Sexuality, manipulation, passion and torture are explored in The Convent of the Devil, a production by the White Dog ProjectX, an international dance company based in Asheville.
Based on the life and tragic death of Urbain Grandier, the work tells the story of the 17th-century French Catholic priest (and notorious philanderer) whose life was forever changed when he refused to become leader of the convent in the French town of Loudon.
The convent’s mother superior, long obsessed with Grandier, was enraged by his refusal, and, in an act of revenge, convinced the convent’s nuns to accuse him of entering into a pact with demons. The nuns claimed that they had been possessed, and that Grandier had used the demons’ powers to seduce them.
Though he never confessed to these accusations, Urbain was eventually charged and convicted. (It didn’t help that Grandier was an enemy of Cardinal Richelieu, the main architect behind the trial.) The priest’s life was brought to a violent end: He was tortured and burned at the stake.
It’s a haunting tale—rich with erotic intrigue, satanic worship and brutal consequences—but to turn it into a compelling performance is a challenge few dance companies would be capable of meeting.
Enter the White Dog ProjectX, an international extension of the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre. Committed to creating collaborative projects with foreign dance companies, ProjectX has united dancers from Asheville with foreign artists for The Convent of the Devil. The show is the company’s debut performance, a joint project with Mexico-based Compania de Duanza Contemporanea del Yucatan. Following the show’s Asheville run, it will be performed at an erotic-dance festival at the Teatro Merida in Merida, Mexico.
“Our objective is to create more artistic exchange,” explains Giles Collard, the artistic co-director of the White Dog ProjectX. “[In this project] we have two American choreographers, seven local dancers, six Mexican dancers, renowned Mexican choreographer Graciella Torres and Mexican composer Carlos Gutierez. It’s our largest collaborative so far.”
Giles says that a fusion of dance styles and skills brought from both Mexican and American artists gives this production a special edge. “Artists have a unique way of communicating to the community. This story is political, full of sex, love, lust and religious power. We have a convent of nuns all fantasizing about one man, and we portray their sexual dreams—their deepest passions.”
Of course, presenting such a complex story as a dance production does have its challenges. Giles, however, insists that the ProjectX dancers are up to the challenge.
“Our dancers are well-versed in many forms of modern dance,” he says. “In this production, the movement is driven by the emotion. It is theatrical, passionate movement. Dancers use the body to describe what’s going on in the story. This is why it is so powerful.”
Like the dance production, the musical composition is a melding of various styles and genres that focuses on the emotions behind every scene. “The program is built like an opera: a choir that moves through the story,” says Susan Collard, Giles’ wide and artistic co-director/co-choreographer for the production. “Our composer decided to use old liturgical songs and Latin singing. Gutierez composed the whole ballet, and he found the music. He worked with each of the 11 scenes carefully in order to reflect the content of the events and the emotion of the dancers.”
Giles notes that portraying conflicts within Grandier’s story is of great thematic importance. Rather than simply presenting a literal version of the history, The Convent of the Devil also offers a symbolic version.
“After the innocent Urbain is condemned, a group of angels appear, but they turn their backs on him,” says Giles. “They are sitting together playing cards. The angels drink tequila and smoke cigarettes. This juxtaposition [shows that] good and evil, the horrible and the lovely, exist at the same time, in the same moment. Even as Urbain is being burned, everyone in the town is celebrating, wearing their very best. This is our show; this is what it explores.”
Using provocative choreography, suggestive costumes and multimedia techniques such as film projection, The Convent of the Devil is an ambitious presentation of Grandier’s story. The technical challenges alone are enough to discourage such a production.
“But there is a bigger risk in seeing a performance like this,” says Giles. “One must enjoy it for what it is and be open to seeing things in a new way; intriguing the imagination and provoking thoughts, ideas and controversy. This performance is not a passive experience.”
who: White Dog ProjectX presents The Convent of the Devil
what: A dance production steeped in erotic intrigue
where: Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Place
when: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 2 and 3 (8 p.m. $25. www.dwtheatre.com or 257-4530)