A woman’s arms flap furiously, like Odette on steroids, caught in a piercing shaft of light. Drained of emotion or poignancy, her pointe shoes probe the floor with primal force. While familiar melodies from Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty morph and merge in disturbing dissonance, a man spins another woman in a blur of movement, only to stop her in her tracks and whirl her in reverse.
Welcome to Amjad and the enthralling, iconoclastic, controversial world of Canadian choreographer Édouard Lock and his globe-trotting company, La La La Human Steps. Once hailed for its daredevil, kamikaze contemporary movement—those notorious, gravity-defying “barrel rolls”—nowadays it’s a troupe of choice for ballet-trained dancers from around the world.
Lock, 55, born in Morocco and raised in Montréal (where La La La is based), was drawn to dance while studying film and theater in college. By the late1970s, he was a rising star in Montréal’s experimental, cross-disciplinary “nouvelle danse” scene. His combination of post-modern smarts, cool androgyny and punk grittiness made him wildly popular. Though a dance modernist, Lock says he never regarded ballet as an opposing camp. When he founded his company in 1980, several of its members were ballet-trained. Today they all are.
“I’ve always been attracted to ballet’s precision and line, even if only to break it up a bit,” says Lock. If he finds a weakness in ballet technique, it is its tendency to emphasize extremities over the core. “I see ballet dancers with wonderful ability in their extremities who can’t tie it into their center. That’s something to be gained from having an element of contemporary training.”
Company class is ballet, supplemented as necessary through strength-building exercises with a resident trainer/physiotherapist. Contemporary dance teachers are occasionally invited to work with the company when they’re on tour, but ballet remains the daily discipline.
Lock began integrating pointework into pieces for his own dancers—without regard to gender—after working nearly a decade on commissions from more traditional companies, like Dutch National Ballet, where he set his first ballet in 1987. “There’s nothing inherently gender-specific about the use of pointework,” Lock insists. “What’s happened, because of tradition, is that pointe training is assigned to women. But if a man can handle it well, why not? It’s a masculine approach to an interesting dance tool. It’s not intended as anything that could even be remotely shocking.”
La La La is not a repertory company. Lock works from project to project on a roughly three-year cycle in which a period of creation is followed by extensive international touring, mostly in Europe. This means his dancers tend to stick around through several cycles. When a vacancy emerges, what does it take to be a member of La La La? The company is never larger than 10 dancers—depending on the work, more or less even in gender balance—with an age range from early 20s to late 40s and an enviable 50 weeks of paid work a year.
“I look for a neutral, unembellished technique,” says Lock. “I look for an intellectually curious mind and also for a sense of responsibility. It is a company, for lack of a better word, of soloists. When they step on stage, it’s their stage. So they must have a sense of ownership. There’s no corps de ballet, no backup dancers.”
Lock is already formulating his next work, scheduled to premiere a year from now. Creatively, he has constantly evolved. Whether ballet remains as dominant in that process he is unwilling to predict. After all, in a long career he has remained a master of surprise.
Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s The National Post.