Dancing in the Snow
Revisiting Francoise Sullivan’s Art of the Moment
In today’s hyper-connected world of mass media, it is hard to unplug oneself from the stream of information available for consumption. Whether it is social networks, news, or streaming services, we are constantly bombarded with information ready to grab our attention while simultaneously reducing our ability to be spontaneous. Nevertheless, despite living in a more technological world, there are many social problems that at least prevail (if not intensify) in different forms across generations. Lack of spontaneity and loss of communal spirit are just a couple of them. To contextualize them, it would be good to look at Quebec past and search for possible solutions
Influenced by French Surrealism, Les Automatistes was a multidisciplinary ensemble of Quebecois artists in Montreal during the 1940s. Their ideas would become an important source of inspiration a few years later in the history of the province with The Quiet Revolution. The movement was initiated by painter Paul-Émile Borduas. It included an actor, a photographer, a composer, a medical student, two poets, and three dancers. Les Automatistes expressed their political and artistic agenda through Refus Global (1948), an anti-establishment and anti-religious manifesto where they described the impoverished state of imagination in Quebec society. At the same time, the text served as a call-to-action for new forms of expression that would free them from their repression. Paul writes:
“our small people grew and multiplied in number, if not in spirit, here in the north of this huge American continent; we had strong, young bodies and hearts of gold, but our minds remained primitive, obsessed by the memory of Europe’s past glories, disdainful of the true achievements of our own oppressed classes.”
Overall, Refus Global is a synthesis of the alienating consequences of technological advancements and
principles of organization that came along with the increasing rational thinking in Quebec society, while at the same time, a longing to find another alternative to religious authority when trying to form a sense of community. Only spontaneity would help them reconnect with each other in search of a new unity. Thus, spontaneity would be the best way of expressing themselves in their art.
With this in mind, one of the most important representatives of their philosophy is Francoise Sullivan and her incredible improvised dance movements. Sullivan is a painter and a classical dancer who executed an impromptu series of dance movements called Danse dans la neige 1948 in Mount Sainte-Hilaire, a suburb of Montreal.
The sequence of movements captured by the photographs of Maurice Perron is shown against a desolate, winter landscape. A compilation of symbolic gestures depicting the creative act of movement within a mood of mourning, harshness, detachment, and ending before spring brings back the burgeoning vitality of life in the streets. The movements have a mechanical quality to them, yet they seem to be at one with the terrain. Moreover, they are ephemeral, and the only visible traces are the footsteps printed on the soil, which will eventually disappear. Seventy years later, Sullivan declared: “Danse dans la neige was not a choreography, it was a venture into unexplored territory, a step into the unknown, an art of the moment; it was dance and it existed in my projects.”
In her essay titled The Extemporary Dance of Françoise Sullivan, Noémie Solomon describes the impossibility to catalogue Sullivan’s dance as contemporary with its time. Nor as a performance, an event before its time, or an aesthetic category. She suggests seeing it as a mode: as the act and process of artistic creation. By breaking up choreographic conventions with her spontaneous movements, there is an incapacity and refusal to be pinned down to a fixed linear time. She describes, “her choreographic methods and practices forged bridges and alliances between heterogeneous temporalities, themes and bodies, probing the limits of the normative processes and conventions of an art history that classifies, delineates, isolates”.
Sullivan’s Danse dans la neige is an answer to Paul’s preoccupations about the consequences of modern alienation. Rejection of intentionality (the state of doing things deliberately by conscious reasoning) will free oneself from unoriginality and make space for the spontaneous flow of passion over calculated acts. The only way to achieve a new unity and a sense of community, according to Les Automatistes.
By Saul Carrera