So it makes a sort of sense that Montreal should boast a busy production line in avant-garde choreographers. But avant-garde choreographers of a particular stamp: neither abstract virtuosi like Merce Cunningham, nor joyous rakehells like Lindsay Kemp. Montreal's dance creators are monastically severe: a short tour through their domain, known locally as nouvelle danse, furnishes much food for thought.
I am first directed to the Agora de la Danse, a converted turn-of-the- century YMCA, which is now a hive of choreographic activity. My opening encounter - in a studio, bare save for an ominous square of black perspex like a vet's operating table - is with a lady named Dena Davida. She turns out to be both a priestess, and something of a rebel. And also a historian; she wants me to understand where nouvelle danse came from, and what it might be.
Have I heard of le refus global? This, it seems, is the name of the manifesto with which, in 1948, Quebec's cultural community launched its defiant counterblast to the Roman Catholic church. The revolution took time because the church was entrenched - it had a stranglehold on politics until well into the Sixties - and dance in particular was frowned on by the clergy. The global refusers, cut off by their language from the rest of the American dance world, beavered away, formed themselves into companies, and evolved a style.
What is that style? Dena knots her brow, clenches her fists against her bosom. "A return to impulse, to the deep forces of the unconscious. Much leaping and throwing. Something more primal than the Merce Cunningham school." The three original refusers, she says, are still alive and kicking; their first disciples are now professors of dance in the corridors of power upstairs. Her concern is with the third generation of global refusers, whose work she stages in this studio. "But I'm considered a bad influence," she adds, "because I encourage too many people to become choreographers."
How many at present? "Forty-eight." Can they make a living at it? "Only by taking a second job: modelling and waitering in their twenties; teaching or working as body-therapists when they start to slow down." How many dancers can these 48 choreographers command? A laugh. "Forty-eight." This is indeed a tight little world.
I next encounter four of her progeny, each of whom presents a videoed work. First comes Wasteland, inspired by a painting by Francis Bacon, in which three men hunch and creep among piles of black dirt. Next comes The Last Things, inspired by Paul Auster's fiction, in which the female choreographer performs a powerfully demented solo. Then comes Metamorphose Clandestine, inspired by Andre Breton - six figures urged by a driving rhythm through a variety of couplings - and finally From a Crack in the Earth, Hindu sculpture crossed with The Rite of Spring. All four pieces are marked by a relentless abstraction.
The creator of Wasteland is forthright on politics. He wants a separatist solution for Quebec, and as soon as possible. "It will be better for everyone." But won't it result in oppression for the English-speakers? "When you draw a line, it's always going to hurt someone. But Anglophones can't understand how we Francophones feel. We are six million French-speakers, surrounded by 300 million who speak English. We have been oppressed for centuries."
Upstairs I meet a second-generation refuser, a flaringly beautiful Greek (born in Egypt, brought up in London - in other words, a typical Canadian- immigrant mix) called Iro Tembeck. This dancer-turned-professor is also exercised by the linguistic tug-of-war, but takes the opposite view. Her monograph on Quebec dance has been published in both French and English, but only the French edition can now be bought in Montreal book shops. English, she growls, is being systematically pushed to the margins.
Out, now, along wide streets bounded by picturesque stone houses in the French-colonial style, till we come to an Anglican church. Well, that's what it was when the Molsom beer company built it at the turn of the century, but then it became a theatre, then a Roman Catholic church, and now it belongs to a nouvelle danse company. In the basement, one of the leading lights of the second generation, Paul-Andre Fortier, is taking a rehearsal.
Just steps in silence. Confident steps, intense nouvelle danse gestures - angular jerks, flailing leaps, gnomic postures, which will (I trust) speak volumes to the faithful. A monk-like figure with a cold grey stare, Fortier seems enviably unbeset by doubt. "I've been doing this for the past 25 years - I've reached the stage where I can do what I want. I love it, and I guess the dancers love it too." (The mute dancers seem content to be spoken for.) What he's doing at this stage of the choreographic process, he explains, is "getting rid of the crap". Er - I wonder if he realises the scale of that task?
Not every bloom to have emerged from this soil is so rebarbative. Edouard Lock is a Moroccan-Jewish Quebecker whose choreography is electrifying by any standards. He too is a second-generation refuser, but he regards the official disapproval under which they had to develop as a source of strength. "We could make our experiments in darkness, with no observers present. We didn't have to be `successful', or cultivate an identity. Isolation can be artistically beneficial."
Lock, moreover, is that rare bird, an avant-gardist who has crossed Montreal's choreographic divide to create a work for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. This company, which was formed in the Fifties by a pupil of Fokine, represents a formidable counterweight to the radical goings-on at the Agora. Its director, Lawrence Rhodes, views the experimentalists with benign indifference. "It's great that they're there, but nouvelle danse doesn't have any relevance for us. It's a different vocabulary."
His company's vocabulary - which will be on view in Britain later this month - is certainly eclectic. It ranges from a stunning version of Kurt Jooss's anti-war classic The Green Table, via The Moor's Pavane (Othello distilled by Jose Limon), to Jiri Kylian's Janacek-inspired, and gracefully airborne, Sinfonietta. The forthcoming tour will also include the British premiere of Mark Morris's Quincunx,
One reason why Morris likes working with this company lies in its physical variety: the dancers, who are drawn from all over the world, come in all shapes and sizes, the absolute antithesis of the cloned vision of, say, English National Ballet's director Derek Deane. Rhodes's desire to keep as many choreographic flags flying as possible is reflected in the bodies with which he peoples his stage.
But these are hard times for dance companies. The Ballets Canadiens may not be in such dire straits as their US counterparts, but they are having to pare down both the number and length of their contracts. Drawing on pupils from their associated school, they can still mount a decent Nutcracker, but Coppelia and Giselle are out of the question. Any pregnancy in the ranks of the corps de ballet spells bad news, though they are not threatened as the Royal Swedish Ballet were last year (with eight ballerinas swelling up simultaneously).
Thirty years ago, Montreal was the commercial capital of Canada; now it's visibly in decline. Every week more businesses are shutting down, or moving west - partly for economic reasons, but partly because of the increasing linguistic and cultural polarisation. A poll last week suggested that one in five Montreallers would leave if Quebec seceded from Canada. Rhodes is much more worried by this than by mundanities like a standstill grant. "This is still a wonderful city, but one is haunted by the idea that it may be dying. We are watching our audience melt away."
Ironically, culture - and even dance - may be about to assume a new importance. It helped Quebec define itself after the war, and may do so again. The provincial government has made the arts a cornerstone of its policy: nouvelle danse may be a bit vieux jeu these days, but its practitioners represent a genuine hope for the future.
n Les Grands Ballets Canadiens 1996 UK tour begins at the Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, 10, 11 April; Grand Theatre, Blackpool, 14 April; Sadler's Wells, London EC1, 16-20 April; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 23,24 April; King's Theatre, Glasgow, 25-27 AprilReuse content