Interview with Louise Lecavalier
Not too many dancers have a desire to perform in Newfoundland. But Louise Lecavalier, who got the idea from reading Annie Proulx’s book, The Shipping News, is decidedly unlike any dancer—past or present—in the universe. Indeed, it’s safe to say that nobody moves like Louise Lecavalier. The erstwhile star of Édouard Lock’s Montréal-based troupe, La La La Human Steps from 1981-1999, Lecavalier honed her fierce and extreme style that was—and remains—instantly recognizable.
Whether deploying her full-body barrel jump, which resembled a horizontal pirouette, her blonde dreadlocks flying, or subjecting her body to the punishing rigors of Lock’s quicksilver, detailed choreography, this 5’5” androgynous-like spitfire ruled the stage, leaving indelible images for audiences to savor.
Now, at, 56, the seemingly unstoppable Lecavalier will kick off New York Live Arts’ 2015-2016 season September 9-12 with her first choreographed work, “So Blue,” an hour-long piece that debuted in 2012 in Düsseldorf.
Speaking by phone from her native Montréal, Lecavalier recalled the end of her long, fruitful time with Lock, when she was not only dancing with an injured hip, but also felt that the company had become a different animal.
“I was not leaving dance altogether—and I’m not very realistic—because if I had been, I would have thought that maybe I should stop dancing. La La La had become very big, in a sense, and was well known. There were a lot of technicians, lots of dancers, and that didn’t suit me so well. In the beginning, it was simple and everything was a bit loose, but when it becomes big, everything has to be super-organized.
“It was a mixture of things,” added Lecavalier, “[including] the fact I was injured and had to deal with a bunch of ballet dancers, because Édouard was going towards ballet. If my body had been full capacity, maybe I would have geared towards them. I liked the direction Édouard was taking, but it was not for me, so I decided to quit and start new projects with other people.”
Working with others, after all, has been a constant in Lecavalier’s rich artistic journey, with her earlier self (the ’80s and ’90s), living large on YouTube. It was during those heady times that, in addition to dancing with La La La, Lecavalier also performed with the likes of David Bowie, who requested she dance with him on his Sound+Vision tour, and Frank Zappa, who invited her to perform in the “G-Spot Tornado,” one of his final concerts before his death in 1993.
Remembering Bowie, Lecavalier reflected upon that time as if it were a dream. “[Performing with] David came first, and he was lots of things. A car was waiting for Édouard and me to take us backstage before his show, the Glass Spider Tour, in Montréal’s Olympic stadium, and I’d never met him before.
“David said, ‘Hi, Louise,’ and I couldn’t talk much, so he thought I was mute. I never imagined I would meet him. Then people touch you on the arm because you met the star. It was my connection with this big world of stardom.
“With Frank Zappa,” continued Lecavalier, “it was so complex, the memories. It was the end of his life so it colored this encounter. I was not very close to him, though sometimes you don’t have to be close. Once, my best was not onstage, but in rehearsal, when he was sitting in a big space in the woods.
“At some point he wanted to see a duet, but it wasn’t an appropriate floor. I had listened to the music, but because he wanted to see it at that moment, I felt, ‘Lets do it.’ Seeing Frank’s face—he was smiling and laughing—it was perfect. I was really dancing for him.”
Fast forward to 1999, and the end of Lecavalier’s stunning career with Lock. After taking a year’s sabbatical, the dancer, still living with and performing on an injured hip, did a project with Tedd Robinson, a 15-minute duet called “Lula and the Sailor.”
“At the end, the piece toured very little,” explained Lecavalier, “and it was very hard to even walk. I thought I must have an operation, which I did in 2003, because the reason for living was to have a real second chance for me to dance.”
Lecavalier is, by her own account, a shy person offstage, one who also became interested in dance by chance. “People took me in a show and asked me to dance instead of act. I liked this expression of movement on stage, so I took a few ballet classes and some contemporary classes. I got grants to study everywhere and I was asked to join a small company in Montréal.”
That company was Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, when Lecavalier was 18 and where she met Lock. The rest, as they say, is terpsichorean history, with awards and rave reviews following, including the New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff writing of “Human Sex” in 1985: “Louise Lecavalier is especially breathtaking at rolling in the air like a projectile toward her intended…there is something touching about seeing a younger generation reinvent a wheel, however naively: this difference in attitude defines our times.”
That same year Lecavalier became the first Canadian to win a Bessie Award in New York for her performance in “Businessman in the Process of Becoming an Angel.” She is also the first winner of the Prix de la danse de Montréal, and in 2005, Lecavalier co-produced “Cobalt rouge” with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the Venice Biennale and Paris’ Théâtre de la Ville, dancing with, among others, Robinson and Montréal-based dancer-choreographer Frédéric Tavernini, the latter partnering Lecavalier in “So Blue.”
In 2006, Lecavalier founded her troupe, Fou Glorieux, in which she continues to explore, in solos and duets, the power and vulnerability of the body and the intensity of human struggles and aspirations. One solo, “Lone Epic,” was made for Lecavalier by Vancouver’s esteemed Crystal Pite. In 2008 the dancer was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and also toured with, “Is You Me,” abetted by Québécois choreographer/dancer Benoît Lachambre, musician Hahn Rowe, and video artist Laurent Goldring.
With the dancer now taking full charge of her choreography, Lecavalier makes use of an intuitive process, going into the studio, where she begins with music, in the case of “So Blue,” the percussive/electronica sounds of Turkish Canadian Mercan Dede.
“I have some person who is a maniac of music and have lots of tracks of different composers. I get in the studio and I dance, I dance, I dance. I filmed “So Blue,” but I never looked at it, and had no idea how it looked like, I just knew how it felt like.”
Her signature dreads may be gone, but Lecavalier’s short spiky tresses are still in whip-ready shape in “So Blue,” a tour de force for the human dynamo, who is onstage for nearly the entire 60 minutes, with Tavernini joining her for most of the work’s second half.
Kristy Edmunds, artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, presented “So Blue” last January. In an email, Edmunds said she is glad the work is going to New York, adding, “Louise is a remarkable artist with a dimensionality as a maker, and as a mover. I think “So Blue” captures an ‘essentialness’ that reveals her honesty and clarity of purpose, and is such a great piece.”
Writing in the Guardian last year of “So Blue,” Judith Mackrell noted, “all that we’re focusing on during the work’s opening section is the still-riveting power of Lecavalier’s dancing. Dressed in baggy sports gear, her peroxided hair shorn to an asymmetrical crop, she launches into her solo at full throttle, skittering fiercely from side to side, her huge eyes staring.”
Tavernini, 39, has danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne, the Ballet Opéra de Lyon, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, among others, and has been freelancing since 2005; in 2010 he founded his own troupe, Clovek & The 420 (Clovek is Slovenian for ‘human’). Tavernini’s latest choreography, “Wolf Song for Lambs” was presented at Montréal’s Théâtre La Chapelle last April.
Speaking by Skype from Marseille, where he was vacationing, the Toulon-born performer said Lecavalier is easy to work with. “With her I’m just saying what I want. When I feel something I don’t agree with, I tell her. We really talk and never really had a fight.”
Before joining Lecavalier onstage, the 6’1” dancer undertakes a warm-up ritual that some might consider, well, a tad unusual.
“Honestly,” explained Tavernini, “I’m backstage just finishing my nap and taking my shower. I might be playing Kung Fu Panda on my iPhone. How Louise prepares with the yoga, and all, when it’s my turn, I can’t lie, I just go onstage.”
This attitude, said Tavernini, comes from Jean Babilée, who died in 2014 and was one of the last century’s greatest modern ballet dancers.
“I met him when I was 20 years old,” recalled Tavernini, “when I was dancing with Béjart. I was looking at him sleeping in the back and I thought, ‘Wow, that guy was older than Maurice and he just woke up and went onstage.’ I asked him after and he told me, ‘It’s not in your body what you’re going to do, it’s in your head.’
“Your body is already prepared,” added Tavernini. “What you need is to be fresh when you go onstage. It’s mental, the preparation. You work on your body for all those years, and at one point it’s mental. The piece,” he continued, “is like a warm-up. From my first entrance, it’s like a progression. It’s building as you do it.”
Tavernini must be doing something right, as Sanjoy Roy, writing in londondance.com said, “Some way into the piece, Lecavalier is joined by Frédéric Tavernini, his towering, bearlike presence a foil to her jittery jackal…”
After the New York concert, the duo tours “So Blue” to Taiwan, Belgium, Strasbourg, France, and yes, Newfoundland. In February, 2016, Lecavalier presents a new, as yet untitled work, which she is currently making for herself and dancer Eric Beauchesne.
As to being both an older dancer and a woman—one who has 14-year old twin daughters that not only help make her stronger, but, she said, have also renewed her desire to dance—Lecavalier maintains that it’s important for audiences to see her as an elder dancer.
“To see always young people, it can become flat. Not that they are not fascinating,” added Lecavalier. “I go to a lot of circus and they are amazing, and sometimes I see the movement of some athletes and I think, ‘Would I want to do that?’ And I really don’t want to anymore.
“When I was 18 I would have wanted to learn those tricks, but with time, as we get older, it’s not to achieve what the others are doing, it’s to continue our own quest in our bodies that are changing. I don’t do these tricks because I’m not interested in them anymore—to look, yes, but there are other quests for me more important.”
Lecavalier said she also seeks movement that interests her. “It speaks about me. I look for details in the body that are more important than eccentricities—not to say we are more profound when we are older—it’s subtleties that are different. It’s important that there are older people that dance or else [audiences] would look at nothing.”
Finally, Lecavalier, who was among the winners of the illustrious 2014 Governor General Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement, confessed that she works to question herself.
“Because questioning the body, with lots of things in your mind, when we put questions to the bodies, we have different answers, and we can’t cheat too much. With my head I can go in 1000 directions, but the reality is I don’t advance so much. With the body, if I’m not getting anywhere, I say, ‘let’s keep going.’”
Fou Glorieux: “So Blue” opens at New York Live Arts Theater, September 9-12, 2015