Tour de force turns Pygmalion on its head

By Elissa Poole in The Globe and Mail (Canada), December 11, 1995
Vaillancourt is a powerful stage presence, but she is above all, a wonderful singer. To say I would have been as captivated with her performance on an empty stage is not to minimize the impact of the theatre piece as a whole; rather it’s a tribute to her stunning interpretive skills.

Using composer Giacinto Scelsi’s Songs of Capricorn (1972) as its musical soul, director-interpreter Pauline Vaillancourt, has fashioned a theatrical tour de force that turns the Pygmalion myth on its head. It dispenses altogether with the misogynist sculptor who falls in love with his own creation, and shows us only the statue, which has come to life in a womb-like studio. It then takes us through a life cycle of female experience — from budding self-awareness, toward the discovery of sexuality, to maturity and death.

Vaillancourt exploits a gamut of vocalized sounds, but there are no words. And though her performance is as expressive as speech, the text is realized in a sort of preverbal language, which seems almost involuntary at times and highly ritualized at others. Several songs are either solo or accompanied with taped percussion, but Vaillancourt also sings against a taped counterpoint of her own voice, a cello and a saxophone.

Scelsi’s original music is much sparer than what we hear in this version, though this is not clear from the program notes. Scelsi did not intend for it to be staged — the narrative is Vaillancourt’s invention, an extension of the interpretive act that nearly appropriates the original, just as the visual imagery, created by video artist Michel Giroux and set and costume designer Massimo Guerrera, occasionally overwhelms her musical presence onstage.

The statue comes to life cloaked in a cocoon made of a pink, rubberized fabric and wearing a horned headdress in the shape of fallopian tubes, while a video screen shows an undistinguished landscape, an opening to the outside world that is her first inkling that something exists beyond herself. Initially, Vaillancourt’s movements are unsure, while her vocalizations are tied, umbilical-like, to a recorded voice (her own) on tape.

Each life phase is characterized in turn, though none to the extent that sexuality is. To mark her metamorphosis into a sexual being, Vaillancourt sheds her cloak, exposing bustier and skirted panniers, clothing that is weighted with associations of both eroticism and female repression. In certain positions, Vaillancourt appears to be nothing but torso and out-spread thighs. At the climax, arms protrude through the uterine stage wall to hold her aloft, and the profusion of limbs obviously conjures an image of sex, but not without a fleeting vision of Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess of destruction.

Vaillancourt is a powerful stage presence, but she is, above all, a wonderful singer. To say I would have been as captivated with her performance on an empty stage is not to minimize the impact of the theatre piece as a whole; rather, it’s a tribute to her stunning interpretive skills.

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