CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 19 . . . . May 26, 2006
This NFB documentary looks at the life of French Canadian choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault and is basically a series of interview segments that take place in the few weeks leading up to his cancer-caused death. Giant Steps focuses on his past and how it influenced his artistic work. Perreault often drew upon repressed emotions from his childhood to create contemporary dance choreographies. An important aspect to his work is his fascination with "the people"; he believed that dance expresses something fundamentally human and that the artist must be extra sensitive to the world. After traveling to India, Africa, and Indonesia, Perreault commented that he identified with the suffering of masses of humanity, and this suffering of real people inspired his work.
A brief overview of his early life shows how troubled and inspired Perreault was. After his mother died, the family fell apart, and Perreault recreated family with the group of older friends he met at Groupe de la Place Royale in Montreal where he studied contemporary dance and was inspired by founder Jeanne Renaud. Perreault tells viewers that he escaped from the world through literature; both Sartre and Kafka influenced his work, particularly with respect to the grim black and white world that Perreault often created on stage.
As a choreographer, Perreault was considered a genius. He created on the spot, inspired by the people in front of him. His choreographies were known to lack a clear narrative; instead, they were a comment on the human condition and humanity, often involving larger groups, where trench coats and other ordinary and drab clothing served as costumes, hard-soled shoes "tuned the floor" to produce rhythm, and the stage was left bare. Movement echoed that of "real people" and, according to Perreault, repetitive movement created an obsession in the spectator, who would wait and search for this repetition.
His major breakthrough work was in 1983. "Joe" used 36 dancers, and only three were men. In this piece, there is no music, only stomping, and Perreault sought to observe "mankind through men," while drawing upon feelings of an "anonymous existence" from his childhood. A second attempt to accomplish similar goals, but with women, failed a few years later in "Stella." Perreault also had a sense of humour, evident in his pastoral piece involving 16 women and 12 cows that share the same pasture. He has been criticized for his works being too long, but he claimed he "needed that much time."
This film, using interviews with Perreault, his friends, and those who knew him and worked with him, and digital images, photographs, and scenes from the stage, captures the viewer's attention for its entire 53-minute duration. The marrying of often ominous, original music with the visually interesting aspects mentioned creates a seamless and coherent presentation from start to finish.
The one problem with Giant Steps is the role of the narrator. She is neither invisible nor substantially involved, leaving her hovering undefined on the periphery. Although she conducts the interviews, she never actually appears on screen, and her relationship with Perreault is open to interpretation. Several comments made by the interviewer suggest a more intimate relationship than strictly interviewer/interviewee. A simple clarification would wrap up this loose end satisfactorily.
Jean-Pierre Perreault: Giant Steps is an artful account of Perreault's personally and politically driven work, his life, and his legacy. He asks, "how does one prepare for death?" Indeed, this question and many others, equally thought-provoking, are raised throughout the film. Despite its mature and weighty themes, or perhaps because of them, this film belongs in a high school classroom and/or library. It could easily be incorporated into a fine arts unit, and it is valuable as a piece of Canadian history as well. Moreover, it is a launch pad for discussions on any of the following themes/topics: contemporary dance/movement, theatre (sound, lighting, direction), art, artists, death, illness and its effects on an artist, socialism, poverty, the worker, family, friendship, and personal histories as inspiration for creative work.
Andrea Szilagyi is a graduate student studying children's literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.