By Scott Durno We often talk about the transformation of cities in broad strokes – of condos and branded coffee shops forming a palimpsest of decay and renewal – but for most of us, it is the small changes that really disrupt. A set of windows that appear for no apparent reason, and a small but significant shift in our reaction to the familiar – that’s what makes living in some places so compelling.
I used to live in the building beside the Rialto Theatre in Montréal’s Mile End. My apartment shared a back alleyway with the building, and I was a regular observer of both the mundane day-to-day and the memorable moments of that business: deliveries, garbage collection, employees taking their breaks, all mingling with the pedestrians who used the alleyway as a shortcut. It made for a unique vantage point. I was, for the most part, a passive bystander to this microcosm, gleaning, imagining, and watching.
As with most performance spaces, the Rialto’s bowels were beyond any line of sight, until they installed windows on the lower floors. Changing rooms, rehearsal areas, spaces typically closed off by design, and the bodies that inhabit them, became public – or as public as any alleyway can be. To a casual passer-by, this change might warrant a glance and mild interest. To a select male audience, it might mean something else altogether.
I regularly witnessed the windows of the Rialto become the catalyst for a distinct ambulatory short circuit. The most interesting of these encounters were the ones that involved all-male dance troupes, with their lithe bodies and command of space. There is a certain knowingness about practiced, deliberate movement that catches one off guard, that forces one into (or out of) a moment. I’m safe in my admirations because they feel fleeting; they compensate and complement the other windows in my life, real or imagined. I would flit by, trying not give it a second thought.
The neighborhood around the Rialto sustains a significant Hasidic Jewish population where, needless to say, an exposed body (much less an unknowing male one) is not part of public discourse. Some Hasidic men, despite themselves, focused on their path, secure in the privacy and ease that the semi-private alleyway allows, seem incapable of crossing the threshold imposed by this new visual opportunity. While most might throw a quick glance, they instead loop, and gawk, and pause, and get closer, engaging in imaginary conversations on their cellphones to suppress their most voyeuristic impulses – so near a blatant eroticism that isn’t theirs to shake or repress, perhaps a joy that they can’t cope with. I felt privy to a kind of awakening, watching a worldview unravel. As much as I would stare, it seemed impossible for me to relate, to square my experience with theirs. A kaleidoscope of vantage points, of viewers viewing, men being looked at while looking at other men, felt so foreign, even though it’s so commonplace in the way I experience my life.
I live in a new apartment now, high on the third floor, with a balcony and a better view of