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Compagnie Marie Chouinard's provocative performance pieces push boundaries and expectations. 

Creative Forces

or the past 20 years, the work of Canadian choreographer and body artist Marie Chouinard has revolved around one central theme: creation. The very process of birthing, which Chouinard considers to be sacred, has led her to the discovery of primal states of being which she conveys through provocative, animallike movements, strikingly bizarre costumes, unusual sounds and distinctive lighting. In "Les Solos," members of Compagnie Marie Chouinard perform a retrospective of two decades worth of solos during a rare U.S. appearance on Saturday, Feb. 12, as part of the Virginia Museum's Fast/Forward performance series.

Chouinard's explorations always begin with the body, through movement, breath and "listening to the mind of every cell," she says. From here, the body takes her on journeys into an intense awareness of the moment and often leads her to consider loaded concepts such as death and sexuality, or common acts like washing one's hair. In her attempt to find the soul in her flesh, Chouinard ends up with experiences that blur boundaries between the sacred and the profane. For instance, in "Petite danse sans nom," created as a haiku with three simple movements, the performer urinates into a pail.

"It's a celebration of one of the functions of the body," Chouinard says.

As long as it is connected to what she refers to as the "background, the unnamable, the invisible, what is beyond first appearances," any activity can be sacred, Chouinard explains. "Whether you [are] in teaching or creating as an artist or healing or whatever, as soon as you establish your action in reference to that background, that is sacred."

Each of her solos presents a body in its carnal rawness, be it the rutting faun in "L'Apres-midi d'un faune," or the insectlike creature attracted to the light in "Etude poignant." Whether they are wearing body paint, nipple rings or elaborate headdresses, and whether their dancing is electric or erotic, the performers step into a realm where usual definitions no longer function. "The body is the material," Chouinard says. "It's like a painting. When I put things over it, it's not to cover it at all. It's to create a new body."

A consummate explorer, Chouinard ventures into psycho-spiritual landscapes to make the intangible tangible, to manifest what was previously invisible. "I'm interested in finding myself in an unknown position in front of an unknown subject," she says. "...Then the adventure is to try to discover something."

Chouinard continually returns to the studio to create new works. "All your systems, your energies, what is constituent with you as a human being — your emotions, your soul, your spirit, your intelligence, your organs, your everything — is put to a high intensity of presence," she says of the creative process. And for this very reason, she doesn't miss performing, which she stopped doing in 1990 when she created her first group work and began to spend all her time training fellow dancers.

Chouinard also doesn't miss pre-performance anxiety or the demanding job of recreating for the stage "all those special energies that you've been working on." The creative process itself, both liberating and exhilarating, taps into "the soul of the flesh ... through very deep listening to the moment," she says. The results of her creative labors — her exquisitely costumed characters and evocative images — ask us similarly to watch and listen to our own reactions.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard will talk about its work and show videotaped excerpts of its performances during a free "Meet the Artist" program in the museum's Reynolds Lecture Hall at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb.
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