‘entre chien et loup’ teeters between the body and technology – The Discourse.

A man in a silver suit and ball cap dances in front of a green background
Trained as a professional ballet dancer, James Gnam co-founded performance company plastic orchid factory with his partner Natalie LeFebvre Gnam in 2008. Photo by David Cooper

It was listening to a podcast about dogs and wolves — and when dogs first became domesticated — that first sparked the idea for James Gnam’s latest solo dance performance, entre chien et loup.

Meaning ‘between dog and wolf,’ it was the first time Gnam had heard the expression, which dates back hundreds of years to rural France and references that in-between moment between daylight and evening.

“It’s less about dogs and wolves and more about that time of day where you can’t distinguish between whether [you’re looking at] a dog or a wolf,” says Gnam, whose performance comes to Nanaimo on May 25.

“It’s this more holistic kind of expression around those fault lines between fear and unknowing, and civilization and the wild, and security and safety.”

It was especially striking for Gnam because the year was 2021. In the midst of pandemic lockdowns, it felt like an apt metaphor for the world we had all been suspended within — a kind of perpetual dusk.

“I realized, wow, we’ve been sort of living in this world of ‘entre chien et loup’ for the last while, where we don’t really know what’s going on, we’re doing the best that we can, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, a lot of just… persevering,” he says.

With that in mind, he hit the studio. Called Left of Main, it’s a Vancouver-based artist-run creative hub based in historic Chinatown that he started with his partner Natalie LeFebvre Gnam. In addition to being married, and parents, the two are also co-founders and co-directors of a live performance company called plastic orchid factory.

A dancer swings a tripod while wearing a fur hat in bright pink lighting
One of the questions Gnam sought to explore in entre chien et loup was how to shape time and activity to parallel what he had been experiencing during the pandemic. Photo by David Cooper

At this point, Gnam had already just completed choreography on an entirely different dance performance called What do you want to be if you get to grow up? based around conversations that parents have with their children about endings — of times in our lives, relationships, people, places — as well as endings of the world, says Gnam.

“I had a lot of conversations with my father, he was very preoccupied with the Cold War growing up… and I had a lot of conversations with my kids about the climate crisis, misadventures and parallels there,” he says. “So I was making the solo about the end of the world — and then the pandemic happened.

Suddenly, a solo piece about endings began to feel strange, and Gnam started having second thoughts.

“I realized … nobody needs a piece about endings, the end of the world,” he laughs. “It was really weird, making this piece and then all of a sudden the world started kind of paralleling the work that you’re making.”

So he put it away, and then about eight months later the idea for entre chien et loup began to form.

A man dances in a white studio
In addition to the performance, Gnam will host a workshop on May 23 in Nanaimo. Photo by David Cooper

The DNA of the previous piece was in there, he says, but when he went back into the studio, he started working in a more abstract sense, playing with the materiality of what he had experienced through the pandemic.

One of the questions he sought to explore was how he could shape time and activity to parallel what he had been experiencing — though entre chien et loup is not directly “a pandemic piece,” he says.

“It’s really about knowing and not-knowing, and what’s real and what isn’t, and how do we perceive these things? And how does time expand and contract?” he says.

The performance incorporates “technology-infused dance” via a live video feed that is shifted and manipulated in real time during the performance.

Gnam’s many years of professional ballet training and performance also inform his style of dance.

At just 10 years old, he began attending the National Ballet School of Canada. He moved across the country to Toronto — without his parents — to study ballet there for four years.

Even though he had a good experience and lived in a dance-oriented boarding school, it does strike him as a kind of extreme now, Gnam admits.

“When my son turned 10 I called my parents and was like, ‘What the fuck were you thinking?’” he laughs.

His parents were both social workers and not really artistic, Gnam says, and he was encouraged to pursue dance after he started getting into fights at school. A school counselor had proposed it as a positive outlet.

Always a creative and sporty kid, he took to the structure and discipline of dance immediately, he says, and was accepted at the school in Toronto within six months.

After graduating from the National Ballet School’s post-secondary program, he danced with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal and Ballet BC, but in his work with a plastic orchid factory, he says he’s able to combine many of his other creative interests — like photography, video and theater — all in one place.

The performance also utilizes light and live video in addition to dance. Photo by David Cooper

Since the show debuted via live feed on Vimeo during the lockdown in 2021, it has evolved significantly and has toured all over Canada, says Gnam. The entre chien et loup performance on Saturday marks the fourth time Gnam has shown a piece in Nanaimo — which is where he graduated high school and spent some of his youth.

Watch plastic orchid factory’s entre chien et loup at Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theater on Saturday, May 25 at 7:30 pm Tickets are $25 with student and member pricing available.

Gnam also hosts a workshop for dancers, actors, theater makers and movement-curious people on May 23 at 6:30 pm at Bowen Park in Room 1. The workshop is $15 or free with a show ticket.