When Quebec choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault made "Joe" for a contingent of Montreal college students in 1983, he didn't suspect he had the beginnings of a popular phenomenon. After all, it had all the wrong ingredients: postmodern dance--meaning everyday clothes, no flashy virtuosity, no catchy music--and the potentially esoteric theme of group mentality versus freedom of the individual.
But 13 years and several productions of "Joe" later, the 65-minute force-field of a dance piece has racked up standing ovations in major Canadian and European cities. It seems everywhere "Joe" plays, people relate to its 32 dancers of all sizes, dressed in ditch-colored overcoats, fedora hats and black army boots, marching, massing and crashing stylishly and relentlessly.
Comparisons to Orwell's "1984" and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" duly noted, the most popular moments may be the small rebellions, when someone makes a run for it and--even temporarily--gets away from it all.
Although the piece has a facelessly gray urban atmosphere, Southern Californians who have experienced the short-lived freedom of an empty freeway exit ramp, only to be wedged into another traffic jam, will doubtless be able to relate. "Joe" makes its U.S. debut tonight at the Luckman Theatre on the campus of Cal State L.A.
"People all over tend to see 'Joe' pretty much the same," says Perreault on the phone from his Montreal dance company office. "I was using the Joe personage as a universal person, a human being. But when you put people in society, they become like animals in a way, because it's instinct more than thought that directs them. I believe in the individual, but I think the way people act in groups is still very stupid."
On the other hand, the way a modern dance group deals with conformity has to be very smart--and incredibly cooperative. Since extended passages of unison steps are something more commonly found in ballet companies, it's a challenge for many modern dancers to conform closely to dozens of colleagues. Added to the difficulty, new cast members are always joining those who have experience with the piece (the current cast includes members of Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, as well as those from Perreault's Montreal company, Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault).
"The dancers for 'Joe' need to be strong physically," says Perreault, 49, "people who can really run, crash on the floor and who have a good musical sense and are able to work on tempo with others. 'Joe' is a dance where you hear the action as much as you see it. Every step is a note and there is a quality and pitch to that sound."
Except for the sounds dancers make--myriad variations on stamps, shuffles, taps and drags--and the occasional harmonica solo or vocal chant, there is silence during "Joe." Perreault describes a section where circling footfalls begin lightly, then become more grave, then take on increasingly violent tones. Or, as Perrault puts it, "the foot becomes more stupid."
Because most modern dancers rarely are part of such a large ensemble, Perreault says, "they like that experience of being all of a sudden sucked into a large group of people. At the beginning, I tell them all they have to become a Joe."
To facilitate this process, full costumes are required from the first rehearsal, and dancers become accustomed to moving within the confines of the '50s-looking suit, coat and heavy boots. According to two dancers, also on the phone from Montreal, some ego adjustments begin at this moment, too. "It's different, as a performer, to give yourself over to a group and not be searching for the spotlight," says Mark Shaub, 39, now in his fifth "Joe."
"But there's also a real excitement about that. It's really something to feel the energy of 32 people making our own rhythms, our own musical score, as well as moving. It's physically exhausting, but when it's over, you feel like you've really been through something important with a lot of people."
Evidently audiences feel the same way. Winnipeg dancer Alana Shewchuk, 32, and in her second production of "Joe," is always surprised by the explosion of sound that washes onto the stage as the audience begins to applaud. But, even though her feeling of solidarity onstage is strong, she admits that her few solo moments are important. "The first time I did 'Joe,' I was mainly 'the repressed,' but I'm really fortunate now," she says. "I get to rebel three times."
The way Perreault sees it, "Joe" always has a dual nature, "the one who is the oppressor and the one who's rebelling against it." In movement terms, this shifting reality is sometimes grim. There are sudden, weighted collapses, stamping feet that gather speed like a freight train, weary figures who trace patterns and form lines with the determined regularity of army ants.
Yet there is whimsy in odd moments. In fact, for some unknown reason, Perreault says, Toronto audiences tended to laugh all the way through. "It's not a piece that's depressing to look at," he says. "Obviously, because people come back over and over to see it.
"It is a hard look at humanity in groups," Perreault says. "People are always telling me it's so much like real life. But I think a lot of people see hope in it. The ending is very ambiguous that way. The first few times I did it, the ending was very hopeless, but I didn't want it to be, so I've left it actually quite open-ended. Because I don't think you can ever kill totally the soul of somebody."
* "Joe," Luckman Theatre at Cal State, L.A., Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m. $35, $28. (213) 343-6610.