Exploring sensorial connections through dance around the world
Passionate, award-winning choreographer, Florence Figols has been fusing research with choreography to further explore body movement and its sensorial connections. She has been teaching at Concordia’s Department of Contemporary Dance for the past 20 years. The main classes she teaches are Choreography and the Creative Process.
“Dance was always present [in my life]. I was always choreographing in my living room,” said Figols. From her living room to an international audience, Figols’s choreographies and dance workshops have been presented in New York, Spain, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Argentina.
Figols is a second-generation Canadian. Her parents immigrated here to escape the civil war in Spain. Upon settling in Montreal, Figols’s mother wanted her and her sister to dance. She took her daughters to a dance school in Little Burgundy, where Figols would attend ballet lessons every Saturday morning for the next five years. At 14 years old, Figols switched to ballet-jazz and then discovered contemporary dance.
“I don’t know if it’s dance that chooses you or if you choose dance,” said Figols. “At one point the power is so strong—so overwhelming; you feel so connected when you dance. You feel the soul, the brain, the heart, the spirit, the body, the world; you feel everything connecting together. It’s so powerful. For me, it’s food. I need it, you understand?” she said.
Although Figols’s first love was dance, when it was time to choose a field of study upon completing high school, Figols chose chemistry. She studied chemistry for three years at Collège Ahuntsic. According to Figols, at the time there were no dance degrees offered at universities. “Despite that, I always kept dancing,” she said.
Figols went to work in the Northern Quebec region of Port-Cartier. She worked there as a chemical technician in a laboratory. In Port-Cartier, a dance company had recently opened where Figols would attend rehearsals in the evenings and on weekends. “We would do dance shows and tour around cities in Northern Quebec such as Sept-Îles and Havre Saint-Pierre—it was great,” she said. “I then realised that I cannot live without dance.” By then, dance was a degree option at universities so Figols applied to the Department of Contemporary Dance at Concordia University and was accepted.
What attracted Figols to choreography was the ability to creatively explore her background. “It was a way to search for a space within me that is empty. A space that is not filled up with information—a space that will remain a mystery,” she said.
“My parents escaped a dictatorship regime, it was hard for them to speak about the past, about the things that happened on the other side of the Atlantic. There are a lot of things about their life that I do not know because they were not saying it,” explained Figols. “Because of the absence of words [from my parents], the absence of my origin, my past, it gave me a territory to dive into, to explore—that notion of identity, connection, empathy, memory [through choreography],” she said.
In 1995, Figols continued to pursue her education by attending the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and working towards a master’s degree in dance. During her master’s, she explored the creative process of dance through sensorial relationships of the body and its surroundings. “My son was three years old and my daughter was five months at the time. I did my master’s degree part-time and it was amazing. It was a beautiful and very rich period [of my life],” said Figols. This was when Figols was first introduced to sensoriality.
According to Figols, it is believed that there are only five senses, but there are in fact many more. “It’s as if your body is an orchestration. The body is an instrument, you can dance anywhere, anytime—it’s freedom,” she said. “A poetic body will create connection through space and time with its environment, other dancers and music.”
It was during the completion of her master’s that Figols interest in science intersected with her passion for dance, and she began studying proprioceptive movements. According to Figols, the receptors of movements are inside our bodies and just like our skin, they are distributed evenly everywhere. “I am moving, but I need to embody the distance that is between us,” explained Figols. “It’s all about connections—these connections are always changing. Nothing is fixed; everything is flux,” she said. “The way you train the attention is also moving in the body—even stillness is a movement.” Her main focus in research is sensory connections; Figols worked extensively on the haptic sense, which can be seen through a variety of her dance choreographies.
“I need to let my body speak during a performance. It’s a discipline to not own the movement but to let yourself be affected by the movement—that’s where we see the transformation,” said Figols. Stage presence, micro-politics of the dancing body and embodiment are also important elements which inspired her research and choreography.
“As soon as you say: ‘I am going to be present,’ it’s finished—you are already in the future, you are projecting a result,” explained Figols. “Being really in the present as much as you can, automatically will amplify your stage presence.”
In terms of micro-politics of the dancing body, Figols explored two questions: “Why isn’t there contemporary dance in totalitarian regimes? Why do communist countries like ballet so much?”
According to Figols, proprioception is the sense of self and that is why dances which inhibit this are not celebrated in certain regimes. “Contemporary dance is about the sense of self […]. It has no one traditional style that is transmitted from one generation to the next such as in ballet, salsa and tango,” she explained.
Figols believes that the body is the best technology ever created. “Our bodies are an infinite landscape. There are a lot of layers, a lot of processes in the body. It is not only muscle and skeleton,” she said. “When you discover everything that is happening right now; you are thinking, observing, your heart is beating, you are digesting, so many processes are occuring all at once.”
As Figols continued to explore the chemistry of the senses, she created mute / sense veu / en silence, which was named Best Choreography of 2006 by Hour’s Best. Within this piece, she used the map of her political origins as a metaphor to investigate methods of communication with her dancers. According to Figols, ‘Sense Veu’ in Catalan means without voice. “It was a real relationship between two people, a relationship with tension. I questioned the fears of the performers as well as my very own [fears] as a choreographer,” Figols said.
“There was a beautiful scene when one of the dancers was dancing on the back wall and the other dancer was throwing clementines at her. The audience was laughing at that scene— which was great because it meant they were engaged in the performance—but for me [the inspiration] came from the civil war in Spain, where people were killed against walls,” said Figols.
In 2008, Figols created and presented a dance piece called Transparent Shift, which was inspired by a tragic accident that happened to her in 1996. “I was hit by a bus and had to stay in bed not moving very much. I was looking at the ceiling and at one point I thought, ‘What if the ceiling was a stage?’” A few years later, Figols built a transparent stage with a table made of plexiglass, and a dancer would dance on top of the table while the audience watched from beneath. Transparent Shift was also presented in 2017 at the event “L’art comme cognition incarnée” at Hexagram, UQAM.
Since 2012, Figols has been a member of the Senses and Society Thematic Group, which she attends every two years. She is the session organizer for the art sector of the conference and has traveled to Japan, Austria and Toronto to present topics such as Performing Arts and the Senses, Artistic Practices and the Senses and Fluid Borders: Sensory Interactions in the Arts.
One of Figols’s most recent projects is called Choreo-Haptic Encounters, which she has been working on since 2015. Her research on the haptic sense has brought Figols the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico, Brazil and Argentina where she linked resiliency with choreography.
“I went to Buenos Aires and I worked with sociologists who use movements and art to do their own research and I had the chance to share all my creative processes which was very interesting and all my choreography work as well,” Figols said. She led a workshop in Buenos Aires and in Brasilia, where she spoke about Choreo-Haptic Encounters. “The haptic is the touch and movement combined,” explained Figols. Through her Choreo-Haptic performances, the objective is to stop judgement, to create a scenario where there is no possibility of categorizing identity. “The goal is to encourage a physical sensation,” said Figols.
To represent her project, Figols decided to work with two dancers who had never met each other before. Each dancer had their faces completely covered and were not allowed to speak. “At first you don’t know the colour of their skin, their accent, their identity,” she said. “I gave them different kinds of experiences such as sitting next to each other, pushing each other. Only through touch and feeling could they feel and deduce.”
Upon her return to Montreal, Figols spoke with her colleague, Melissa Raymond, an artist, urbanist, choreographer and Concordia alumna. Raymond assisted Figols during her dance presentation in Puerto Rico and is familiar with the Choreo-Haptic process.
“When I came back to Montreal we were having a coffee together and the idea of combining [a café experience] and the Haptic sense came together,” Figols said. According to her, the goal was to deliver this haptic experience to everyone, not only to dancers but to the general public.
Figols then realised that there was no longer a need for representation. “The participant is the performer and the audience at once,” she explained. “There is no spectator— it’s a participative installation –people are not watching this encounter because this would take away from the haptic experience. When people are watching you, you know that they are observing you and this can alter your experience.”
Figols and Raymond presented the first Haptic-Café experience in Montreal in September 2018 at an arts festival called Festival du Temps et du Silence. According to Figols, people came to participate, not knowing who was sitting in front of them and at the end of the event, they would reveal their identities and exchange their experiences. “Within a little book they left their testimony of the experience. This gave me the confidence to keep going. I might propose it here [at Concordia] at the SenseLab,” said Figols.
Many of Figols projects were made possible with the help from the professional development at Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association (CUPFA). According to Figols, CUPFA helped her obtain opportunities for further research on an international spectrum. “The university promotes research, but to do research you need funds to pay the dancers, to go to different events around the world,” said Figols.
Figols emphasized the importance of trying to put herself in the shoes of her students when working on course material, teaching methods and activities. “I tell myself that I am a 22-year-old student in 2019, and I ask myself, ‘What is the world like today? What do the students need, what will make them feel more equipped, more strong?’,” she said. “The goal is to give them tools for creation and for them to discover themselves.”