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Interview: Nathalie Bonjour talks STORY, STORY, DIE. and the Torque Dance Series at Harbourfront Centre

The series-closing production runs June 28-29.

Interview: Nathalie Bonjour talks STORY, STORY, DIE. and the Torque Dance Series at Harbourfront Centre

On June 28 and 29, Harbourfront Centre will present the final work in their Torque dance series, Alan Lucien Øyen and winter guests' STORY, STORY, DIE. This multidisciplinary production from the award-winning Norwegian director and company features seven dancers exploring the way we shape the world's perception of our lives, and the lies we tell ourselves and others to appear more desirable. The performances are presented as part of Nordic Spotlight under the Nordic Bridges program, a year-long venture led by Harbourfront Centre to encourage cultural exchange between the Nordic region and Canada.

BroadwayWorld spoke to Nathalie Bonjour, Harbourfront's Director of Performing Arts, about Nordic Bridges, the Torque dance series, and its upcoming production of STORY, STORY, DIE.

What is the main concept behind the Torque programming series?

We started this new series, or season, in 18/19. It was halted with the pandemic in March 2020, so halfway through its second year. When I started at Harbourfront, I looked back at its history. Harbourfront has a very rich history of presenting international, national, and local contemporary dance, and being in Toronto, with a very large potential audience, I wanted to bring back some medium-sized international companies to our theaters.

What's exciting, to me, is that we're bringing companies and choreographers in who are just on the rising curve in their career, and we can introduce them to Toronto audiences. Or we bring back choreographers that they know, and that have new pieces. So it's really an opportunity to bring work to Toronto that I don't think would be seen otherwise in that city, work that I think has an impact, and is memorable, with a very distinctive vocabulary. There aren't a lot of dance presenters in this city, so I think there's a gap there that we can fill.

You're bringing in really fascinating companies. The choreographer of STORY, STORY, DIE. Alan Lucien Øyen, has created dozens of stage works internationally, and is highly decorated in his home country of Norway. How well known is his work in Canada, and what do you find the challenges are in finding an audience for these international works?

Some choreographers might be very well known in Europe or other parts of the world, like Alan. He definitely has a very distinguished career, even though he is still quite young. I love his work; we already brought one of his works to Toronto before the pandemic, called SIMULACRUM. I hope that that helps the audience remember the name and what they saw. I think we can build audiences that way, by bringing back a choreographer every few years to present other work. But the challenge, yes, is to let people know this is someone who's incredibly talented, whose work we really should present in Toronto. The word that comes to mind is that it's a bit of a gift to the audience.

Of course, you know some of the challenges having to do with any piece at the moment is that we're still in a pandemic/post pandemic world. This is part of a tour. It was postponed in 2020 and then we were supposed to present it in February, but we were in lockdown again. On a national level, it was presented at the National Arts Center in Ottawa, and it's being presented in Vancouver this week. We hope it will get attention nationwide.

You're partnering with an initiative called Nordic Bridges. What is that program's goal, and how does it work?

We have an initiative called Nordic Bridges, which means for the whole year of 2022 we're really putting this spotlight on artists from the Nordic countries. This helps in developing audiences by generating an appetite, a curiosity for the work that comes from that part of the world. On a broader level, audiences will maybe hear about the piece before it comes to the theatre next week. Nordic Bridges is a huge program. There are multiple partners, because it's multidisciplinary. There are works at Hot Docs, and there are large and small presenters throughout the country that are presenting Nordic works throughout the whole calendar year.

We've had, for example, four shows come from Nordic countries for the JUNIOR festival, a festival for young audiences, and we have a lot of music programming from the Nordic countries. We have a Nordic talk on culinary arts, and the sustainability of gastronomy. You can't get the full picture of what's going on in a country or in an area of the world just by one form of art. It has to be immersive. We have Alan now, as part of Torque.

Interview: Nathalie Bonjour talks STORY, STORY, DIE. and the Torque Dance Series at Harbourfront Centre

What was the response to SIMULACRUM, when you presented it in 2019?

The response to that work was very good. It's a really interesting work; it's structured in a way that is unusual. It's a duet, and the two dancers are extraordinary. It's a very beautiful piece aesthetically, so it was a very positive response. We were pleasantly surprised, because that was the first time that Alan's work was presented in Toronto. But I think we do have an audience that is curious and that will look up, okay, so who is this choreographer? What have they done? And when they do, they see Alan's background, working now with the Paris Opera Ballet, having worked with Pina Bausch's company, and, as you said, also having so much recognition in his own country.

The work also speaks for itself. Each of his pieces is very different from the past one. He creates a whole world in his show, because he gives a lot of attention to all the other production elements as well. The soundtrack is really important, and the music and the lighting.

You described his current show as having "a breathtaking performance aesthetic," and his works also been described as multi-disciplinary, and cinematic. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit for this current work. What are the unique aspects of it, and what audiences are going to see?

He works collaboratively with the dancers as well, and the performers have contributed some words. So there is text. It's not linear, it's not telling a story like theatre would. But there are moments of text, and the way it's edited with music really draws you into that world.

The themes of the show are really about how we present ourselves. And of course we think immediately about social media, especially after the pandemic, but also because it's 2022. But it's not only that; it's really about the realities we construct, the way we present ourselves to the world, how we tell our story, and how it's often made up. What's really poignant about that show is that it touches at the heart of: "But who are you, really, and what do you really want with your life? How do you connect with other people?"

I think that's also why it's even more poignant now, after the pandemic, because we've all been living in this world where the possibilities of connection were so limited that it reminds us of that really human, very basic need to connect with all others, but on a level that is true and authentic, not on the level of what I'm putting out there on Instagram. But as Alan said, it's not just about social media, it's about how we represent ourselves as a whole in society.

The audience can expect a lot of beautiful movement. I think Alan creates a whole world that we're drawn into. It's cinematic because we go into a world which is a bit bigger than life. We go on that journey, and it has twists and turns and it takes us by surprise sometimes. But there's something in it of the everyday life, and there's something very moving about that, that we go on living our daily lives, and what's underneath that is what he's very good at exploring.

In the Torque series as a whole, you're looking to explore identity and love and loneliness and community. What aspects of dance do you think are unique at getting to the heart of those issues?

Artists are expressing something with dance, with touch. The body is really important, even more so than in theater, which often gets into text and another level of comprehension. In dance, often the interpretation will be very different from one person to the next, because it is more abstract. The fact is that, yes, we have bodies in space. Working with each other, colliding, connecting, and all of that I think brings us back to who we are, because we've been on Zoom, and we've been cut off from our bodies. For a lot of people, it's been an issue, sitting for 8 hours in Zoom calls and not moving our bodies, and I think when we watch a dance as an audience we really reconnect.

We know we have those mirror neurons that make us feel like we're moving as well, and we're connecting in in this physical fashion to the to the performers. It's really a whole body experience, even if we're sitting in a theatre. Dance is also storytelling, connecting us to ourselves to in other traditions, to the earth, to the divine. Then you're also feeling that with other people in the room. There's that communal experience that's also very important to me.

I know most people have talked about they went back to see a live show, we're very emotional there. Audience members, friends have told me, Oh, my God, I didn't realize how much I missed this!

Interview: Nathalie Bonjour talks STORY, STORY, DIE. and the Torque Dance Series at Harbourfront Centre

Other pieces in the series have included Sky Dancers by A'no:wara Dance Theatre and Only You by Anne Plamondon, both of Quebec, and Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart by L-E-V of Israel. Though these four works were not created in conjunction with each other, do you find they are in conversation with each other?

When I try to think of works for the season, I do want them to complement each other, maybe more than being in conversation. It's about presenting really diverse perspectives on dance, always from a contemporary perspective. Each work is very distinct, fills its own sort of niche. Part of the purpose is, if people see the whole series, they have a series of unique experiences. I also try to really showcase shows that are memorable, that are unique in the their proposition and their style. That people will remember; whether they love it or not, they'll leave the theatre with interest.

The through line, though, for me, is the desire and need for connection for sure. I think that's part of all the works I chose. I've realized that after the fact; I think that's really important, especially now after the pandemic. So I think that is a through line, but in very, very different ways. How do we connect? Do we ever connect? How do we support each other? How do we manage our isolation? Which again was exacerbated during the pandemic: our isolation or loneliness, our grief.

On a personal level, what's your favorite thing about this series?

I think we're very lucky to be able to do this, at Harbourfront Centre, and to bring in companies from around the world, from Quebec, and from Toronto. It is a real privilege to be able to do that. I love watching dance. So I see a lot of shows before we can make a selection. I think what I love about it is connecting the artists with audiences. I love connecting with artists, and getting close to the work.

On a personal level, dancers are always such wonderful people. I have to say they're usually so kind and generous. It's a hard life. It's always wonderful to get to know them better when they come.

But really, for me, it's introducing those shows to an audience here, and having people say "Wow! I'm really glad I saw that!" It's such a gift to be able to do that kind of work. When we saw a live show for the first time after the pandemic, we were crying. We were emotional, and I think there's something about how what we do touches people, and generates feelings of compassion, and kindness.

Is there anything else you'd like potential audience members of STORY, STORY, DIE. to know?

We've changed our ticket pricing structure for everything this year, so that money would not be an obstacle. We're trying to be as open as possible in terms of welcoming audiences back.

When it comes to contemporary dance, some people might feel, "Is it for me? Am I going to understand it?" We always say, well, you don't need to, you just need to feel. This is really dance theatre; there is no special education. It's very accessible in terms of how is presented on stage. I think people are curious and want to come and enjoy something. I think it's it is a highly enjoyable piece.

Photo Credit: Mats Bäcker

From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbia... (read more about this author)

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