If you happened to be scrolling through the New York Sheep and Wool Festival website this past fall, one image likely caught your eye: A trio of humans dressed as sheep—complete with bells around their necks and grass in their mouths—and their shepherd dozing off in the distance. The sheep, named Julie, Marie-Louise, Bernadette and César, are the centerpiece of Les Moutons, a “wordless live installation” that’s been performed more than 400 times by the Canadian dance company Corpus in some 25 countries. (Red tape and visa issues kept the group from performing as planned at Rhinebeck in 2016, but hopes are they will perform at the 2017 festival.) In it, the sheep do what sheep do. They’re herded, penned, fed, milked, and sheared. They bleat, eat, and copulate (not too graphically), escape into the audience, let children and adults feed and pet them, or just stand and stare into space as sheep are wont to do. It’s all delightfully weird, funny, intriguing, and hard to define. Is it dance? Performance art? Interactive children’s theater? The Corpus performers aren’t telling. After all, they say, it doesn’t really matter.
“We don’t like to label it,” says David Danzon, the company’s artistic director and cofounder. “And I’m proud of the fact that nobody really can.” Not that they haven’t tried. The label, Danzon has observed, tends to change with the audience. “It generates different reactions,” he says. “Some laugh, some are puzzled, and some are really disturbed.” Some audiences try desperately to find a message in the work: case in point a performance in Montreal where audience members were convinced that it was an allegory for a student protest. “It wasn’t and it isn’t,” says Danzon, who plays the part of the shepherd in the performances. “But in the end it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is: are you engaged or not?”
Les Moutons evolved from one of Corpus’s improvisation exercises. “We were playing around with ideas and I picked up a hat,” Danzon explains. “The hat became a shepherd’s hat and it came that I am a shepherd and you are the sheep. Let’s see what happens.” Eventually two performers became dancing sheep and a loose performance was choreographed. They performed it here and there but ultimately decided it wasn’t working. “We realized that it wasn’t really that funny,” Danzon says. “So we decided to just explore being sheep.”
They began making day trips to a local sheep farm and spent hours just observing the animals. “We’d come back to the studio and compare notes,” Danzon explains. What they observed is that nothing really happens. “Sheep don’t really do much,” Danzon says, “At first glance they’re pretty boring animals. They don’t run fast, they don’t have claws, they’re perceived as stupid. But they are very present.” The performers began watching how the animals breathed, chewed and how they stand and stare. “Sheep have 270-degree vision,” Danzon points out. “And they have scent glands in their eyes. And from those details we learned that they are unique creatures.” The performance built from there. “It’s not a parody of the animal,” Danzon explains. “It’s a genuine attempt to recreate sheep behavior.”
The basic installation —either a fixed enclosure or wandering flock—and sequence of events is the same for each performance of Les Moutons, but Danzon is quick to point out that none are alike. “The audience is on equal footing [with the performers],” he says. “They choose how much they want to interact and how they react. And that drives their reaction to the piece.” That reaction, he says, differs from venue to venue and culture to culture. “I’ve been the shepherd for 14 years now," he says, “and I never get tired of it. It’s always something different.”