In adapting Nancy Huston's Limbes/Limbo for the stage, dance-theatre artists Lin Snelling and Catherine Claude had to let the languages speak for themselves
For dance-theatre choreographer and performer Lin Snelling the decision to work with a Nancy Huston text came in a roundabout way. It started with an article she had written that was being translated, and with all the intricacies involved in translating a text from English to French. As Snelling tells it, she was handed Huston’s Limbes/Limbo, a book written in both languages that talks about what words are and how they’re translated, and which above all is a homage to playwright Samuel Beckett. (Incidentally, and notably, the much-celebrated Huston, a native English speaker originally from Alberta who now lives in Paris, has made it clear that she feels more comfortable writing in French.) Always one to broaden her horizons, Snelling was hooked. "It was the first time I [chose] to create from a published text," says Snelling, who usually writes the material she performs.
To share in the creation of the show, Snelling called upon the multi-talented Nathalie Claude of the Momentum theatre collective. Huston’s slippery treatment of language resonated for both women, chiming with their experience of living in Montreal. "I’ve always liked both languages," says Claude. "I’m francophone, I’m passionate about French, but I adore my anglophone friends, and I love the way we all switch around in franglais. I adore that loose mix of languages."
In adapting the text to the stage, everything just clicked, Snelling and Claude having overlapping backgrounds in theatre and dance (the two first met while working on Carbone 14′s seminal piece of dance-theatre Le Dortoir). "We both come from this physical-theatre reality," says Snelling. "I like to work with words and I’m a dancer, and she likes to work the body and she’s an actor. But we switch between them all the time." Claude, for her part, takes a big-picture approach to performance. "When I see a performer, what touches me are the eyes, the gesture, the posture, the totality. The body can tell me so many things."
For Limbes/Limbo, these quick-change artists have adopted a decidedly minimalist approach. It’s just the Usine C theatre space, the spectators, the two characters, the words, and the sound and light. "The theatre is completely naked. We haven’t adorned Usine C at all," says Snelling, noting the influence of Beckett. "We are two characters who are in the process of becoming," adds Claude. "This open space, the mechanism of the theatre, the grids for the light – all this is alive. We are two characters trapped. Trapped in the theatre, forever. We’re very much like a Beckettian duo. We’re stuck together, we have to accept it, ’cause that’s the way it is." The two nicely complete each other’s thoughts. "We try to have fun, we try to fight, we try to dance, to pass time," interjects Snelling. "And we try to find the meaning of life," continues Claude. "Which is impossible, but we’re going to try it anyway," says Snelling.
When Snelling met Huston at a literary festival in Montreal she vaguely mentioned the project, the two entering into a correspondence. It was Snelling who eventually arranged for Claude to meet Huston in Paris. Although she had heard of the author, Huston’s work was new to Claude. It turned out that Huston knew quite a bit about the Momentum crew, who are co-producing this show, and was very happy that they were taking on the text. When Claude returned to Montreal after her tête-à-tête with Huston, her friends were shocked: "You were having tea with Nancy Huston!" was the usual response. Eventually Huston met with the team in Montreal, and saw the videotape of the rehearsals.
Claude summarizes the significance of Huston’s text. "Life, death, life, death, pleasure, pain, life, death. It’s something essential. Always questioning, always searching. It’s the meaning of life." Critics have commented that the way Huston writes in English as compared to French is vastly different. Apparently the author never thought Limbes/Limbo would be published (in 1998). She’d written it after she had huge success writing in French, and Huston, says Snelling, was fearful, doubting if she could ever write in English again. "This book is on the subtext of writing, and the fear that it’s all been done before, it’s all been said before. What’s the point of words? Why should we say anything at all?" Huston’s text is rhythmic and musical; it’s made to be moved to. "She’s got this rhythm in French and in English and they face each other – musically. So you can go underneath the words, and it becomes absurd," says Snelling.
Movement-wise the two performers face a daunting challenge in the Usine C space. "There’s a cement floor, which means choreographically we can’t jump," says Snelling. "That had an impact on how we moved in the space. It gives us limits and liberty at the same time. We are active in how we’re moving and how we are moved by the theatre."
Audiences will see them from a variety of perspectives – down, around, back, front. And it won’t just be the bodies moving: The words will be moving, too. "It’s a choreography of words, as much as a choreography of the body. We see it moving in all those ways," Snelling adds.
As for their mutual admiration, Snelling hones in on Claude’s precision. "She has to articulate on stage as a performer. And as a creator, there was never anything so abstract that we couldn’t go out there. The thing I enjoy about Nathalie is that she’ll take on any challenge, she’ll try."
Claude thinks Snelling is an amazing performer. "I like her vision, her intelligence, and she’s completely insane. She impressed me as an improviser. I felt safe with Lin. Her instincts are very strong in terms of what she saw in this piece. She’s so connected to things. If Lin says there’s something there, there is." Moreover, Claude guffaws, "I’ve never laughed so much in my whole fuckin’ career. She is so free, and that brought a lot of breathing room into what I do. I need to let some air into my life; I’m a bit stiff." All in all, it’s been a good meeting.
Usine C, Jan. 15-24