The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue

Pour; When the ice melts, will we drink water?; and Unrelated

Daina Ashbee’s retrospective at Usine C in Montreal, Quebec, included three of her most notable pieces. The choreographer’s bold and visceral practice confronts deep-seated settler colonialism, the traces of trauma within the body, and power of slow movement.

Daina Ashbee’s <em>Pour</em>. Photo: © Stephanie Paillet.
Daina Ashbee’s Pour. Photo: © Stephanie Paillet.

Usine C
October 19 – 24, 2021
Montreal, Quebec

Even before entering the theater for the performance of Pour, we hear dancer Irene Martinez scream, a high-pitched blood-curdling sound. As we make our way inside the room and walk over to our seats, the dancer skirts the edges of the stage in total darkness, dragging her feet to create a shuffling noise. Sitting down, our eyes adjust to the low light and Martinez’s silhouette becomes visible. Piercing the cold and empty space, the cries continue and anticipation sets in. Is this a yell for help or a roar of release?

For choreographer Daina Ashbee, this October’s retrospective at the Usine C in Montreal, Quebec, symbolizes a homecoming. After months on the road, which included showing five pieces at the Montpellier Danse Festival during the summer, the dance artist returns to a stage where she started her career. Part of the 2021–2022 tour de force season at the Usine C, with notable pillars of Canadian dance like Louise Lecavalier and the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Ashbee is no longer a breakout star but an established name in her own right. With presentations of Pour, When the ice melts, will we drink water?, and Unrelated, Montreal audiences were treated to the full breadth of Ashbee’s vision and the devastating effects of her embodied narratives.

Daina Ashbee’s <em>When the ice melts, will we drink the water?</em>. Photo © Arnaud Caravielhe.
Daina Ashbee’s When the ice melts, will we drink the water?. Photo © Arnaud Caravielhe.

Ashbee’s showing of Pour, interpreted by Martinez on opening night, provided a formidable beginning to the three-part retrospective. Delving into the organic rhythms of menstrual cycles, as well as the internal, somatic pain rooted in everyday life experiences, the work produces an atmosphere of deep intimacy. After a period of palpable tension in the theater, marked by extended shrieks and heavy footsteps, a set of bright lights come on to reveal the dancer at center stage facing the audience, topless but wearing a pair of crisp blue jeans. Returning our gaze, she slowly touches her pant buttons and zipper, undoing them gradually and slipping them down her thighs before pulling them back up. She repeatedly undresses herself, turning toward the audience. Lowering herself to the ground, Martinez then proceeds to work methodically across the dance floor, which is covered in a viscous oil-like substance that coats more and more of her skin throughout the evening.

Pour explores corporeal concepts of vulnerability and power. In the program notes, we learn that the work seeks to demonstrate how pain is absorbed and stored in women’s flesh as a result of a culture that does not support but rather exploits them. Martinez’s movements resemble those of a ragdoll: loose, limp, rolling along the slick black floor in sequences that defy gravity as she reaches for the sky with legs, feet, and extended toes. Finding herself in unnatural positions that require her to contort her neck, shoulders, and waist, she identifies and holds poses that make her almost sculptural with precarious stillness, strength, and beauty. These smooth horizontal movement-phrases along the ground eventually gave way to more forceful, violent actions during which the performer pounded her triceps, hips, butt, and other body parts against the wet floor. She cycled through these gestures and worked toward exhaustion.

When the ice melts, will we drink water? more explicitly connects Earth, nature, and women with the abuses of patriarchal and neo-colonial forces. Created in 2015 at the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, this piece highlights the work of the Global Alliance against Female Mutilation. A series of active rotations and circular motions centered on the performer’s waist, pelvis, and genitals point toward unwanted sexual encounters and the invasions of women’s privacy, right to self-determination, and bodies. Dancer Angelica Morga interpreted this solo that occurred entirely on an elevated rectangular platform that the audience viewed from either side of the stage. Lying down in a bridge pose, wearing underwear, a tank top, and leather shoes with a slight heel, the dancer alternates between unhurried clockwise rotations on her back and rapid, forced thrusts of her hips toward the ceiling. Like in Pour, the switch between complete silence, in which only the performer’s fatigued breathing is audible, and a low rumbling soundtrack complements each other in building a hyper-sensitive, often overwhelming environment of kinesthetic empathy.

Daina Ashbee’s <em>Unrelated</em>. Photo: © Arnaud Caravielhe.
Daina Ashbee’s Unrelated. Photo: © Arnaud Caravielhe.

The final presentation, Unrelated, was a duet between Morga and Martinez that focused on the legacies and continued abuses of Indigenous women in Canada. Ashbee is of Cree, Métis, and Dutch ancestry, and the choreographer’s oeuvre is often concerned with the intersections of colonial violence, patriarchal control, and the extraction of nature by industrial, white, Western society. While a similar movement vocabulary to the previous two pieces materialized here, a more elaborate use of props (coat rack, clothes hangers, costumes) and set design (a large white wall at the back of the stage that the performers throw themselves against) proposed new possibilities. Instead of isolating her dancers and having them connect solely with the audience, Ashbee brings them together to develop different dynamics. Morga and Martinez support each other through solos and synchronized sequences in ways that challenge our relationship to their nudity, repetitive collapses, and self-destruction.

Placed at the end of the Ashbee retrospective, Unrelated is a statement about the passivity of contemporary Canadian society in bearing witness to the impacts of sexual violence and femicide on Indigenous women. As the choreographer moves toward larger, more ambitious ensemble works, the potency of her affective landscapes follows suit. Daring her audience to intervene, edging beyond the limits of discomfort, Ashbee and her dancers ask us why, after all this horror, we remain seated, fixed, and unwilling to step in.


Didier Morelli

Didier Morelli is a performance and art historian, critic, and curator with a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, Chicago. Associate Editor at Espace art actuel, his writing has been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Border Crossings, Esse Arts + Opinions, Performa Magazine, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review, among other publications.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

All Issues