Dave St-Pierre and I are supposed to be talking about his new performance piece, Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! (A Little Tenderness for Crying Out Loud!) which opens at Harbourfront Centre on Feb 2. But we’ve stumbled on the subject of the Sea Life Aquarium in London, England, whose prudish operators recently adorned a mermaid statue with a bikini top. Apparently her large breasts were attracting more attention from visitors than the sea life swimming around her.
“They aren’t even real boobs! They’re made of rock!” St-Pierre exclaims, on the phone from his Montreal studio. “Every time I hear things like this it reminds me why I am making my work.
“Are we going to start going to museums and putting fig leaves over all the paintings?” he fumes. “Nudity is automatically sexual in a lot of people’s minds, but we need to change that.”
St-Pierre has made a name for himself both in Canada and internationally over the last six years with his unique brand of sexually charged performance that blends dance, theatre and cabaret. When his last show, La pornographie des âmes (Bare Naked Souls) played Toronto in 2008, it raised eyebrows and dropped jaws with its graphic depictions of sexuality and ample amounts of nudity. He’s been called a provocateur, an enfant terrible and a shock artist peddling pure trash. But more than anything St-Pierre is an astute observer of the occasionally uncomfortable things that make up our shared human experience.
“We fall in love, we get dumped, we feel bitter. It’s a cycle everyone lives through,” he says. “I often start from my personal stories in rehearsal, but I want to make shows that everyone can identify with.”
Tendresse focuses on an unnamed female character who’s between relationships and hating romance. Acting as host of the evening, she speaks about her frustrating personal life, occasionally demanding direct answers from the audience. Her experience is contrasted by a group of male performers, completely naked for much of the show save for the long blonde wigs they wear. What’s perhaps more surprising than the gender-bending full-frontal nudity is that the male performers are all simultaneously portraying a single character — a six-year-old boy.
“The woman at the centre of the show wants to push love away,” says St-Pierre. “I wanted to find the opposite way of how adults manage love, which is how I got to the idea of kids. They don’t understand when people don’t want to give them attention, and they also have no censorship of themselves. They just go for it. The blonde wigs the performers wear are sort of like when a child puts on his mother’s clothes as a way of getting attention.”
At one point the entire group of nude bewigged male performers pours into the audience, giving spectators a chance to check out their junk up close. Lest it be misconstrued as an attempt to titillate, St-Pierre is clear that he’s not interested in shock value. In fact, he’s far more occupied with the opposite — countering the hysteria around the naked human form.
“I want to democratize the penis, the testicles, the anus,” he says. “The performers show the audience everything they can. It’s 2011, people. We need to get over our fear of nudity.”
And if people are offended by the work, St-Pierre is just fine with that.
“I love it when people come up to me after a show and tell me I’m a fucking asshole,” he says. “Other people come up to me crying, saying the show was the best thing they’ve ever seen in their life.”
“Audiences have become so passive over time, politely giving standing ovations to works that don’t deserve it,” he adds. “Whether people like what I do or hate what I do, what’s important is that it gets them to react.”