Montreal's Masters of Athletic Artistry

IN a dingy white-tiled room that measures about 10 by 16 feet, 10 dancers run up, climb, and bounce off the walls. They also drag one other around, twist and twirl, and fall limp as rag dolls in each other's arms. Women lift men and balance them on their backs; men hurl women through the air.

It is one hour and 17 minutes, sans intermission, of ``La Chambre Blanche'' (The White Room), the latest creation by O Vertigo Danse, a French-Canadian dance company.

Performing at the Joyce Theater in New York earlier this month, O Vertigo dancers displayed a style that combines astonishing athletic artistry with frenetic intensity.

The Montreal-based company, under the direction of choreographer Ginette Laurin, has enjoyed a growing international reputation since she founded it in 1984. Ms. Laurin, who trained as a gymnast, pushes the limits of how bodies can contort and bend, leap and lift.

Stephane Roy's handsome set is a sanatorium-like room, with tiny, almost unreachable windows. In the back, an entryway reveals a chamber where water drips from a faucet into a basin. The room, which resembles an old bathhouse, is cold and bleak.

The dance is not as much a story with a conclusive ending as it is a whirlwind of kinetic energy and emotions, a physical expression of mental turmoil in a darkened world.

The curtain opens on six women and four men dressed in underwear who are lying, standing, or striking various poses. They begin muttering in French and English. Some of the words are gibberish; others are intelligible. Throughout the piece dancers sing, chant, laugh, and pray.

They often pair off: Men partner men; women partner women; men partner women. They engage in duets and solos. Men run feverishly up the wall and cling with their elbows to the narrow window ledges trying to reach the light. Women stand on tiptoe and tread nimbly across the stage.

During the performance, dancers move in and out of the chamber; some linger at the faucet and wash themselves. The women return with black dresses they haphazardly throw over themselves on stage, while the men change into black pants and shirts.

Laurin's dancers are dynamic and display great stamina, skill, and endurance. Bodies are flung through the air and thrown about; a male dancer lifts a female dancer by her dress then does a headstand on her stomach; another male lifts his female partner by the heels and puts her back on her toes; women balance men on their backs; a male dancer throws himself into the opening of the chamber so that he's scrunched in sideways and held up only by the door frame.

Axel Morgenthaler's lighting is spectacular. It seems to filter through the small windows and switches from dawn to bright sunlight to twilight. It gives a sense of timelessness. The music, by Michel Drapeau, changes moods, whipping the dancers into a frenzy or turning them into more subdued beings.

Laurin says her motive for creating the piece stemmed from two impulses: ``I wanted to work in a small space and explore another kind of vocabulary ... and I wanted to work with the fragility of the human being,'' she said during a question-and-answer period with the audience after the performance.

The fragility of the human being comes through in ``La Chambre Blanche,'' though the dancers don't seem to resolve their situation in the end.

Laurin sees it differently. In the program notes she explains: ``Although the occupants of this room infused with so much darkness should be black and taciturn in its likeness, they fill themselves to the brim with a wild emotional passion which makes them lighter than the very air.

``So, in one brief flash, through these bodies distorted by spacial density, we seem to perceive dazzling beings who burst out in almost angelic laughter.... `La Chambre Blanche' is like a prayer in search of the ultimate through expressed tensions.''

* O Vertigo Danse continues its 1994 international tour with a new work, ``Deluge'': World premiere at the National Arts Centre, Canada Dance Festival, in Ottawa, June 11; Teatro Argentina, Rome, June 16 to 20; Kannonhallen, Copenhagen, June 24 to 26. For further dates and times, including the fall schedule for ``La Chambre Blanche,'' call (514) 251-9177 in Montreal.

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