Last week, Ottawa got to see Akram Khan perform Xenos, billed as his last full-length solo. Although Khan still appears to be in his athletic prime, the 44-year-old dancer has been quoted as saying he feels like his body is starting to break down.
LIke Khan, some dancers choose to quit performing while they’re ahead. And who can blame them? These are, after all, people whose careers have been tied to their physical exceptionalism. But Montreal choreographer and dancer Paul-André Fortier is an example of another path.
Fortier is touring his final solo at age 70, marking the close of a legendary, 40-plus-year career at the summit of Canadian contemporary dance. Performing Thursday and Friday at the NAC’s Azirelli Studio, Fortier showed us not what the body can do, but what it can remember.
In his hour-long Solo 70, Fortier is unflinchingly honest. There’s no pretense of trying to recapture the virtuosity and endurance of youth. While he’s still incredibly fit, agile and vigorous, Fortier doesn’t try to mask the creeping symptoms of age: the shaky muscles, the stiffer joints, the pale, sagging skin, the gaunt, bald head straight out of a Van Eyck portrait.
This is a body with a lifetime of dancing and living behind it, eloquent in its restraint, powerful in its naked frailty. Fortier breathes intensity and purpose into the most basic movements. In fact the long, silent opening features nothing but Fortier, dressed in black against a stark white floor and backdrop, executing variations on a walk: sliding, marching, heel-toe, toe-heel, short strides and long, making sharp 90-degree turns as if caught in a Pac-Man maze.
Joining Fortier were electric guitarist Jackie Gallant and actor Étienne Pilon. Both shifted easily from providing music and text from the sidelines, to interacting with Fortier (a strange, tense little interlude during which he keeps messing passive-aggressively with their stuff) to joining him on stage. The incongruity of the younger performers’ raucous headbanging and Fortier’s meditative shuffling hinted at the conflict between showmanship and art.
Toward the work’s end, Pilon delivers a pointedly self-conscious, verbose monologue about shame by Étienne Lepage, while Fortier simply stands there with his buttocks exposed to the audience. If the point was that flesh, even in stillness, can be more expressive than a torrent of words, it was well made.