On a cool September evening in Montreal, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Benoit Landry (co-founder of Nord Nord Est) about their new creation, Une Chambre de Verre(A Glass Room)scheduled to premiere at La TOHU, November 14, 2017, 8 pm. It will be Nord Nord Est’s first creation since Voyage d’hiver,the collaboration between Anna Ward and Benoit Landry that was the impetus for the formation of the company in 2013. This new creation features two incredibly talented people, Valerie Doucet and Julius Bitterling. Together, under the direction of Benoit Landry and artistic direction of Anna Ward, they bring to life a fresh multidisciplinary work centered on a circus body. Heavily inspired by the artistic work of Jerome Bosch, Bill Viola, Walton Ford, and David Lynch, Nord Nord Est has constructed a collage of cinematic dreamlike tableaus that blurs the perception of real and unreal and seeks to challenge its audience’s existential condition and dilemmas.
Nord Nord Est is a Montreal based company founded in 2013 by Anna Ward and Benoit Landry whose work reflects its dedication to multidisciplinary approach in its creations. The company website describes their mission and aesthetic as “a dramaturgy of multiple voices; bodies, words, images and sound, each medium proposing a pathway with its own sensory persuasion in which to connect with the public. [The company] believes that the senses hold a privileged access to the intimacy and emotional landscape of an individual, that it is through the sensory that a work can transcend understanding, leaving a haunting imprint on the beholder on an unconscious level. In a world that is obsessed with control, this is a statement in itself.” Landry explains that they continue in this style with this most recent work.
Here are a few of the questions we touched on:
What was the impetus of the formation of Nord Nord Est?
Voyage d’hiver…..it was the first time I would use circus afterRain(Cirque Eloize). Without a grant, it was self-produced with friends. We didn’t want to create a non-circus creation withVoyage d’hiver. We wanted to do something on the border of circus, theatre, and visual art. The music was also very important. We had experimentation with electro sounds. The goal was not for programmation or to sell it, but to make it bigger than any discipline.
How would you describe the aesthetic of Nord Nord Est?
Nord Nord Est is still new. I’m so into it right now.Voyage d’hiveris contemplative. This one (Une Chambre de Verre) is about the action. It goes far into circus technique, contortion, hand balancing, and acrobatics. It’s a real physical performance.
InUne Chambre de Verre,it is a more surreal aesthetic thanVoyage d’hiver. The tableaus move more like David Lynch dream sequences. A gets to B, B gets to C, C gets to D, but you don’t know how A got to D, like in a dream; it makes sense in a dream. I have a fascination or inspiration in the way dreams work. I don’t like the milieu, putting things in categories. I like when it’s open– not even multidisciplinary, but just being open. I am not in dialogue with just circus or theatre, I try to think a lot about the audience, but not much about the discipline. What I can bring, sincerity and doing the show I want to do with integrity. We didn’t make choices for the economic production; it’s not made for commercial touring. Of course we want to tour the show, but we didn’t compromise. We stayed true to the message and the vision of the show.
What is the mission of Nord Nord Est?
People are so often taken for fools, people are used as numbers, seen as commercial value, as a statistic or as non-humans. The mission of Nord Nord Est is to talk about something intimate and very personal. We are into something existential. We are trying to work on the intimate, the experience of life, the human condition.
Tell me about your process?
I am discovering about multidisciplinary arts that you rely on the performers you work with, and in circus. You cannot ask a dancer and actor to do circus. At the same time, there are limitations of asking a circus artist to act and dance. I want to develop a language for the company, for the performers and allow them to do what they do best. I want to develop a way of telling a story using the bodies to create images and moods; it’s really about moods. I want the audience to refer to its own emotion. A sensory experience easily touches the memory; it’s a stimulation. This was directorial choice for bothVoyage andChambre. The spectator is the main character for both journeys, both shows.
What are the questions or inspiration that motivated the creation of Glass Chamber?
In the beginning, we worked on developing a language that will in the end be a piece, but unsure of the message. The idea of brutal animality and vital energy was there and there was something desperate about it. Also, something about solitude– but existential solitude…you’re born alone and you die alone. You do the best you can all your life and make it through. It’s about the journey of life. It sounds big, but that is what it is about.
Soon after came the idea of the double, of different manifestations of self….you and your reflection in the mirror, the idea of yourself, your worst enemy, your worst critic, self-brutality. The set changed a lot for many aesthetic reasons as well as circus reasons. She is good on the ground. Initially it was a pipe structure, but she is a ground acrobat-contortionist, hand balancer, so she needed a floor. We worked both with the real floor and the structure as a floor. It is a pipe structure with a plexi glass floor that is both an aerial structure as well a mirror. That surface reflection became a character. It was the border of what we do and don’t know, what we do and do not see. The show is called the glass chamber; it’s like the idea of transparent walls that limit ourselves, that we have built ourselves. The idea that the only limits are the ones we create by ourselves around ourselves.
From the beginning, it was always about working with Valerie. She wanted to work with me, but she didn’t want to be a co-creator. She said, “I want to work with you. You will be the director and I will be the performer. And I would be super happy to do it.”
She is a strong and magnetic performer. She has a lot of energy and that was the attraction to work with her. There was also the structure and this idea of a structure evolved.
I wanted to work with her very specific energy and the idea of an uninterrupted piece with her always on stage going to the end of something. I also had the idea of the structure which evolved over the process.
In the first steps of creations, I arrive with themes for improv and then the questions came.
The big and epic paintings of Jerome Bosch, Bill Viola photographs, and the paintings and drawings of Walton Ford heavily influenced the tableaus. I also came with some images in my head and themes for improv. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to say, but working with the idea of being imprisoned, trapped, choking, or suffocation. I also had a fascination with reflection in the mirror. This idea is very present in the show when on the lake and you see your own reflection and the world stops there. When you get closer and it’s transparent, it’s not the end, it’s the beginning of something else. Or when over the clouds and they become the floor become the ceiling. The idea is of layers.
I worked with Valerie for one and half years and brought Julius into the project last November (2016) after about six months with Valerie. Working on that structure, the idea of the second performer came naturally.
He really plays her, he’s the double…he’s the enemy, friend, he’s everything. He is also doing the show with her. He is a porter. There was the idea of doing porting. The male choice was intentional. It was going to be her other half, I liked the idea of it being a male, but that he also has long hair and has blond hair like Valerie. It is a choice, but also a chance. They complete each other.
Is there a plan for the show after the premier at La TOHU or to tour the show internationally?
There are many hopes, but no plans yet. We would love to. There is something very practical about touring this show with only two performers and two technicians unlikeVoyage D’hiverwith 9 people. Also, with this show, we talked about the form, the subjects, the themes, but there is something about what they do physically that doesn’t need words (accessible to all cultures). You see them; we are with them. Since there is no story, we work with all the dramaturgical elements.We use their effort to create empathy. The beginning of the show is not hard core, but very intense. After the first 7 minutes, we are with her. She can do anything.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
“I Feel Love” at the beginning of the show. It was a tableau inspired by the Donna Summer song “I feel love”. Unfortunately, the song is not in the show. It’s a moment when she is out of control and just when you think it might end she just keeps going.
What do you want the audience to leave with?
I would like them to dream about it. Like when we see movies, or shows that have images that we dream about. It will be different for everybody. It’s about getting into the people, infecting them.
Benoit closed the interview with his gratitude toward the partners that madeUne Chambre de Verrepossible. La TOHU played a major role as the co-producer (providing major financial backing). Additionally, Cirque Eloize and La TOHU were partners to Nord Nord Est for creative residencies. Benoit stated, “They were big actors in the production. They believed in us from the beginning.”