Isabelle Van Grimde
As dancer, choreographer, founder and Artistic Director of her Montreal-based company, Van Grimde Corps Secrets, Isabelle Van Grimde has an international career marked by interdisciplinary collaborations, which expand the horizons of contemporary dance and perceptions of the body and of the potential of live performance. Her work is characterized by the quality of the dialogue between dance and music that she has developed over the years.
A cosmopolitan artist-researcher, she is regularly invited to speak of her fundamental and theoretical researches on the body at conferences and within international research groups. She has also published writings on this topic. In 2011, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded her the Jacqueline Lemieux Prize in recognition of her contribution to the enrichment of artistic life in Canada and abroad.
Here are a few elements of her rich biography, sorted by themes:
• A life between dance and music
• An eclectic training
• A career between two continents
• A firm anchoring in Quebec
• Field notes
A life between dance and music
A native of Belgium, where she grew up, Isabelle Van Grimde began studying ballet at the age of four and took part in her first piano competitions by the time she was eight. In the 1970s, she studied art history, trained intensively in dance and created her first choreographies - for music videos, amongst other things.
At 18, she was noticed by teachers from the Alvin Ailey Dance Center and received a scholarship to attend their school. Pursuing her training and artistic development between New York and Montreal, she met composer Thom Gossage (who would become her life partner), and encountered musical approaches that completely transformed her vision of music. The first stage works she created in Quebec attested to her desire to work in close collaboration with composers. Today, she is at the avant-garde of research linking dance and music.
An eclectic training
Over the years, guided by teachers from leading companies and schools such as the Royal Ballet of London, Ballets du 20e Siècle, MUDRA, The Alvin Ailey Dance Center, or LADMMI, Isabelle Van Grimde has added jazz, modern and contemporary styles to her knowledge of classical ballet, as well as the Horton, Graham, Limon, Cunningham and Bartenieff techniques. In the 2000s, delving deeper into her understanding of the body, she became interested in Pilates and biomechanics and initiated a major research project entitled The body in question.
A career between two continents
While the 1970s were marked by round-trips between Brussels and Paris, the next decade unfolded between North America and Europe, where Isabelle Van Grimde honed her trade as a professional dancer. Although she eventually chose Montreal as home base, establishing her company there in 1992, she has benefited since 1996 from creation residencies in Europe, where she teaches regularly. In 2009, Van Grimde Corps Secrets became the first Canadian company to be associated for a full year with Arsenal of Metz, an extraordinary patrimonial and cultural institution known for the high quality of its programming and the acoustics of its halls.
A firm anchoring in Quebec
Isabelle Van Grimde’s anchoring in Canada was consolidated by her participation, in 1989, in founding Studio 303, a centre for training, research and dissemination that contributes to the evolution of contemporary dance in Quebec. There, she taught contemporary technique and was co-director until 1991. She is regularly invited to conduct trainings, workshops and master classes, and has taught at several major Quebec institutions such as l’École Supérieure de Ballet du Québec, LADMMI - School of Contemporary Dance, and Concordia University, where she gave classes in creative process and choreography for 10 years.
A highly involved member of her community, she has served on various juries and Boards of Directors, and taken part in several focus groups. She has served on the Regroupement québécois de la danse Board of Directors from 2008 to 2011 and played an active part in the elaboration of the Master Plan for professional dance in Quebec 2010-2011.
Concurrently with these various engagements, she has developed strong ties over the years with such partners as Danse-Cité, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, Agora de la danse, Centennial Theatre, Festival TransAmériques and McGill University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT)
Author of some thirty choreographic works, Isabelle Van Grimde created her first work in Montreal in 1987, initiating a cycle in which she explored more theatrical aspects of the dancing body. Secrets vestiges, Au sommet de tes côtes and Par la peau du cœur are representative of this period. In 1992, she founded the company Van Grimde Corps Secrets. Four years later, with À l’échelle humaine, her research became more focused on the power of physicality and on communication through the body. It was then that her first creation residencies in Europe would propel her onto the international stage.
In 1998, a commission in the Netherlands for the creation of May All Your Storms Be Weathered marked a major shift in Isabelle Van Grimde’s artistic trajectory: after which, she could no longer conceive of choreographic art without the presence of musicians on stage. In 2003, her physical approach became more visceral and sensitive with Saetta. Both animal-like and refined, her gestural language is now firmly rooted in the elementary drives and tensions of the body.
Isabelle Van Grimde initiated another major shift in 2005 with the Chemins de traverse series, choosing the principle of open creation to present her work. In these pieces, as in those of the Vortex series, the influence of the discoveries brought on by The Body in Question is felt in her choreographic vocabulary.
In 2007, with Perspectives Montréal, she extended the scope of her multidisciplinary collaborations by working with creators in the fields of architecture, the visual arts, theatre and music. This is an experience she has since decided to expand on, in a new work that is currently in gestation. As for the dialogue between dance and music, it continues to grow over time, most notably through a fruitful association with CIRMMT, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology and with the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. This collaboration has already led to the development of digital musical instruments that can be used by the dancers onstage, and to the creation of Duo pour un violoncelle et un danseur. It continues today in a project entitled Les gestes.
While the dialogue between dance and music is at the heart of Isabelle Van Grimde’s most recent work, interdisciplinarity has always been a central aspect of her creative process. She has successively worked with images, theatre, visual art, architecture and literature in staging many of the works that have marked the evolution of her career since the late 1980’s. Furthermore, she expands the field of possible perceptions of the body and of her creations by presenting them in accordance with the principle of open creation.
Here are the main themes forming the basis of her artistic approach:
• Primal body and future body
• Dialogue between dance and music
• Of bodies and sounds
• Open creation and thinking bodies
• Meaning, structure and form
• Interdisciplinarity as impetus
Primal body and future body
Exploration of the body, of its infinite physical possibilities and of the emotional fabric that it conveys, is the source of Isabelle Van Grimde’s choreographic language. In early creations she was interested in the theatrical dimension of the dancing body, as demonstrated in Secrets Vestiges, the first piece in the repertoire of the company, founded in 1992. This was followed by Au sommet de tes côtes, the multimedia work Par la peau du cœur, combining cinematography and choreography onstage, and À l’échelle humaine, in which the choreographer oriented her research towards the power of physicality and communication through the body.
Until the early years of 2000, her gestural vocabulary was primarily characterized by the precision and refinement of its lines, architecturally redefining the stage. In recent years, her approach has become more sensitive and visceral, drawing on the elementary impulses and tensions of a « primal » body. Subjected to an important exploration of the possibilities of spine, pelvis and connection to the ground, this body itself becomes an architecture resonating with its own intimate spaces and with the mystery of creation; a source of inquiry, exploration and rediscovery of internal territories.
What meaning can dance have, when quantum physics tells us that matter is nothing more than condensed light, and that flesh, organs, and bone are but the sum of energy vibrations? Influenced by the theoretical research she has conducted since 2004, Isabelle Van Grimde seeks to conceptualize and to inhabit this « future body » which the neurosciences are busy redefining and whose functions are already being modified by the advent of new technologies. Since the creation of Les Chemins de traverse III, IV and V, she has explored how these new representations of the body can influence how we move. While remaining anchored in the primal body, her research investigates vibratory body states, unconventional zones for impulse movement, and unique methods of sequencing movements and choreographic phrases.
Dialogue between dance and music
Beyond the dance/music relationships that are played out onstage, a dialogue between the two art forms is at the very root of Isabelle Van Grimde’s choreographic process, each receiving equal footing. Music and its evocative power are never used simply as a frame for the creation of movement and the dynamic curve of the danced work does not mimic that of the selected music. As a silent score, the choreographic structure stands on its own and is independantly significant. In this context, music and dance serve to reveal one another, as is reflected in the words of a music critic who once commented that Van Grimde’s choreography Vortex 1 had allowed him to experience new dimensions of Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum. For the audience, these conversations are an opportunity to open their fields of perception, instead of remaining comfortable in the linearity of a narrative framework.
In order to give impetus to this dialogue between dance and music, the choreographer plays upon tensions, points in common, variations, counterpoints, and silences. Transposing methods of musical composition to the process of choreography, she places movement in resonance with sound by working with rhythms, opposition, reduction, etc., looking for ways of responding physically to musical crescendo, intensity, rarefaction… In this way, she seeks to enhance an already existing musical score or to establish a symphonic dialogue with a composition that is in process. The presence of the musicians onstage actualize this dialogue, their interactions with the dancers also help revitalize the space.
Of bodies and sounds
Gaining recognition on the international stage as of 1996, Isabelle Van Grimde went through a particularly prolific creation period between 1998 and 2000. Although she had always worked in close collaboration with composers, in this period her research into the dialogue between dance and music acquired new depth and precision, bringing the musicians onstage and experimenting with bodies and sounds creating a rich sonic and visual environment.
May All Your Storms Be Weathered, Maisons de poussière, Pour quatre corps et mille parts inséparables and Apocryphal Graffiti are amongst the works which have anchored Van Grimde Corps Secrets within the Quebec choreographic landscape and founded an approach that has led to the designation of « choreography-concerts » for most of the works presented by the company since the years 2000.
Created in 2000, Trois vues d’un secret opened the infinite horizon of possible perceptions of a single choreography by setting it to three original musical compositions of varying duration. The audience experienced the perception of having seen three different choreographies, confirming the infinite power of music and the relevance of a research that questions the place of the body in relation to sound. The company’s following pieces, Saetta and Erosio, are constructed of successive layers of permanent interaction between music and dance.
Convinced that the creation process can be as artistically rewarding as the final result, Isabelle Van Grimde decided, in 2005, to share one aspect of this process with the audience by offering different forms of performance. Thus, the Chemins de traverse series marked the beginning of an exploration of the relationship between improvised music and improvised dance, and the adoption of the concept of open creation. In addition to parameters of structured improvisation, the changing of musicians and musical styles from one performance to the next illuminates the different flavours of a single choreographic corpus.
New areas of dialogue between dance and music have been opened up in recent years by the company’s involvement in the creation of digital musical instruments with Duo pour un violoncelle et un danseur, followed by Les Gestes. In these pieces, the dancer is able to inhabit, transform and spatialize the sound in real time; in this way, the dance is literally « written into » the musical score, creating an even closer relationship with the musician onstage.
Open creation and thinking bodies
« The form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood. These give it a wealth of different resonances and echoes without impairing its original essence », writes Umberto Eco in The Poetics of the Open Work. By adopting this approach in presenting her own work, the choreographer of Van Grimde Corps Secrets seeks to exalt its multiple facets.
Practically speaking, her choreographic scores are rigorously coded, while still affording the performers a considerable range of freedom in how they chose to deploy them. The dancers are well acquainted with the movement vocabulary and with the quality of interpretation that must be respected in each section, as well as with the nature of relationships to be maintained with the music, musicians and other dancers. They must also conform to a given spatial and dynamic structure, but are free to choose how they use the movement palette and possible ways of moving through space that the choreographic score puts at their disposal. Their goals are clear, but can be achieved through various pathways, because at any given moment the performers must also compose with their inner state and with the specific environment created by their partners onstage.
Mixing constraint and volition, this complex process transforms the relationship between choreographer and dancer. By valuing the performer’s creative intelligence, Isabelle Van Grimde shows that a creator can master the essence of a work of art without necessarily controlling each of its aspects. This trust in their ability to make decisions onstage confers added responsibility on the performers, revealing thinking bodies that are in full possession of what they have to deliver. This principle of open creation, completely in tune with the very nature of live performance, induces risk taking in every moment, inspiring organic and unique performances.
Meaning, structure and form
The central story that Isabelle Van Grimde is interested in telling through dance is the story of the secrets of the human body and of the complexities (psychic, aesthetic, spiritual or other), which they hold in store for us. Sculpted out of the skeletal, architectural, organic and vibratory content of the dancers’ bodies, her gestural vocabulary keeps this profound meaning regardless of the variations that it undergoes. In fact, Van Grimde’s choreographic language is created on a genetic model: deconstructed, reconstructed, hybridized, the choreographic material evolves in an organic fashion from one project to the next, developing itself across perspectives while being enhanced by the physical awareness of the dancers who integrate it.
A parallel meaning that emerges from her pieces pertains to the creative act, the interdisciplinary dialogue and the very structure of the creation process, which are fully revealed in the context of open creation.
Interdisciplinarity as impetus
Whether it’s music, theatre, visual and media arts, literature or even social sciences, exchanges with artists in other disciplines and with thinkers of various backgrounds are a permanent source of inspiration for Isabelle Van Grimde’s conceptual voyages, propelling her towards new areas of creation.
Thus, her interviews with artists and intellectuals throughout the world on the theme of The body in question have had an impact on the evolution of her movement vocabulary. The creations in the Perspectives series are an opportunity for her to put her work in perspective by giving choreographic excerpts from the repertoire of Van Grimde Corps Secrets or texts on the nature of the body to other artists, acting as a springboard for multidisciplinary creations that she then orchestrates. This reciprocal process of sharing and of mutual influence, which involves an element of risk in the transposition, transformation and even transgression of her choreographic materials, is also an opportunity for Van Grimde to discover hidden dimensions and to bring dance beyond its usual spheres of influence, offering new fields of experimentation and perception to the audience.