ARTicle Magazine

The line dance of beauty

Guy Somerset · 06 November 2015

Choreographer Sylvain Émard's lifelong passion has resulted in the ultimate public participation spectacular.

Le Grand Continental_NZFestival2016_CreditRobertEtcheverry

Image: Robert Etcheverry


Le Grand Continental®, A Choreography by Sylvain Émard, Sylvain Émard Danse, Partnered by Kiwibank, Civic Square, Wellington, Friday 26 February, 8.30pm, free.

Ten minutes into open auditions for mass dance performance Le Grand Continental® and even a determined wallflower like me, sitting it out on the side lines nursing my three left feet, can barely resist the lure of the sequence French-Canadian choreographer Sylvain Émard has people practising to the accompaniment of The Meters’ Sissy Strut.

It just looks like so much fun, and damn it that Sissy Strut’s infectious.

We’re crowded in a rehearsal room at the New Zealand School of Dance in Wellington. Those vying to be one of nearly 150 dancers in the Kiwibank-partnered Le Grand Continental® on the opening night of the 2016 New Zealand Festival run the gamut of age, body type and ability. Some are in full gym gear, others still in work clothes. One man even has leather dress shoes on. They are from all walks of life.

It’s exactly the kind of mix Émard likes, he tells me three days later, after he and his team have reviewed audition footage and selected the dancers who’ll go on to the three months of rehearsals necessary to prepare them for their 30 minutes of glory in the capital’s Civic Square on 26 February.

“A good cast with very interesting characters” is Émard’s verdict. “I try to cast as representative as possible of the local community at large. To me that’s very important.”

The only thing not quite right is the number of men. “But this is everywhere.”

Well, almost everywhere. When Émard staged Le Grand Continental® in Mexico City, men and women were equally matched.

Mexican men are clearly more comfortable on the dancefloor than their Kiwi counterparts, and those in the Canadian, American and South Korean cities where Émard has also staged Le Grand Continental®.

Mexicans’ ease with their feet has manifested itself in another way, too. “They really want to dance,” says Émard. “They want to dance the piece as soon as possible. You teach them the steps and they’re not into the details of the steps. They just want to move. With the Westerners, they like to understand exactly what they’re committing to before they start involving themselves. But at the end they all end up in the same place. It’s just different ways of getting there.”

SylvainEmard_NZFestival2016_CreditCindyBoyce

Image: Cindy Boyce

Émard’s first New Zealanders start “getting there” next week, as they begin their intensive rehearsal schedule.

Any of them who’ve been genning up on the distinguished career of their new teacher, and have come across the line about a “complex and refined choreographic vocabulary” being his signature style, should be reassured that working on the various productions of Le Grand Continental® has changed him as much as it has changed those taking part.

“I realised when I first did the project it really connected me with the reason why I chose to be a dancer. When you’re young, you’re compelled to dance and you don’t analyse that. You just do it. And that’s what people say to me when they come to auditions: they’re just ordinary people, they don’t have an analysis of what dance is or what dance should be. They’re just fresh. They come there because they like it.

“Just to be surrounded by that is really refreshing. And it made me look at my work differently. My ‘serious’ work with ‘real’ professional dancers. I’m more aware of what drives me. It’s normal that it’s our work so we question it, we write about it, we doubt about it. But it’s good to touch base a little bit with what made me choose to be a dancer.

“I’m just now realising how it’s starting to change my process. I used to be very precise in my directions and very detailed and it had to be exactly what I wanted. I think that tended to tame the dance, the real energy or soul of the dance. Working with ordinary people, I do push them a lot, and it’s an enormous challenge for them – and I witness that and really respect that – but the result is you have 150 people doing the same movement but they don’t look the same.

“It’s great. You get the sense of what the movement is because they’re in unison enough so you understand, you read the movement. But then you can also see the individuals. And in a way that’s what made me question myself when I was back with my professional dancers – to see the people behind the dancing. To see real people. To be able to identify more with what’s happening on stage.”

As for the changes to Le Grand Continental® participants, they have been many and varied, from a Vietnam War veteran coming off post-traumatic-stress-disorder medication after 40 years because he no longer felt he needed it to people organising their own groups so they can continue dancing together after their production ends.

Le Grand Continental®­-related Facebook pages continue, too, with those from different productions talking to each other via them.

About Émard?

“They want to know if I danced or not, which sometimes I did, depending on my knee.”

LeGrandContinental2_NZFestival2016_CreditRobertEtcheverry

Image: Robert Etcheverry

The first time Émard danced was in New York, when he had to replace someone at the last minute, and found out what a full-on experience it is. “I just realised, ‘Oh my God!’ But I also realised how much fun it is.

“This project ended up being a good community outreach project, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. At first, it was just a very selfish thing. I wanted to do something based on line dancing with a huge group to please me. To fulfil my dream.

“Then I realised as we were doing it how much it was bringing to the people and I got sensitive to that. But also – and that’s what I say to them – even professional dancers rarely get this opportunity to dance with such a huge cast of people. The energy you get from that as you’re dancing is like you’re being supported by the connection among such a big group of people dancing together. It has something to do with a primitive ritual or something of that nature. It’s really strong.”

The first staging of Le Grand Continental®, in 2009, featured a relatively modest 65 people; Émard is now preparing a new project for 375 people. That’s a lot of people. “Yeah, I think I’ll stop there!”

The number of people in Wellington, as in all the other productions, is determined by the size of the performance space. “With the number of people who turned up to audition, we could have had a bigger group, but we have to leave some space for the audience!”

Not just to watch, either. Also to join in a giant freestyle dance party after the main show. And be assured, you will want to join in.

“People do identify with the cast. It’s their neighbours. It’s like, ‘I could be one of them.’ So it’s an even stronger pull to do it.”

Émard means “neighbours” in the broadest sense, but during the audition I sat in on I saw a former next-door neighbour, along with three other people I know – all from completely different areas of my life.

Le Grand Continental® really is a community event.

“You see professional lawyers, doctors, then you have students, people unemployed. All kinds of people. The best thing for me happens during rehearsals. The show is magical, it’s great. But when you see how people work together – they just discover very generously, very openly, how to rehearse dance. Then you witness an older gay man working with a 12-year-old girl rehearsing in the corner. Just very beautiful things like that.”

The line dancing that inspired the show has always been a keen interest of Émard’s. In fact, “obsession” is the word he uses.

“I guess because as a kid that was how I started dancing. I kept being very interested in it. Watching it. Line dancing can also be very boring. People looking like robots. But even then I’m fascinated by that phenomenon of people gathering, dancing the same steps, repeating the patterns in different directions. To a point where I was including little line dancing steps in my stage work with dancers. It was a kind of joke among the dancers: ‘Oh, there he comes with his line dancing.’ To a point where I said, ‘I think I have to go deeper into that and do something about it.’

“Then I was meeting with the director of a big festival in Montreal, trying to pitch another project. And she said, ‘Sure, what else do you have in mind?’ I said, ‘I have this crazy project in mind’ and she said, ‘I want to do this.’”

Of course she did. Who wouldn’t?

Guy Somerset was the founding editor of ARTicle Magazine. He is a former Books & Culture Editor of NZ Listener and Books Editor of The Dominion Post.