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PREVIEW | Toronto Mendelssohn Choir & Compagnie de la Citadelle Blend Choral Music, Dance In A Baroque Mode

By Anya Wassenberg on August 22, 2023

Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo: Taylor Long)
Toronto Mendelssohn Singers (Photo: Taylor Long)

The choral beauty of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the lyrical beauty of the works of choreographer Laurence Lemieux come together in a programme titled In Time: At the intersection of music & dance. The performance takes place September 22 and 23, and features gems of the Baroque era.

Along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the TMC’s core professional group, and the dancers of Compagnie de la Citadelle, an ensemble of live musicians will be providing accompaniment. The programme includes Dixit Dominus HWV 232 by George Frideric Handel, Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4 by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands.

We caught up with TMC’s artistic director Jean-Sébastien Vallée (JSV), and choreographer and artistic director of Compagnie de la Citadelle Laurence Lemieux (LL) to talk about the show.

The Interviewees

Jean-Sébastien Vallée

The Canadian-American conductor had built a strong reputation as a specialist in choral and vocal works before taking on the helm of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir as its Artistic Director in 2021.

His degrees include: a B.Mus from l’Université Laval, a Graduate diploma from l’Université de Sherbrooke, and M.Mus from the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by a D.M.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Vallée has conducted ensembles across North America, Europe and Asia, and worked with the TSO, Chicago Symphony, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO). In addition to his work as conductor, he is an Associate Professor of Music, Director of Choral Studies, and Coordinator of the Ensembles & Conducting Area at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

L-R: Jean-Sébastien Vallée (Photo courtesy of the artist); Laurence Lemieux (Photo courtesy of the artist)
L-R: Jean-Sébastien Vallée (Photo courtesy of the artist); Laurence Lemieux (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Laurence Lemieux

Dancer and choreographer Laurence Lemieux is the Artistic Director of Citadel + Compagnie dance company. A native of Québec City, Laurence studied dance at L’École Supérieure de Danse du Québec, and at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT).

It’s with TDT that she won a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1998 for her work in a piece by Christopher House. She’s worked with noted choreographers like James Kudelka, Margie Gillis and Jean-Pierre Perreault. She’s presented more than 30 original choreographic works since her debut in 1983.

In addition to her work as dancer and choreographer, Lemieux is a noted dance educator, and has worked at many of Canada’s prominent schools, including York University, the University of Quebec in Montreal, l’École Supérieure de Ballet Contemporain and Canada’s National Ballet School.

The Interview

Q: How did this project come together?

JSV: The project stems from a shared artistic vision between the two creative groups. Its inception occurred during the pandemic — during that period, the TMChoir and Laurence Lemieux (Compagnie de la Citadelle) collaborated on a virtual choir video project featuring Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden, complemented by a freshly choreographed performed by Laurence.

As we approached the design phase for the 2023-2024 season, I aimed to delve deeper into the fusion of live music and dance, crafting a distinctive and immersive encounter for our audience. This prompted us to expand the repertoire, now including G.F. Handel’s Dixit Dominus, featuring an entirely new commissioned choreography. The collaboration emerged organically through the interconnection of both groups, driven by our shared aspiration to challenge the conventional boundaries of performance.

LL: This project was commissioned by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, but was created in two parts.

The first part was created in 2021, during the lockdown… when the choir commissioned me to create a solo to the Chris lag in Todesbanden BWV4 by Johann Sebastien Bach. The work was recorded on video and streamed later, but in September 2023, it will be   the first time  that I will be performing it with the choir.

Here is what I wrote when I created the work back in 2021:

How to express and describe human suffering, human loss in the time of the pandemic.
How can one dancer convey the global loss we are experiencing.
How can we even comprehend the scale of this loss?
Perhaps it is in the personal stories, the individual ones that we can understand the scope of this human tragedy.
The music inspired by the death of Christ.
The pain of its mother
The pain of all humanity.
My approach will be of course inspired by the music and its absolute beauty.
It resonates in so many hearts, and resonates with me because of its Christian background, because of my catholic upbringing.
The starting point is the pain of the mother losing a child.
It is a universal pain.
The dance will aim to express in a simple setting, an empty room, the loss. The absence.
The “coming to terms with.”
If music and dance are able to elevate the soul, to make us feel part of the bigger universe,
I truly hope to be able to pay homage to this, and in doing so actively participate in our global healing.

LL: The second part, a group work to Handel’s Dixit Dominus, was commisionned  by  The choir in the spring of 2023, and will premiere in September. The work is performed by 6 remarkable dancers, all at different stage of their lives… from 10 years old to 50 years old.

It is a tribute to the strength of woman and their resilience.

Q: Can you share any details about the musical pieces performed: Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden?

JSV: Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden are significant choral compositions from the Baroque era. Dixit Dominus is a particularly exhilarating work by Handel, renowned for its vibrant and virtuosic choral writing, which beautifully exemplifies Handel’s mastery in blending various national styles.

Notably, it showcases the profound influence of Italian operatic writing within the context of a sacred choral piece. In contrast, Christ lag in Todesbanden is an early cantata by Bach that delves into themes of death and resurrection, embodying the more restrained style characteristic of his early oeuvre. Collectively, these pieces weave a rich musical and emotional tapestry of the Baroque period, offering a captivating fusion of intricate vocal textures and expressive harmonies.

Furthermore, this project features a composition by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. This remarkable piece unfolds within the 17th-century soundscape reminiscent of Baroque music, dynamically expanding, infusing color, and redefining the musical language. Its core themes revolve around the global struggles of individuals seeking refuge and our shared role and responsibility in addressing both local and worldwide crises. As the composition unfolds, these themes gradually ascend to the forefront, inviting a more profound and poignant exploration of human suffering and resilience.
Please note that, in line with Baroque performance practice, the soloists are drawn from within the ensemble, the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers.

Q: Dance and live music performance together: Should it be explored like this more often, i.e. outside the usual dance repertoire?

JSV: Integrating dance and live music performances offers a multi-dimensional and captivating experience for audiences. Historically, dance and music were closely intertwined in various eras, contributing to a more immersive and holistic artistic encounter. Exploring such collaborations across different eras can indeed provide fresh perspectives and engage audiences on a profound level, transcending the boundaries of conventional performance.

It’s important to recall that music, in its essence, is movement — vibrations that traverse space. Adding movement to music, even if the original composition did not anticipate it, significantly enhances the expression of both art forms. Such integration should unquestionably be pursued more frequently.

LL: I think  the relationship between music and dance should always be explored, regarding of the era it is situated in.

Not all dance is connected to music and of course not all music is connected to dance. What is important is the relationship between the two and how the two art form can sort of work together inventing a new language that can be seen and that can be heard.

Q: What can you tell us about the kind of choreography you’ve created for Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Christ lag in Todesbanden?

LL: The choreography is very much a response to the music. Musical patterns and textures are explored to create the basis of the choreography.

The Christ lag, is more sombre and internal while the Dixit Dominus is more exuberant and outspoken…

Q: Does the fact that the music is being performed live change the way you approach the dance?

LL: Not really, we often work with live music… its all about paying attention to tempo and intention.

It is actually a real treat to perform to live music, whenever we have the chance…. … and we feel very privilege to do so.

Q: What do you hope audiences will get out of the performance?

JSV: This exceptional collaboration between the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers and Compagnie de la Cidatelle is geared towards delivering audiences an immersive and thought-provoking experience. It achieves this by infusing new layers of meaning and relevance into the works of Bach and Handel through the inclusion of dance and juxtaposing these masterworks with Caroline Shaw’s composition.

By seamlessly merging the force of live choral music with the dynamic artistry of dance, the performance will stir a spectrum of emotions, evoking the Baroque Affects, and forging a distinctive bond between the performers and the audience. This connection invites a profound exploration of the diverse human experiences prevalent in our communities.

Tickets for In Time are on sale now [HERE].


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