Louis Gervais is no stranger to solo work. He’s been performing his own choreography and performance pieces as a solo artist for many years. But this weekend is the first time Seattle will be treated to a full evening of Gervais’ unique blend of commedia dell’arte-like mask work, modern dance, and improvised theatrics. His upcoming show, shapeshifter, runs at Velocity Dance Center April 10-12, and is sure to be as entertaining as it is thoughtful, moving, and unexpected. An aptly titled piece, Gervais shifts between three distinct characters (one of which is himself), each on an emotional journey through an “improvisational obstacle course.”
“All of my work I feel has a certain kind of joy in it,” said Gervais in a recent interview with SeattleDances. “I love for people to have fun. It’s very important that people come to the theater and are transported in some way, taken out of reality in some way.” And judging by a recent rehearsal, it feels like shapeshifter will be the type of show that provides an experience greater than simply sitting in one’s seat. By watching the soul-searching the characters go through you might learn something about yourself, which seems to be exactly what Gervais has in mind. He was inspired to make this particular show because he “wanted to go up there and really feel something, and make the audience feel something too.”
Much of Gervais’ work has stemmed from this desire to push himself as a solo artist, but the path to get to this point in his career has been a long journey. He initially experimented with solo work in college, but felt that his style didn’t fall into any acceptable genre. His first solos were a “kind of theatrical mixture of abstraction and character and concept, and, at that time, people were doing minimalism and classicism in modern dance.” Gervais said he didn’t fully believe in his aesthetic because he didn’t see it being done anywhere else. “I thought that I must be somewhat childish or amateurish in what I was doing because I didn’t have an abstract voice.” After college, he had a long and successful career as a performer, traveling the world dancing with groups like Compagnie Marie Chouinard, but he still felt that he had never been asked to give everything he could offer as a performer in other people’s work.
Eventually, after years of touring and performing, he got to a point where he decided it didn’t matter if his style was popular, or if anyone even liked it. “I’m only going to be alive this one time as me,” he realized, “and I’m just going to be me. And some people will love it and some people will not, and I can’t worry about pleasing people as much as I need to just be true to what is mine to say.” With this in mind, Gervais began developing his own works again while living in his home state of Maine. The artistic environment there allowed him to collaborate with a wide variety of artists in different genres. Still, he often found himself diminishing his own voice in order to find overlap with his collaborators. In order to truly develop his own artistic world, he realized he needed to be a fully solo artist. So he decided to not “put any restrictions on anything. And that’s been really delicious, just to be free like that.”
This sense of freedom is evident throughout shapeshifter. That’s not to say there’s no structure to the piece. In fact, the framework is extremely clear, which takes a particular kind of rigor to achieve as a solo artist. It’s a three act show (one for each character) where each persona goes through a similar set of tasks to varying degrees of success, hilarity, and poignancy. Gervais said this structure emerged early on in his process, but he knew that in its development he would need something more to move those parts together. “Usually I set out with my vision and at some point the piece stands up, turns around, and starts talking back to me.” shapeshifter’s many improvisational elements make the show especially susceptible to this idea; the piece has the ability to evolve with each run as the characters respond differently to different situations.
The characters Gervais embodies couldn’t be more different from one another. Randy McCrae is a bumbling, carnival-working, beer-drinking dude with a mullet, while Iphelia is a flouncy, breathy-voiced, and relentlessly cheerful fairy godmother. While both characters have appeared in his works before (he created a show called Randy in 2002), he says “it’s like no time has passed. You put on the mask and there they are, just waiting. Masked work gives you the sense that your own personality is just where the dial is normally set. I can just click it, and there’s another history, another life experience.”
It’s through the different life experiences of Randy and Iphelia that Gervais has found the work speaking back to him most profoundly. “Randy’s a solitary guy. I’m a solitary guy. So having him sort of be social and be engaging, but also having him feel a little bit of loss, helps me sort of feel my loss and recognize that that’s mine.” As for fairy godmother Iphelia, she embodies (in both name and personality) Gervais’ desire to make people feel things. “If I could somehow influence the world, it would be something that would make people put down their technology and find their bodies, and find their aliveness through their bodies. Because Iphelia’s so outrageous, she can cheerlead people in a way that I probably can’t.”
The process of creating, learning from, and truly unleashing his characters seems like a cathartic journey. And while this is a solo work, Gervais isn’t in it alone. He’s got Randy’s redneck charm and Iphelia’s overly nurturing spirit both helping him along the way. Gervais has crafted a show built completely of it’s own mold, and each performance is bound to be different from the rest. So no matter which night you go, shapeshifter will be well worth experiencing for yourself.
shapeshifter plays April 10-12 at 8 PM at Velocity Dance Center. Tickets can be purchased here.