of transformation. The dancers fall into a line spanning the stage, finding a larger arrangement like molecules coming together in a strand of DNA.
The final image is one of arriving: we see the dancers step forward in a natural gait. Their eyes are open, staring directly out at us for the first time; they are fully cognizant and present in their human form.
A spectacularly visceral performance—innocent and carnal, gentle and bellicose, explosive and still— Chouinard’s “Le Sacre” is of a monumental order. Rendering a battleground for adaptation and change whilst breathing new meaning into Stravinsky’s riotous score, “Le Sacre” is a contemporary masterpiece that leaves us to ponder our animal lineage and the grand mysteries of evolution.