José Navas’s Rites: solo works of profound intimacy and vulnerability

With his latest work, a set of four solos called Rites, José Navas marks a personal rite of passage in his life and long career as a dancer and choreographer. Having recently turned 50, Navas acknowledges that his relationship with his body has changed, and continues to change, and his choreography and performance style reflect the passage of time: “My body speaks louder than me. One must have a lot of humility to accept that. I abandon myself to this new reality and I discover new colours in my dancing. And in the end, I find that there is a beauty in choreographing for this changing body. My dream is to dance until I’m 90 to see what happens.”

josenavas-Rites17961©Valerie Simmons

In Rites, Navas has carefully chosen four pieces of music from the jazz and classical repertoire: Nina Simone’s heartfelt “Ain’t No Use,” an extract from Dvorak’s 9th Symphony (sung by Montreal’s great but now defunct Concerto Della Donna), Der Leiermann from Schubert’s exquisite Winterreise, and Stravinsky’s ne plus ultra for modern dance, The Rite of Spring. Although the four pieces of music span styles and centuries, they all deal in one way or another with moments of transition, with saying goodbye to the past, with renewal through sacrifice.


In between, and sometimes during, each solo Navas changes costume on stage, as a comment on personal sacrifice, revealing the recurrent shift from “character to a performer who appears as a simple citizen.”


In the first work, danced to Nina Simone’s breakup song “Ain’t No Use,” Navas’s cabaret-style lighting and movements effectively convey that mix of insouciance, pain, freedom, defiance, and sorrow that characterize any decision to say goodbye to the past and take a step into the future. I felt like his style (which he says is more of an “accent” than a fully developed personal style) shone most clearly here, with his fluidity and twirling/rising arm movements.

The second work, on an excerpt from Dvorak, is dedicated to Navas’s partner, William Douglas, who sadly died of AIDS in 1996. Here Navas references those whose shoulders he stands on—Merce Cunningham, Isadora Duncan, Marie Chouinard—dancing in part to pursue the dreams that Douglas did not have time to follow.


The third work, on a song from Schubert’s Winterreise, was painful in its expression of the tension and grief lurking within every person, especially as the end of life appears, however distantly, on the horizon. Dressed in a blue blazer and pants, a seemingly average man slowly contorts into a paroxysm of pain, arms stretched as if shooting the world’s heaviest bow and arrow, mouth open in a semblance of Munch’s The Scream, turning slowly as if being torn apart by agony, and then finally surrendering back into quiet acceptance, or at least the ability to go on.

José Navas©Nina Konjini

Navas saves the most demanding and energetic piece for last: the symbolic apex of sacrifice, death, and the hope for future renewal, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Performing this work as a solo is an ambitious project, but Navas nails it. Every pulse in the music finds a place in his body; every syncopated accent creates the effect of an electric shock running through his veins, and the Sacrificial Dance, which he performs completely naked, exemplifies the courage of the performer to sacrifice everything for his art, to reveal himself at his most vulnerable, to push past his own physical and emotional limits. And in so doing, Navas reveals to us our own fragility.


Jose Navas/Compagnie Flak performs at Cinqième Salle at Place des Arts as part of the Danse Danse season from November 11-28. Tickets start at $37.50.