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Making Dance

The Inside Scoop

Darkness and Light:
The Creative Journey of Choreographer Paul-André Fortier 

The photo is of a nude male, shoulders slightly hunched, head down. The contours of the body blur, and yet glow with a soft light against a stark white background. The image conjures up many of the words used to describe dancer and choreographer Paul-André Fortier over the course of his 30 years in dance.

In person, Paul-André Fortier (who most commonly goes by the name Fortier, or PAF) is relaxed and easygoing, with an engaging intellect and a quick wit. His blue eyes and direct gaze draw you in. You converse easily on all kinds of topics, from cooking to creative process and the meaning of success.

Time spent with Fortier always leaves you energized, prompted to think or act, wanting more. You need to know where the ideas come from, how he works, what makes him tick. Below you can read about Fortier's life and work.

Early Influences

Fortier was born in a small town in Quebec's Eastern Townships. His only exposure to art in early childhood was through occasional church-basement theatrical performances. He was captivated by the idea of performing. He put on plays with his sister, he says, "where she had to cry a lot and we gave each other big kisses, like they did in the movies".

Although by no means wealthy, Fortier's parents sent both their kids to boarding school in Sherbrooke. There, he had his true introduction to the arts. He was especially attracted to literature. It brought him closest, he now feels, to the potential for creation and self-expression.

A degree in theatre from the University of Sherbrooke led to a full-time job teaching literature. The job represented status, the respect of others and the promise of a secure future. Some five years later, however, Fortier left teaching to become a dancer.

The hardest thing for him to bear was his parents' reaction. They had seen him perform and knew he had a special aura about him on stage. However, they weren't ready to concede that dance could be a viable career. "Fortunately," he says, "I was a grown-up person. and my parents had taught me selective deafness."

New Directions

What was it about dance that caused him to leave teaching? His first taste was summer school with Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire in Montréal. He had enrolled at the suggestion of a colleague who taught physical education. This company, led by Martine Époque, drew many of the young talents who went on to reshape Canadian dance - artists such as Ginette Laurin, Édouard Lock and Daniel Léveillé.

Says Fortier, "I fell in love with the people, they were so free and beautiful. dance became the materialization of my freedom. It gave me a whole new point of view on the human body. It was all so extravagant, so thrilling."

Époque told the 24-year-old Fortier that, despite his late start, he had talent. He was lured by the promise of a place in the company if he joined her school. The life of a dancer and his new window on the world inspired him. The spirit of the 1960s and the aftermath of Québec's Quiet Revolution inevitably fuelled his desire to create.

In 1978, barely six years after he had begun to study dance, Fortier created a duet for himself and Ginette Laurin. Although it was never intended for public performance, he showed it to Martine Époque, who was so impressed she put it into her program. It ended up in the company's New York season at the famed Judson Church, part of a series presented by Dance Theatre Workshop.

A Second Career

During his early years in Montréal, Fortier immersed himself in dance and related forms of expression, such as performance art. He saw everything that came to the city.

"I was stunned by these experiences," he says. "I realized dance was there not only to entertain, it could make you think. It could provoke." In fact, he notes, "I thought it could be far more provocative."

Fortier also met the artists of the Quebec avant-garde, including dancer-choreographer Françoise Sullivan, who exerted a strong influence. "If I'm in dance," he says, "it's because of Martine Époque; if I'm an artist, it's because of Françoise Sullivan."

Artists everywhere are used to multi-tasking, but Fortier has contributed to his art form to an unusual degree. Primarily, he has created many works, for himself and others, as the artistic director of his own dance company since 1979 ( Fortier Danse-Creation, originally named Danse-Théatre Fortier Fortier). For three years he was also co-director of Montréal Danse, a repertory company he founded with Daniel Jackson in 1986.

After leaving Montréal Danse, Fortier spent ten years on the dance faculty of l'Université du Québec à Montréal. There, he created numerous works for and with younger dancers. He has also participated in the work of federal and provincial arts agencies, as juror and advisor to the Canada Council for the Arts, and as Vice-Chair of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec from 1999 until 2003.

A Worker 9 to 5, An Artist 24/7

The focus Fortier brings to his work is the product of his deep life experience, keen eye and reflective nature. So what is it like, we might wonder, to live in the skin of someone so intense, so sure of his direction? Are his art and life intertwined? Does his work infuse everything he does, or is he able to maintain a certain balance?

"I succeed in making a separation between three things. First, there is the materialization of my thoughts - this is craft, and I can usually pull the plug at 5:00 pm. Then there is my personal life - I need free time.

Finally, there is the creative side, which is constant. You learn how to live with it. it's as though you're inhabited by a creative virus. That virus lives quite well in me, and although it's sometimes difficult, it's very often peaceful. If you make yourself available, it will take you places you don't know ."

Living with this "creative virus" is both a burden and a gift. Fortier compares it to being "an animal with sensors, feeling the earthquake coming. Artists," he says, "are like some kind of medium." He admits to sometimes looking at his work and not remembering how he made it, or where he found the sources of inspiration.

Finding Clarity Through Collaboration

Fortier's collaborators - the dancers, musicians and designers who surround him - are one clear source of inspiration. He readily confesses that he chooses people he would want to be with even if he were not creating.

His taste in dancers is "quite bizarre", Fortier says, and there is often the potential for a clash of personalities, which he finds very productive. His role, he believes, is to channel all the separate visions around a choreographic idea. It is about sharing and accepting that others will "interfere" in his creation, he explains, to make it all work in the end.

Lumière, a work that premiered in 2004 at the Canada Dance Festival is a good example. The piece is the flip side of Tensions (2001), an earlier duet for himself and a much younger dancer, which explores loneliness and intergenerational issues.

Both works integrate movement, video, sophisticated lighting and original music. Both have an urban pulse. Where Tensions is dark, driven and angular, Lumière exudes a kind of life-affirming, radiant energy.

Says Fortier about Lumière, "I had a strong desire to see if I could [create] the total opposite. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I need the sunny side. The world is not going very well. As an artist, I feel I can create a moment of happiness, of peace. I wanted the dancers to shine, to become incandescent, to show the light inside."

To achieve this, he used various techniques to produce movement material. To start, Fortier decided that everyone would have a duet with everyone else. He also involved the dancers extensively in generating vocabulary, rejecting what he didn't want and keeping what interested him.

By treating them as creators, Fortier encourages the dancers to invest themselves more deeply in the work. The more freedom he gives them, the further they go - and the clearer he becomes in his intentions for the work.

The Meaning in the Movement

Showing "the light inside" is a new dimension of Fortier's work. Previous works burned with a fierce intensity, connecting to the darker side of life. Earlier preoccupations with religion, sex and other timeless topics have given way to more nuanced interpretations of the world around him.

Still, says Fortier with a smile, "I'm glad I've been rude in the past. This is what the world needed. Sometimes I kept banging on a nail that was already in, but that's part of it."

If Fortier's approach is now more subtle, it is no less striking. Of particular note in recent works, he has used dancers of all ages and explored the interplay between the generations.

Fortier is interested in "the poetry of the aging body". He argues that if one wants to open dance to a broader scope of emotions, one has to engage older dancers. He speaks not of the fragility of age but of the power - and of the conviction that the best is yet to come.

Showing youth and age juxtaposed is an artistic statement, with many interpretive possibilities. However, there is another purpose underlying the aesthetic one. It is to pass on both his passion for dance and his knowledge of the discipline. It is part of his responsibility, he feels - the responsibility of every artist -  to extend a hand to the next generation.

It is also his way of challenging himself, of asking, "Am I still pertinent? Can they take what I'm doing and make it meaningful?"

The Business of Creation

According to Fortier, being a choreographer means being a jack-of-all-trades. "It's a wonderful commitment, but you have to come down to reality." What he means by this is that he must focus on all the aspects of creating, producing and touring a piece. He must raise the money required through grants or private sponsorship, and he must involve himself in the administrative affairs of the company, even if he has full-time management.

The ability to run the business end of things is a requirement for which many choreographers are not well equipped. Artistic training doesn't usually include business management skills but the reality of an artistic career necessitates them. Some dance programs are starting to recognize the importance of this knowledge by offering business courses and workshops.

Generally, artists earn significantly lower incomes than other professionals with equivalent education and specialized skills. In a society that values money, their comparatively low economic status makes it difficult for artists to maintain a sense of self-worth. At times, it can also be challenging to afford basic living expenses and so it is essential to understand the financial aspects of one's career.

In addition, competition is very fierce. Artists are constantly required to prove that they are good enough, that they have an original contribution to make, and that their works deserve to be seen. In a society that also values celebrity, artists worry that, if they don't tour the world, they have no validity.

Every commitment to a project represents a huge artistic risk. "When you sign a contract, you decide that you're going to be good at a specific time on some far away date, whereas in reality you have no idea how you will be," Fortier explains.

Creation alone is a demanding practice. Layering on the business aspects makes the job even more complex. So why does Fortier persist? "Because I believe in what I'm doing," he says, "Art is not about competition, about being successful."

Often, choreographers are judged based on the most recent work they have created because it's fresh in people's minds, even though it may not be their best work. Not every piece is a masterpiece. However, because live dance exists in the moment of performance and then disappears, it's hard to refer to past works. That makes it difficult to evaluate a choreographer's body of work over time.

"And yet," says Fortier, " a career is made over time. We tend to forget that. The fact that I'm still here, still choreographing, that my work still seems relevant - this is what I call success."

Following the Passion

What does Fortier tell young people who seek his advice on a career in dance ?

"I tell them just to follow their desires. It's not a life where you earn big money, but it's a wonderful life. Trust your desire. Trust your passion. Go for it! I have seen many artists who are poor by comparison to others [in society], but they're having such a happy life. I say this to kids, and to their parents as well."

It's a message that captures the daring of youth and the maturity of the seasoned artist. In different ways, it resonates with people of all ages, which is just how Fortier likes it.