Syl­vain Émard’s large-scale out­door dance work takes over Nathan Phillips Square for free Luminato shows


LE GRAND CON­TI­NEN­TAL chore­og­ra­phy by Syl­vain Émard. Pre­sented by Syl­vain Émard Danse and Luminato at Nathan Phillips Square (100 Queen West). June 22 at 9:15 pm, June 23 at 4 and 9:15 pm, June 24 at 11 am. Free. lu­mi­natofes­ti­

Chore­og­ra­pher Syl­vain Émard’s largescale out­door dance work Le Grand Con­ti­nen­tal has been charm­ing au­di­ences around the world since its in­cep­tion as a Mon­treal one-off in 2009.

In­spired by a life-long fas­ci­na­tion with line dancing, Émard’s work has blos­somed into a feel-good tour­ing project that re­cruits hun­dreds of lo­cal par­tic­i­pants to learn a 30-minute chore­og­ra­phy and per­form it to­gether in pub­lic.

It’s been mounted in Mex­ico City, Pots­dam, Bos­ton and Santiago, to name just a few lo­ca­tions. In Toronto, 220 brave souls (most of whom have no dance train­ing) made the cut to per­form it in Nathan Phillips Square for Luminato.

“We al­ways au­di­tion way more peo­ple than we need,” Émard ex­plains. “When re­hearsals start and peo­ple re­al­ize that there are three more months to go, and they can’t miss a re­hearsal, and it’s much more work than they thought, some drop out.”

Those who go the dis­tance em­bark on a jour­ney of per­se­ver­ance and self­dis­cov­ery. In Toronto, re­hearsal direc­tor Bon­nie Kim and 13 other lo­cal dancers teach par­tic­i­pants chore­og­ra­phy that can be chal­leng­ing, to be per­formed in all weather, sur­rounded by an au­di­ence on all sides.

“This process with a large group has to be very ef­fi­cient,” ex­plains Émard.

“I have to be very well pre­pared and there’s not a lot of place for im­pro­vi­sa­tion.”

Wher­ever pos­si­ble, Émard cre­ates unique chore­o­graphic con­tent for each lo­ca­tion. In Toronto, he is us­ing a com­mis­sioned score by Wolf Saga for a fi­nale sec­tion that honours the city’s en­ergy and im­pres­sive sky­line.

Ef­fi­cien­cies aside, Émard says he is not try­ing to get Grand Con­ti­nen­tal par­tic­i­pants to dance the same way, and ac­knowl­edges that the di­ver­sity of the Toronto group in age, body type and phys­i­cal­ity ren­ders that goal im­pos­si­ble in any case. He sees it as one of the work’s strengths.

“It’s very mov­ing to watch peo­ple dancing the same thing while ex­press­ing who they re­ally are. They’re not hid­ing, they’re re­veal­ing. I can be very

spe­cific with my pro­fes­sional dancers, but with non-pro­fes­sion­als the lack of pre­ci­sion is the beauty of it. I’m not say­ing they don’t work hard – they do, but they’re do­ing what they can.”

Some of the things Émard asks the per­form­ers to do – like shake all over and then fall to the ground – are rou­tine for pro­fes­sional dancers.

“But for some­one who’s never done it,” says Émard, “it’s chal­leng­ing. I see the peo­ple so happy leav­ing re­hearsal, ex­hausted but smil­ing.”

If the in­ter­na­tional mega-suc­cess of Le Grand Con­ti­nen­tal has taken Émard by sur­prise, he also didn’t an­tic­i­pate that get­ting non-dancers to per­form his chore­og­ra­phy would so deeply im­pact his own artis­tic prac­tice back in the stu­dio.

“It has re­con­nected me with some­thing es­sen­tial,” he says. “When you’re work­ing with big groups of peo­ple who are there sim­ply be­cause they love to dance, it’s very re­fresh­ing. It’s been so great to be re­minded of the sim­ple idea that we’re do­ing this be­cause we like to dance. Pe­riod.”

Le Grand Con­ti­nen­tal, an ex­er­cise in col­lec­tive and per­sonal en­deav­our, also has a po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion, how­ever un­in­tended.

“I think bring­ing peo­ple to­gether on a pub­lic square dancing to­gether and show­ing their joy of dancing and shar­ing their pas­sion can be po­lit­i­cal,” says Émard.

“I just got back from do­ing the work in Ger­many and ten­sions are quite high there, as they are glob­ally. To take back pub­lic space af­ter... well, here, too, af­ter what hap­pened a month ago on Yonge Street [and the van at­tack] is very sig­nif­i­cant. The work of­fers a cer­tain vi­sion of hu­man­ity.”

“I can be very spe­cific with pro­fes­sional dancers, but with non­pro­fes­sion­als the lack of pre­ci­sion is the beauty of it. ”

Syl­vain Émard’s big dance blowout got peo­ple mov­ing in Mon­treal last year.

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