Renaud was not satisfied just to study dance technique during the mid-1940s. She also wanted to choreograph. Each summer, she returned for holidays to Montreal where, on more than one occasion, she took part in recitals in collaboration with Françoise Sullivan. In 1946, for example, they presented a program of dance sponsored by Françoise Sullivan's father. No documentation has survived, so we do not know exactly what was performed. There is, however, a typed program for an ambitious dance recital by Sullivan and Renaud given at the Ross House on the campus of McGill University in Montreal on April 3, 1948. Although the wording of the program suggests that all the choreography was by Sullivan, this was not the case. Jeanne Renaud danced two of her own choreographies: Un monsieur me suit dans la rue (A Man is Following Me in the Street), to music by Édith Piaf, and Déformité (Deformation), danced in silence. She also danced with Sullivan in a collaborative piece entitled Moi je suis de cette race rouge et épaisse qui frôle les éruptions volcaniques et les cratères en mouvement (I am of that thick red race that skims past volcanic eruptions and moving craters). The title for the piece came from two lines of a poem by Thérèse Renaud in a small poetry collection entitled Les sables du rêve (The Sands of Dream), published in 1946. The program indicates that, during the dance, the verse was read by the poet Claude Gauvreau. There is no obvious connection between the poetic words and the movements of the dancers. In other words, the dance does not, in any way, “illustrate” the poems in the way that Un monsieur me suit … seems to have “illustrated” the Piaf song. The two dancers move separately - they begin and end by circling the space, in a kind of prancing step - and otherwise improvise, crossing and interweaving, never touching each other or invading each other's space, though their movements are at times parallel or “echoing” each other.
Sullivan had studied dance in New York between 1945 and 1947. Unlike Renaud, she was attracted to the Wigman-influenced teaching of Franziska Boas, who used improvisation to help her students develop their individual movement styles. As a result, Moi je suis... was an improvisation. While Renaud, like many choreographers, used improvisation as a standard tool in her creative process, in the mid-1940s it was unusual to improvise onstage during a concert dance performance.
Music for this recital was provided by Pierre Mercure on piano and Gérard Gagnon on trumpet. Mary Anthony is named as the Conseiller Artistique. Also involved were three signatories of Refus global: Maurice Perron (lighting), Jean-Paul Riopelle (stage manager) and Jean-Paul Mousseau (set and costumes). Mousseau used burlap to construct a floor-to-ceiling backdrop for the stage and, specifically for Un monsieur me suit …, made a corrugated cardboard “road” that crossed the stage, while an abstract shape, also of cardboard, stood at the entrance. There was no money for a production budget so Mousseau used what he could find, and his inventiveness compensated for the lack of funds. The dance had a narrative - a woman frightened by a man; the character's trepidation and determination were underscored by the Edith Piaf song. Déformité was similarly inspired by a theme of apprehension. In New York, Renaud witnessed poverty and drug abuse for the first time. It was a shock that was intensified the day she was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and saw a dead man on a bench, his hand in the air. This incident became the inspiration for Déformité, which Renaud performed in silence, often twisting and contorting her face and body.
Dancer/writer Michèle Febvre has suggested that these works were among Renaud's “first autobiographical expressionist solos”:
In 1948, Jeanne Renaud seemed to be most concerned with a need to link dance with life, with her life. Déformité, L'emprise, Un monsieur me suit dans la rue are the responses of a very young woman who knows about solitude, about death, about the difficulties of living. Her dance expresses her physical tensions: restraining movement, concentrating the body before an explosive leap releases it … a way of playing with death that we can both give and receive. In Déformité, the slow movement of a body full of emotional currents that rise to the surface and deform the lines of the face, contorting it, opposing and twisting part of the body to show the unnameable; maybe that stiff, dead body of a tramp seen one evening on the Brooklyn Bridge …
Although the term was not used in the 1940s, these early works by Renaud were also explorations of what now might be called theatre-dance - a style in which the boundaries between theatre and dance are blurred.
©2009, Dance Collection Danse
Jeanne Renaud Exhibition Curators: Ray Ellenwood and Allana Lindgren
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