Five years later, in October 1978, Sullivan was asked by Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire to create a series of pieces collectively called Essay in Six Parts. Sullivan had worked with the company before, including designing the set for Derrière la porte un mur, the first choreographic work created by Paul-André Fortier who affectionately calls Sullivan his "artistic mother". In explaining the impact Sullivan had on his development as a choreographer, Fortier complimented Sullivan: "It was Françoise who made an artist out of me - she gave me my sense of freedom, of being able to go for what I want and not caring about whoever, of doing my own thing and not trying to be part of any stream or current."
In accepting the invitation to work with the Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, Sullivan found herself collaborating with a gifted and dedicated group of dancers: Michèle Febvre, Ginette Laurin, Manon Levac, Sylvie Pinard, Daniel Léveillé and Daniel Soulières. As Sullivan wrote in the programme notes: "This performance is not a performance but a workshop where improvisations are structured within the context of definite themes. These choreographies are not choreographies but the point where we stand within the process of work between six dancers and me." That "point" was one of mutual trust and complete commitment. According to Daniel Léveillé, of all the choreographers he worked with while a member of Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, Sullivan was the only one who truly inspired him, "With the others I was just moving around, but the involvement in her work was total."
Throughout the collaborative process with the dancers of Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire, Sullivan defined her role, not as the star choreographer, but as the match that would set her protégés' creativity ablaze: "I am interested in disappearing as author, or choreographer, and to assume the role of initiator and catalyst."
The title, Essay in Six Parts, referred not only to the six dancers involved, but also to the six dances or "movement essays" presented. In the "First Part", a piece performed without music, all the dancers explored how movement could be initiated by "the weight of the body centered on its own axis, its swaying that takes it here and there, on the flat of the foot or tip of the toes." In the "Second Part", a dance called Dedales was, as the bilingual programme stated, a "danse structurée à partir du ballant, 1948/dance on the movement of the swing, 1948." Although the original title, Dédale had been pluralized and the accent removed, this was another example of Sullivan revising one of her early works. In the "Third Part", performed to original music and lyrics, the entire group of dancers was to "evolve with measuring movements, which steers them toward spatial behaviour as stimulus-correlation to self knowledge." "Fourth Part" was a work created by Sylvie Pinard, who had been inspired by the theme of a Rodin sculpture. The "Fifth Part" was the result of improvisation on the theme of "the relationship of two individuals and their confrontation" as workshopped and performed by Daniel Soulières and Michèle Febvre. Essay in Six Parts ended with the "Sixth Part" during which the entire group responded to verbs provided by Sullivan and music performed by Steve Reich on themes of gestures and fast rhythms.
Essay in Six Parts as well as Hiérophanie, a work Sullivan choreographed for Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire in 1978, evoked her 1948 Dédale because all three dances explored movements and kinetic dynamics devoid of overt narrative. As with Dédale, Essay in Six Parts, Hiérophanie and other choreographic works by Sullivan from this period were interested in more than the elements of kinetic action and aesthetic formalism. Emotion, as Sullivan told one interviewer during the late 1970s, was still part of her choreographic range.
Coming back to dance I tried to remember what I was doing twenty years ago and I thought I should structure dances but let the emotion seep in - not to keep it out as it's in style to do now, nor consciously put it in. Just let it come in naturally. That would be consistent with what I did and also consistent in sculpting the dance.
In addition to wanting to use dance as a channel for unforced emotion, Sullivan returned to other earlier themes. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was particularly intrigued with "primitive" themes and iconography that resonated with previous choreographic works such as Femme Archaïque. Part of her attraction to the primordial and mythical as inspiration in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the result of trips to Greece and her interest in ancient civilizations. She had begun to paint on large, circular canvases that were cut and patched. They resembled stretched and sewn animal hides that Sullivan sometimes combined with other materials such as rope or wood, in what she referred to as her Tondo cycle. The resulting art works conveyed a rough and primal aesthetic. Shortly after her Tondo cycle, Sullivan began her Cycle crétois, irregular and rounded canvases again evoking stretched and sewn skins on which she painted mythical animals with ram-like horns set against multi-hued backgrounds.
In choreographic works such as Labyrinthe and Et la nuit à la nuit, which both premiered in 1981, Sullivan's interest in anthropology, mythology and aesthetic inspiration of primitivist revisionings of ancient cultures emerged and separated her from most of the other Automatists. In Et la nuit à la nuit, for instance, the female dancers wore padded costumes to evoke prehistoric fertility images. During Et la nuit à la nuit one of the performers, who at the time was in her third-trimester of pregnancy, appeared onstage naked. In an unabashed celebration of female fertility, she carried a basket of rabbits, which she placed on the stage and then one by one let the animals free. The desire, as Sullivan wrote in the programme for the premiere of Et la nuit à la nuit, was to tap emotion through personal imagery, which had been inspired by the prehistoric era.
The wish to return to a point of origin has drawn me into evoking primordial times, when Nature, in its total impact, was perceived directly ... With the mountain, the stream, the goddesses, I try to recreate for a moment a climate of emotion, of innocence and intensity, which are part of my subjective evocation of this epoch, when ritual, magic and art were intermingled. These became a power and a transformer which gave meaning to daily activity.
The action of the dance, however, points to the battle of the sexes because the female fertility goddesses are disrupted by aggressive male hunters. The dance appears to suggest that women's fertility signifies a continuation, not only of the cycle of life, but also a cycle of conflict with men.
Sullivan's re-emergence as a force within the Montréal modern dance community led to an interest to reclaim her earlier work. In 1986, Dance Collection Danse, a national archives for Canadian theatrical dance based in Toronto, undertook to reconstruct important works by six of Canada's pioneering choreographers in a project called ENCORE! ENCORE! The dances Sullivan and Jeanne Renaud had choreographed for Récital de danse were reconstructed and videotaped for preservation purposes. (The work of other choreographers was reconstructed as well. These other artists were Gweneth Lloyd, Nesta Toumine, Nancy Lima Dent and Boris Volkoff.) In 1988, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Refus Global, the reconstructed dances for Sullivan and Renaud's Récital de danse were staged at the Musée d'art contemporain in Montréal. Originally only three performances were planned, but the show was so successful three more were added. (next page)
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