Tender is the Show: Un peu de tendresse, bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness, For Crying Out Loud!) at World Stage. Response by Vikki Anderson

In a theatre season that has seen a lot of style over substance it was refreshing to attend last night’s opening of Dave St-Pierre’s Un peu de tendresse, bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness, For Crying Out Loud!) and experience both; the emperor really is wearing new clothes, even if he’s still naked. 

Tendresse is part two of St-Pierre's Sociology trilogy – part one being La pornographie des âmes (Bare naked souls) seen here in 2008 at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage. His latest work, Over My Dead Body, which premiered in Montreal in 2009, he examines mortality, primarily his own. St-Pierre was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at seventeen, a multi-organ disease primarily affecting the lungs, which can cut life expectancy in half.

Often cited as the enfant terrible of contemporary dance, St-Pierre has enjoyed a somewhat meteoric rise to fame in the past decade with this triptych that examines contemporary utopias – self-worth, love and death – using transgressive imagery Part dance, part theatre, part happening, Tendresse unfolds from the minute you take your seat. Emerging from the crowd to take the stage, the dancers identify themselves then cause a humorous ruckus in the house. The onstage host, Sabrina, welcomes the audience and advises that there will be no fourth wall. When she asks, “Do you really want to see a show about tenderness?” the audience dutifully replies in the affirmative and she yells back at us, “Losers!” and follows up later with, “You would be so naïve to think you’re safe tonight”. 

What evolves is a montage of vignettes and tableaux questioning, rather fearlessly, our suppositions about love and the human form. Deploying highly entertaining and humorous techniques (you might be lucky enough to have a naked man in your lap) contrasted with moments of great pain (watching dancers slap themselves until you want to go up and stop them) St-Pierre takes hold of your emotional centre and doesn’t let you go for 100 minutes.  

The work is demanding of both the performers and the audience. It forces us to examine our innermost demons: lust, shame, weakness, regret and the gut-wrenching desire to be loved. It’s the kind of communal experience you can only have in the theatre. To be a part of it, to watch souls and bodies laid bare, to watch indignity and dignity run at each other, to bring your own catalogue of desires, base human needs and culpability along for the ride, is as exhilarating as it is life affirming. St-Pierre gives us hubris in it’s highest form; the gain without the pain. 

In the final, breathtaking moments, our host admonishes us: “You’ve all been sitting there doing nothing for the last two hours and we’ve been doing everything. Do something for us now.” She instructs the audience to perform a sports arena-like wave that sets off a tsunami onstage where the literal and figurative cost of drowning becomes beautiful, savage, joyous and tender

I can’t think of a more appropriate title for the work; tenderness is such a full word. It brings to mind everything from Otis Redding and General Public to the small, vulnerable moments of affection and devotion that fill our memories and consciousness. It evokes benevolence, kindness and generosity while also reminding us that once something becomes tender, it has the ability to torment and ache. St-Pierre’s affirmations are what we strive to find, in small measure, every day. To be offered a safe space, a temple of sorts, where we can observe, participate and above all, feel, is a genuine gift. 

Vikki Anderson, a Toronto-based director, designer and producer, is the founder of DVxT Theatre Company. DVxT brings artists together to work on demanding texts with a focus on longer rehearsal time and an organic design process. www.dvxt.com


Salvatore Antonio said...

I was fortunate enough to see both the opening-night and the second performance, and there was a marked growth in the piece. I didn't think it was possible for the performers to invest more in their work–– but they did just that. I was amazed to see them ramp up their abandon in certain sections, and plummet deeper in others; all in all I was deeply humbled by their output-- both emotional AND physical. On the second night during the 'frappe moi' section, an audience member actually stopped the repetitive by yelling from the balcony for the performers to cease their self-abuse; she called them 'animals', and this is one of those rare moments of visceral audience involvement that will remain with me. The work was so personal and unsparing and challenging, that it was hard not to feel implicated in viewing it. I know this piece will inspire me greatly as both an artist and a human being, in ways I'm not yet sure of. I'm grateful to have experienced it. I'm also thrilled by the sense of danger it has inspired in my creative-thinking. Audiences beware ;)

Unknown said...

I felt like I was on a rollercoaster ride watching this piece. I started off excited and amazed but then got angry about midway through. I wanted them to get to the meat, to cease the theatrics and get to something I could sink my teeth into. There was one point where I even thought to myself, "I hate this, I don't get it at all". However, it was just around this point where I started being pulled in the other direction. The emotional stakes became intense and I found myself invested in the world. There are images and moments of beauty still swimming around in my mind: naked bodies gliding across the stage and a line of men slapping themselves over and over and over until someone cries stop. Stunning. It is certainly a piece I won't forget.

I had the chance to take the workshop with the dancers this morning and I can speak personally about the toll (both physical and emotional) that this work requires. It doesn't really matter whether I hated it or loved it because either way it got a strong and visceral reaction out of me. And isn't that the point? To feel something real in all the bullshit?

Alistair Newton said...

I will confess to adoring 'La pornographie des âmes', which is my only other experience with Dave St Pierre's work. I found that work fragile, moving and thoroughly tender and entirely human. My love for 'La pornographie' is also, sadly, why watching 'Un peu de tendresse' left me feeling so empty.

The experience did raise an intriguing question: what can be gained from a production whose entire strategy of engagement is based on transgression and audience outrage when one does not find the content in any way shocking? This was were I found myself. I appreciate the function that the work was providing to my fellow audience members - what read to me as either an ecstatic reaction to some good old fashion taboo busting, or an actual cathartic encounter with something that shook up their sensibilities - and I would happily see more nude anarchy in theatres across Toronto, but I found myself first bored, and then indifferent. Because I didn't relate the work on its own terms (or, rather, on what I perceive as its terms) I found the narration banal and smug; it is difficult not to groan when you are being told things like 'Congratulations, you have survived the first half hour of our show' when you haven't yet found anything intellectually, conceptually or physically gripping. This, and nearly all, of the emcee's lines fell flat for me - and when she name dropped the Leafs, she officially crossed my Rubicon...

Though I found the experience quite dull, I was left with a profound question about the nature of transgressive aesthetic and audience expectation to ponder...this and the GORGEOUS final image (though I could have done without the original score of HBO's 'Wit'...but that's just my prejudice...) made for a thought provoking evening.

All that being said, I will certainly be back for more of what M St Pierre has to offer in the future.

Mariel Marshall said...

Check out some reactions I caught after the show here:


Dan Daley said...

I often feel indifferent to work that I see because it assumes that it has the attention of its audience. I feel like many performances rest against the fourth wall without giving something over to the viewer. I need to feel connected to the performers, to feel like they need to connect with me. This show demanded my attention.

Un Peu de Tendresse Bordel de Merde went above and beyond interaction with the audience. Aside from the naked men running up into the balcony and spitting at the onlookers, the performance was about our response to them. It was about getting us into a vulnerable state. Like the state they existed in themselves, vulnerable, exposed and flawed, we were meant to share the experience with them.

The choreography put the dancers into troubled and distraught conditions. Their bodies expressed emotional agony, frustration, desire and hate. I believe this was meant to show us our own condition. We are fraught with emotional memories good and bad as a result of our many relationships. This is what I saw in the dancers. The tenderness was indeed a vital part of this performance. In all of the chaos and vulgarity by contrast any moment of tenderness carried with it a wonderful gravitas.

I am concerned by the maleness of the performance. In what seemed to be an attempt at placing men in a vulnerable place, which would seem like a role reversal, Dave St. Pierre actually reinforced mundane qualities of masculinity. Already my perspective on this is gendered by assuming that a vulnerable man is a role reversal or outside the norm. It shouldn’t be outside the norm, but our context doesn’t allow men to be “weak”. Instead I saw a lot of “weak” women, shaking, falling, struggling to capture the man. The choreography was often predictable because men and women interacted as they would during any ballroom dance class. Sabrina, the emcee, in all her quips about men, didn’t actually do anything for the issue. Her role as the “dominate female” felt tired and un-inspired as she was restricted to heels and a dress until some liberation in the final scene of the show.

I only wish that the movement, as stunning as it was, could have played with weight transfer. Instead, have the women bare the weight of the men, carry them, catch them when they fall etc. I also attended the workshop with two of the company members on the following morning and indeed that choreography is very challenging. Interestingly, only the men’s section came with the most physically demanding and aggressive forms.

Mariel Marshall said...

Check out some audience reactions and a sneak peak of the workshop here:


Hannah Cheese Man said...

My response to this show is fairly simple. Which is a welcome change.
What struck me most about Un Peu was how well (in my opinion) it established a connection between audience and performer. Yes, I felt that there was something of a summer-camp-gone-wild feel to the piece, but I certainly felt included in the action (in spite of being merely an audience member). In fact, I felt included in the process of the piece as it unfolded.
The reason this strikes me as important, is because it means I feel authority to respond and engage with the piece, as well as react emotionally, and with honesty. If we want to maintain, or increase, our audiences, they must feel included, invited to engage. This may be a sad side-effect of the reality-show phenomenon and the desire it engenders within society to change the centre of focus to, well, each bloody individual wanting to show themselves as special, but nonetheless, there I was, with the illusion that I was party to the action. And intimately so.
Aside from quite liking the piece (and perhaps begrudgingly, as I initially responded to the gratuitous nudity with arms crossed, suspicious), I was happy to see a Canadian piece so willing to be forthcoming and unpretentious.

Jordan Tannahill said...

I feel compelled to respond to how this work has stayed with me over the months since seeing it.

Images such as the self-inflicted slapping, the cake-humping sequence, and the concluding sequence in which the performers slid gracefully across the wet stage in a sort of pre-evolutionary, natal morass continue to compel me.

However, reading through the comments, I have to agree with Alistair that nothing truly shocked or intellectually provoked me in the work, which often caused me to resent the assumption by the narrator that I had 'survived' something. Also, I found the depiction of gender in the piece both problematic and frustratingly binary for a queer, subversive artist.

Really, what I am left with are a handful of potent images. And having just seen Louise Lecavalier's piece Children & A Few Minutes of Lock last night, my very immediate reaction was much the same: I walked away with one or two striking images (particularly the first seizuring moments of Children).

I can't help asking myself if this is ultimately all that I can really ask for from a performance, whether its a night or a few months after...