Rhodnie Désir’s performance BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek is a one-person choreographed piece that she has performed over the years in a number of iterations. This review was based on her performance at the Cultch Theatre in Vancouver, after which I had the opportunity to meet her and discuss her work.
In 2020, Désir, who lives and works in Montreal, was awarded the Grand Prix de la Danse de Montréal. Since 2017, she has been the artistic director and choreographer for RD Créations, which is “committed to respecting cultures by fostering genuine collaborations and prioritizing listening, discussion and interaction.”1 Her reputation as a performer and political activist precedes her. The five-hour web documentary Bow’T, on ICI ARTV, follows her travels to Haiti, Brazil, Martinique, and Mexico, where she collaborated with dancers and musicians to gain a deeper understanding of the experience of Indigenous and Black people during colonization and their ensuing displacement. A web series is also available on ICI.TOU.TV; the episodes alternate between French and English with spectacular music tracks and memorable visuals. For the Bow’T projects, she has formed liaisons with 45 partners, 130 specialists and 15 musicians, leading to 18 performances. The physicality of her performance at the Cultch underlined a message that became even more palpable as her body seemed to channel struggles endured and injustices repeated.
The stage was empty except for a dark, organic, rag-like pile of cloth in one corner, a stack of geometric shapes in another corner. A projection of a placid night sky with a phthalo constellation was framed by an oval of craggy ochre cliffs. From the amorphous pile appeared a head and then a hand that rose toward the night sky as if flirting with the projection. Désir had been before us all along.
During BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek, the space between the horizontal stage floor and the vertical projection developed a conversation as the very human, sweating dancer enlivened the space. Three small tables stacked together served as cover, platform, shield. A pyramid was worn, striping the body like bars of a prison, fluorescently white.
During an hour of intense physicality, Désir erased the space between herself and her audience. Dance is physical, and the experience of being there, seeing her move, was almost indescribable: two musicians buoyed the articulation of arm, back, leg as they slid through transitions from staccato cacophonic phrasing to sustained, satisfying, hypnotic rhythm.
One with her, the audience tired, though unmoving, having watched. Désir slowed, allowing time for the next space to be defined as the performers withdrew from the audience.
We moved then. We stood and clapped.
BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek becomes a conceptual memory informed by the proximity of pure spirit. And this remembering provokes more questions:
Julie Oakes – What are the origins of the title BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek?
Rhodnie Désir – Like a trail underwater, it is seen and not seen. Bow’t could be said as boat, like a boat upon the water. Bow can be defined as to bow or honour, and bow is also to kiss in Créole. I wanted to keep this movement, the uncomfortable way of questioning, in the title because it is similar to the movements of dance.
In your films, you say that you have been “looking back” to the diasporic experience, a term that refers to the scattering of a people and their experiences within a new land.
The main element behind the slave trade was the economy; that was the purpose – the sugar, indigo, cacao, and all. No matter how you connect the elements, the notions of power, exploitation, and subordination had to do with the erasure of culture, of history. It took away their names, for instance. The capacity to reveal the truth through the knowledge that came with them – these traces of ingenuity were taken away as the slave trade dehumanized the people.
There is dream-like quality to your work, surreal. We sat passive in our seats and saw an unattainable consciousness being performed, as if you are plugged into a greater cosmic generator than most of us. Do you channel through a spiritual discipline?
Dance is my spiritual discipline. I refuse to be connected with dance as only entertainment, as just a distraction. This would not be nourishing for me but would leave a hole inside. I use my art as a channelling, and I respect the space where I perform as much as I do my body. It becomes a sacred space, and the audience, in attending the performance, also becomes part of this ceremonial place. It is not appropriate to take photos or videos any more than one would in a church service. I hope, someday, we can all have a social conversation about the taking and disseminating of images.
The performance at the Cultch in Vancouver was in a relatively intimate venue, and yet you were more symbolic than personal – an everyman/woman, an uber human. Was this intentional?
I didn’t intentionally think of it, and each show is different. It depends on what you are able to receive from the performance, your capacity to see. I am transformed when I am on stage and I would say that spirits don’t always have a gender.
BOW’T TRAIL Retrospekspekreinvents traditional theatrical hierarchies such as those between the dancer and props, set, costume, and music. As a solo performer, are you relating to your team’s collective output or dancing a new script in response to this communal history?
It’s about structured improvisation. I choreograph in milestones. It’s like a game. I know that I have to go from here to there to there, and the musicians know that. I will go from this space to that but what happens in between is my game. In each performance, what I play between points is different and this is important because if not then I die, there will be no life. I am always on a search for something new, something that I haven’t seen. It’s a trail. If I were to walk on a street knowing what was there, I would no longer see. My main role is to be able to see. My musicians know that they must as well trust where I am at and continue from that place. Right now, I am working on a piece called One Day which is speaking about the urgency centred around climate change.
At the end of the performance, I was convinced that I needed to know more. What do you want the audience to take away from BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek?
I am waiting for nothing from the audience. Just their being there, that they chose to connect, is enough for me. How they receive, I have no control over and don’t wish to. I could not entertain this idea of control when I don’t practise controlling. I must be open. If I ask them to be open, I too must be open, to listen to messages that are not necessarily audible. I find more peace and calm not wanting something from the audience. I know something has been seeded and this is the beauty of art.
1. From RD Créations’ website, http://rhodniedesir.com/en/rd-creations.
BOW’T TRAIL Retrospek
Rhodnie Désir, RD Créations
Cultch Theatre, Vancouver
23–26 March 2022