At the helm of the dance company Cas Public for more than 30 years, Hélène Blackburn is a leading figure in contemporary dance and a prominent artistic ambassador with audiences of all ages. Close to half of her 20 works are geared towards young audiences, putting her at the forefront of youth-centered creation. Her shows are seasoned world travellers that have been welcomed at many prestigious venues, including the Opéra national de Paris, the Royal Opera House in London, and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, to name just a few.
The importance of Hélène Blackburn’s contribution to the development of original dance in Quebec and its growing prominence on the international stage has been noted several times over the last few years. For example, the 2019 Prix Hommage, awarded by the Association des diffuseurs de spectacles (RIDEAU) in recognition of the choreographer’s extraordinary career, and the 2019 Prix Reconnaissance UQAM. The Prix de la danse de Montréal 2018 – diffusion internationale, handed out by CINARS, and worth $5,000, rewarded the impressive 2018 tour undertaken by her work 9, which spanned three countries and 18 different European cities; and in 2017, the Conseil des arts de Montréal, faced with a roster of impressive candidates drawn from across the arts scene, singled out Cas Public for distinction and awarded the company its Grand Prix, with a cash value of $30,000, in recognition of 15 years of daring dance works geared towards young audiences.
For Hélène Blackburn, to have reached the pinnacle of her artistic discipline despite having followed the underappreciated path of appealing to younger audiences is still a source of astonishment, and she will admit that she takes nothing for granted and that what she has achieved is in no way due to her own efforts alone. Specifically, her achievements in the field of artistic creation, which for her is a synonym for daring collective adventures, for constant technical and aesthetic challenges, for the quest for meaning and an abundance of humanity. With this in mind, she will be the first to recognize her faithful collaborators and their contributions to her vision over the years, as well as her performers who, associated on a permanent basis with the company, are an integral part of the creative process and are the trusty standard-bearers of an artistic approach beloved for its energy, inventiveness, generosity, and choreographic rigour.
Today, if Hélène Blackburn feels that she owes something to the next generation of choreographers, it’s because she believes in the power of transmission, having herself been the recipient of so much.
Like many of her contemporaries, Hélène Blackburn carries on the legacy of that pioneering first generation of Quebecois choreographers who hailed from the dance troupe/school Nouvelle Aire or from the Groupe de La Place Royale. In fact, many of them were teaching at the Université du Québec à Montréal while she was studying contemporary dance there between 1981 and 1984. She had started ballet as a child at École Florence Fourcaudot de Chicoutimi and had then studied theatre and ethnology at Université Laval. She counts herself privileged to have been able to benefit from this great era of dance activity, spurred on by the likes of Édouard Lock, Paul-André Fortier, Ginette Laurin, Marie Chouinard, Daniel Léveillé, Daniel Soulières, Jean-Pierre Perreault, and with support from organizations like the Festival international de nouvelle danse (FIND) and the Regroupement québécois de la danse (RQD, formerly RPDQ), which have contributed to the development of Quebec contemporary dance and its recognition on the international stage.
Many individuals have had a profound influence on Hélène Blackburn, and among those whom she recalls most fondly is Iro Tembeck, a professor and historian in the department of dance at UQAM, now deceased. Iro introduced her to modern dance and guided her towards the department of dance at UQAM, during the period when she was a regular at the dance studios of Linda Rabin, another one of the era’s prominent figures. These studios would eventually become the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal (LADDMI). Then, there is the deeply missed choreographer and dance troupe leader Jean-Pierre Perreault, who was her professor at UQAM. She danced for him for four years between 1983 and 1989, after completing her bachelor’s degree in dance performance and creation. She drew many enduring and valuable lessons from her years as a dancer and rehearsal leader at the Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, in matters technical, aesthetic, and ethical. What she learned there encouraged her to found, in 1989, a dance company designed around the idea of creators coming together over a shared artistic project. The choice of Cas Public as the group’s name was a symbol of the noble ambition--itself a gamble--of making dance an art form characterized by commitment and inclusion. Whether it worked would become clear as time went on.
In 1994, with eight works under her belt, four of which with Cas Public (Les porteurs d’eau, Dans la salle des pas perdus, Les régions du Nord, Bestiaire), Hélène Blackburn felt she needed to recharge her batteries. Under the supervision of Paul-André Fortier and Michèle Febvre, professors in the department of dance at UQAM and very active as a choreographer and a performer respectively, she pursued a master's degree in which she took on one of her chief obsessions: the physical self-overcoming experienced by the dancer in works such as The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. It was against this backdrop that Suites furieuses emerged in 1995, a pivotal work in the evolution of her choreography and in the company’s expansion. Suites furieuses was performed throughout Europe and Quebec between 1996 and 1999, greatly strengthening the position of Hélène Blackburn and her company both in the dance promotion scene and in the performing arts world in general.
We should remember that, in 1991, Hélène Blackburn was already distinguishing herself as a next-generation artist, with shows like Cathédrale or Les porteurs d’eau. She received the Jacqueline Lemieux Prize from the Canada Arts Council in 1990. Around 10 years later, the Laban Centre in London awarded her the Bonnie Bird prize for the quality of her work as a North American choreographer. In the space of 15 years, Hélène Blackburn had carved out a leading position for herself among her coevals at the heart of her profession, and her company enjoyed an enviable reputation on the international stage. The future was full of promise.
A constant experience of transmission
In addition to her work as a performer, rehearsal leader, choreographer, and company director, in 1987 Hélène Blackburn began working as a teacher to pass on what she had learned. She gave classes in composition and repertoire, led dance workshops, and organized internships in improvisation and creation at UQAM, Concordia University, the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal, and at Ballet Divertimento. Then, starting in the 1990s, the Écoles d’enseignement supérieur en danse began commissioning works from her, which at present number more than 20. And that’s without including the 10 commissions – another mode of transmission – produced for dance companies in Quebec, Canada, the United Kingdom, and, starting in the 2000s, Norway and France. Les Beaux Dormants for the Ballet de l’Opéra National du Rhin is her most recent commission (2018), and is the first work aimed at young audiences to enter the repertoire of that institution.
The 2000s: discovering young audiences
Encouraged by a group of presenters from La danse sur les routes du Québec (DSR), which was handling the promotion of her works for adults, Hélène Blackburn attempted her first experiment with young audiences. The process kicked off in 2001 with Nous n’irons plus au bois, an intense interpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood” by Charles Perreault and inspired by her discovery of Bruno Bettelheim’s work, The Uses of Enchantment (Thames and Hudson, 1976). The show was performed over 300 times in Quebec and abroad and was awarded the prize for Meilleure création jeunesse from the Réseau des diffuseurs professionnels du spectacle (RIDEAU).
During the run of Nous n’irons plus au bois, Hélène Blackburn was also at work on a show for adults. Courage mon amour, performed at the Agora de la danse in 2002, heralded a return to the basics of classical technique, featuring uplifted bodies in heeled shoes, extended vertically and revealing themselves in a new range of expression, through a refined gestural vocabulary of straight lines and curves.
Then, in 2004, Hélène Blackburn scored another coup with young audiences with a slightly subversive version of the tale Barbe Bleue. This show received rave reviews wherever it was performed and ran for three wonderful years. Without turning away from her engagement with general audiences, notably with Suites cruelles (2008), a co-production with the dance presenter Danse Danse, Hélène Blackburn has pursued her focus on works for young people. Since Barbe Bleue, each of her works has met with national and international success. In chronological order: Journal intime (2006), Le cabaret dansé des vilains petits canards (2008), Variations S (2010), GOLD (2011), Symphonie dramatique (2014), Suites curieuses (2015), 9 (2016), Not Quite Midnight (2018), Suites ténébreuses (2019) and Love Me Tender (2020).
Cornerstones of her artistic approach
If her turn towards dance for young people was a matter of chance, it turned out to be liberating in many ways. According to the choreographer, Hélène Blackburn, in youth dance she discovered a research and creation territory where everything, or almost everything, had to be built from the ground up; moreover, she had no inkling that it would be a space where she could give free rein to her artistic obsessions.
Her first obsession can be described as follows: testing the dancing body’s limitations and increasing its expressive capacities by spurring it on to surpass itself. Doing this involves anchoring the mechanics of danced movement on a single point: technique. Everything is based on a style of movement that she has learned to seek, generate, sculpt, and activate in the bodies of her dancers, combining classical and contemporary techniques to bring the artists together in a combustive reaction.
Her second obsession concerns her conception of art: a gesture of social engagement and an act of communication. As she explains, art opens the door to a privileged point of view of the world, a point of view that is certainly subjective, but that is also the product of reflection, since you must pay heed to the audiences with whom you have chosen to share your questions, doubts, and hopes. Observing human behaviour, dealing with the great riddles of human existence by way of rites of passage, subjecting humanity (both its evolution and its relationship to the present) to a loving and pointed examination: this is what interests Hélène Blackburn. Her sources of inspiration are the great works of the Western repertoire, oral and popular traditions, tales, legends, and myths. Here, the choreographer draws on her university training in ethnology and theatre and marries it to those fields of interest that nourished her imagination during her childhood and adolescence: dance, classical music, lyric opera, literature, mythology, and the natural sciences.
As she’ll be the first to recognize, her lengthy immersion in the universe of young audiences has made her rethink everything she thought she knew. Having to worry about making her art speak to this audience at all stages of the creative process (a concern that is not as salient when dealing with the general public) has made her realize that it is not the age of her audience that matters, but how she relates to her art. With each creation, she has honed and fine-tuned her work methods, an experience that has propelled her into areas that she has been seeking intuitively since her first steps as a choreographer: creating accessible and inclusive dance works, in the sense that they can speak to all audiences, given the universal character of language and dance.
All in all, contrary to received wisdom, creating works for young people doesn’t come with many restrictions. The sole requirement is that you try to measure up to their standards. For, in a curious rebound effect, her experience of young audiences has led her to re-examine her identity as a woman, mother, committed artist, dance company director, and citizen of the world. Hélène Blackburn’s goal isn’t to please or to entertain, but to bring about an authentic coming-together with a living, vibrant, and extremely intelligent audience. “Children often have an intimate knowledge of dance; they aren’t afraid to experience the multiple bifurcations of a fragmented narrative, or even the radical nature of a more abstract work.” Though her works are quite complex from a formal and thematic point of view, she never loses sight of the primary factor in the reception of a dance work: the sensitive and kinesthetic perception of moving bodies, which are vectors of sensations, perception, and intelligibility for all age groups.