Review: Lecavalier wins the Battleground but loses the war

Louise Lecavalier and Robert Abubo in Battleground.

Battleground, the latest offering by Canadian dance icon Louise Lecavalier, is described in the program notes as taking place in a “ring”. But with its rectangular floor marked with black and white squares, a chessboard would be a more apt description of its arena.

Lecavalier has taken some pretty obscure source material — Italo Calvino’s tale of the Nonexistent Knight and his squire — and turned it into 60 minutes of her signature frenetic, quirky, physically punishing dance. 

Lecavalier spends the hour in almost unceasing movement At 61, her petite, wiry body still has the power to shock with its sheer athletic prowess, a miracle of flexibility, balance and stamina. She is constantly pogo-hopping or running around the stage, or shuffling around in a kind of knock-kneed pas de bourrée, or dropping down into splits or convulsing in 6 o’clock penchés that would make a 20-year-old envious. Her hands are always twitching, miming mysterious ciphers at the ends of her wildly flailing arms. 

Lecavalier’s knight — the pun on her name has to be intentional — is squired around by Robert Abubo, an Ottawa Group Dance Lab alum who has danced with her in other productions. Abubo is a skilled partner; his Royal Winnipeg Ballet School training comes through in his beautiful lifts. But he shadows Lecavalier without ever matching her magnetism or level of commitment. In his brief pauses, Abubo always seems to be waiting for the next section to start, whereas Lecavalier is riveting even in stillness, or when she’s chugging water from a bottle.  

The costumes are by the enigmatic Montreal designer Yso, who has dressed Lecavalier in a tight black hoodie and flared black leather pants. With the close-fitting hood framing her pale, intense face, she looks like a strange cross between Death from Bergman’s Seventh Seal, the Nihilists from The Big Lebowski, and Dieter, Mike Myers’ purse-lipped German from the old SNL skit Sprockets (“Now iz ze time on Shprockets ven vee dahnce”). Abubo wears a considerably baggier and more nondescript hoodie-and-pants combo.

Other than Alain Lortie’s floor lighting — which uses narrow red outlines in addition to the chessboard pattern — the set consists of a single plywood wall at the back of the space. Antoine Berthiaume’s soundscape combines skittering 90’s techno with live electric guitar riffs and, inexplicably, samples of Maria Callas singing Casta Diva from Norma. The music does its job of providing relentless rhythmic drive, but like so much of the electronica used in contemporary dance I found it soulless, generic and forgettable. 

Ultimately, Battleground is a showcase for Lecavalier’s staggering technique, but it left me emotionally uninvolved. The choreography is meant to be playful, but instead I found it aggressively abstracted, the characters, scenography and music all completely divorced from one another, as if all the elements had fallen randomly out of a vending machine. Lecavalier’s charisma and superhuman, knockout feats may win the battle, but Battleground loses the war.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.