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Separation anxiety

Dance: New choreography tests the limits of Louis Laberge-Côté and Michael Caldwell’s five-year marriage

“I’ve heard a lot of dancers say, ‘I will never date a dancer,’” says Louis Laberge-Côté. “I think what’s hardest is creating work together. Couples who try to create together and then go home together… I just can’t imagine the amount of energy it
would take.”

Laberge-Côté is about to find out as he and his husband Michael Caldwell head into the studio for an intensive 10-day creative process to choreograph a new work for the Dance: Made in Canada festival. Called Et Même Après, the 20-minute duet is inspired by the times Laberge-Côté and Caldwell have spent apart, mainly over the two-year period when Laberge-Côté was performing in Germany with Kevin O’Day Ballett Nationaltheater Mannheim. The dance examines what Laberge-Côté calls “the paradox between closeness and separation.”

Though they knew each other peripherally while Caldwell was attending the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and Laberge-Côté was a member of the company, the two first hooked up in 2005 while on a six-week tour with Dusk Dances. They were assigned a room together for the last half of the tour. “The first day together we probably stayed up and chatted until 3am,” says Caldwell. “And the next day we stayed up ’til four, then the next day ’til five…. We just stayed up and talked. And that’s pretty much how those three weeks were spent. We talked about everything.

“But you know how it is on tour, it’s a bubble. So we wanted to see if the spark persisted after. And it did. We went on a few dates and then pretty much decided that, ya, we’re together.”

A year later they got married in the backyard of Laberge-Côté’s friend, Nova Bhattacharya, with her father officiating. “It was a Hindu wedding—not because we’re Hindu, but because we wanted someone we knew to marry us,” says Caldwell. “Since Nova’s dad happened to be a Hindu priest we had a Hindu service.… And it’s a beautiful ceremony that actually incorporates a lot of movement.”

“And it’s very open,” says Laberge-Côté. “You can decide what elements you are comfortable with.”

Laberge-Côté and Caldwell are in-demand dancers and choreographers; their credits include a who’s who of choreographers and companies. Caldwell’s recent works include Ash Unravel, a solo based on a journey to his late mother’s homeland of Vietnam, and Flipping Nocturne, a solo for his husband. Laberge-Côté’s work has garnered three Dora nominations including one this year for Akshongay, a duet with Bhattacharya.

Dance: Made in Canada founder Yvonne Ng calls the choreography of Laberge-Côté “dark and mysterious,” able to express inner journeys and “ancient stories.” She calls his performances “exquisite.” As for Caldwell: “Michael is a relatively young choreographer,” says Ng. “He has a lot to offer. You sense sparks and more to come.” As a performer Ng heralds Caldwell’s dynamism and wit. “He has great timing, especially in humorous moments, which is rare.”

In 2011, Ng expanded the biennial Dance: Made in Canada series into its current festival format. It’s slowly growing to fill the void left by the demise of the Toronto International Dance Festival, formerly the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists. This year’s iteration, with guest curators Serge Bennathan and Cylla von Tiedemann, features 15 artists from across the country. Laberge-Côté’s piece is in the von Tiedemann program along with Blue Ceiling Dance from Toronto and Mocean Dance from Halifax.

Laberge-Côté first started choreographing Et Même Après after he moved to Mannheim. There he created an original short duet set on two dancers from the Nationaltheater. The woman had recently broken off an unhealthy long-term relationship and the man was going through a divorce. “Their pain was intense and very present,” says Laberge-Côté. “The original six minutes was very dramatic and lyrical because that’s what came out of them. It was quite powerful and had a huge effect on the audience. We only had six hours of rehearsal. It was crazy. But they were in the right place. Just standing there or walking, you could see… loss.

“Because there was certainly magic there, I came back to Toronto wanting to explore that world in connection with my original inspiration, which was my relationship with Michael.”

The expanded work will examine how the actual moment of saying goodbye is the crystallization of a relationship, how past joy and future pain can overwhelm the present, how a couple both connects and misfires in a moment treacherous with emotion.

“There’s a pattern in our relationship,” says Laberge-Côté, “and it’s a pattern for me in general, that when I’m not comfortable in a situation my natural tendency is to remove myself from it. If I have to say goodbye, at the last moment I will actually be gone. I’m already on my way.”

“That’s not the case for me,” says Caldwell “Only after the leaving actually happens, I go into business mode, perhaps in order to not feel as much as a I want to…. I need to get home, I need to gather all my things, then I can cry.”

Using lots of retrograde motion, with action moving forward and back in fits and starts, the piece will reflect that staggered emotional punch of goodbyes, their funny, broken sense of time.

“Even though we have such a deep relationship,” says Caldwell, “it’s sometimes hard to navigate these moments. It’s not just me saying goodbye, it’s me saying to Louis, ‘It’s okay, I’m leaving.’ I’m putting on this façade….

There’s so many layers to it, that’s why I think his idea is great.”

Composer Philip Strong has yet to start work on the project, but one musical touchstone will be the Jacques Brel song “Orly” about two lovers saying goodbye at the airport. “While I was in Germany I fell in love with that song without actually making the connection,” says Laberge-Côté. “Suddenly I realized I fell in love with it because….”
“All we’d done was say goodbye in airports,” interjects Caldwell.

During the interview in their Carlton and Church Street apartment, Laberge-Côté and Caldwell exhibit that telltale couple thing of finishing each other’s sentences. But it’s not as if they’ve heard each other’s stories ad nauseam and know what each other is going to say. Rather, they listen to each other; they are attentive. It must get intense in the studio. Both Laberge-Côté and Caldwell say they are very wary of the pitfalls of working so closely together. They don’t do it often.

Caldwell, 32, has created one solo on Laberge-Côté plus there’s a group piece coming this fall. Laberge-Côté, 37, has created three pieces on Caldwell: two duets, including this one, and a group piece. And while they’ve worked together many times in various companies and performances, they’ve rarely been paired together.

How is it working together now? “It seems… fine, ” says Caldwell; they both burst into laughter over his pregnant pause and hesitant tone.

In the studio they’ve seen how dance couples aren’t always as patient with each other as they could be; partners cut to the chase. “It can be treacherous for sure,” says Caldwell. “I’m much less successful at it. I’m a very opinionated person. Especially in rehearsals, I say what I’m feeling.

“Going into this process, I decided to fiercely abide by the fact that I was not the choreographer, that I was the dancer,” says Caldwell. “So I shut my mouth. And I do,” he says, looking at Laberge-Côté, “I don’t decide things for you. I just say I prefer something!” More peals of laughter.

You sense these two can handle the tricky terrain.

“I love to choreograph,” says Laberge-Côté. “I love reading people through movement. Usually dancers are smart people so it’s easy for them to present themselves in a particular way. Then they start moving. It’s kind of a cheesy thing to say, but it’s what Martha Graham always said: movement never lies.

“When we move, we express so much beyond what we’re aware of. I find the true nature of people comes out when they perform. You see who has suffered a lot, you see who’s been terrified and how…. There’s a connection there that happens and there’s no way to explain that with words; sometimes it’s better not to try.
“So I’ve been enjoying choreographing with Michael. That’s been my favourite part of the process. I love being able to read him.”

ET MÊME APRÈS. $25. 7pm. Thu, Aug 15. 9pm. Aug 16 & 17. Betty Oliphant Theatre. 404 Jarvis St. princessproductions.ca. For more info on Dance: Made in Canada see page 18.