Michel Lemieux answers his cellphone inside the old Montreal Planetarium, which closed last year.
“We’re sitting on the floor looking at the sky and the cosmic collisions. It’s interesting,” Lemieux says.
It’s also research. A new planetarium is under construction, and it is to have two domes, Lemieux explains. He and his partner in art, Victor Pilon, are creating the sky show for one of them.
LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE
“One will be a more informative show with someone talking to you explaining everything, and the other dome will be a poetic dome. [For that] we are creating a 20-minute piece without narration, no explanation, just the beauty of the cosmos” set to Philip Glass music, he says. “It’s like a cosmic poem.”
A high-tech cosmic poem, in fact, which is not a bad description of what Lemieux and Pilon are up to with “La Belle et la Bête” (“Beauty and the Beast”), which runs Wednesday through Dec. 9 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, presented by ArtsEmerson.
The Lemieux Pilon 4D Art production offers the same basic story familiar from the Disney animated musical, with the disfigured Beast hidden away in his manor and only Beauty’s heart capable of saving him. Lemieux and Pilon mix live actors onstage with dramatic projections not only of manor, garden, and sky but of the characters’ true selves, their fears and dreams.
Why tackle the old tale? “It’s a fairy tale, it’s a love story, but we thought it represents the world we live in today, where appearance is so important, the body is so important to look at. Can we still look at people for what they are inside?” Pilon asks. “We thought it had a lot of resonance today.”
They say they took inspiration not from Disney’s animated movie and stage musical, however, but from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film. Their Beast has shut himself away, pining for a lost love. Belle, an artist, arrives to deliver a piece of a medallion from her estranged father, an art dealer.
“And finally there’s two people that meet,” Pilon says, “two people that have had trauma in their lives, and are they able to share the love that they have?”
“It talks about the intimacy of us,” says Lemieux. “It talks about the fact that today we are communicating a lot by the media, by phone and Internet. We don’t touch each other so much. And we think we have a lot of friends, but they are virtual friends. But when we actually meet people and touch people, the intimacy becomes scary, actually.”
It seems ironic, then, that Montreal-based Lemieux Pilon 4D Art is known for its technological savvy, creating its own shows as well as, for example, events for the Montreal Jazz Festival and an homage to the music of Cirque du Soleil. But in “Beauty,” as in the rest of their work, Pilon and Lemieux say, they employ high-tech effects only in service of their artistic goals.
“We’re not impressed by the machines. We use technology to tell stories to create emotions in the audience,” Lemieux says.
For example, take the early scene in which the Beast cannot overcome his feeling of loss and abandonment and ugliness, and a metaphorical garden of thorns grows inside him.
“We see those thorns which are inside him,” Lemieux says. “They kind of grow out of him and become the garden all over the stage, and we even go onto the walls of the theater so the people on the floor can be surrounded by those thorns.”
The gilded Cutler Majestic, a Beaux-Arts theater opened in 1903, is a particularly apt setting, he adds.
“Our production is a contemporary production. The story happens today but in a very fairy tale-like manner,” says Lemieux. “[ArtsEmerson executive director] Rob Orchard really chose the right theater in Boston to play the show, because the visual of the show is exactly in tune with the decoration of the theater. It’s really romantic and really from another era.”
The company’s grown-up interpretation of “Beauty and the Beast” is rooted in another era, too. Lemieux notes that the earliest version of the story, by the 18th-century French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, “is a novel for adults, and that novel is full of sensuality” that was removed when the tale was adapted for children.
“In that child’s story, every night the Beast and Beauty are having dinner together and the Beast asks to Beauty, ‘Do you want to marry me?’ ” Lemieux says. “But in the earlier version, the adult one, he asks her . . . ‘Do you want to make love with me?’ It’s really different; it’s really more that first version that was inspiring for us, that was actually more contemporary in a way.”
The children’s version, Pilon adds with a laugh, “was really preparing young women to marry rich, ugly old men.”
The show’s live cast of three includes Bénédicte Décary as Belle, Vincent Leclerc as the Beast, and Diane D’Aquila as the Lady. They are surrounded in performance by the multimedia wizardry that Lemieux and Pilon have been developing for 30 years.
The duo started with slide and film projectors; now their fully digitized operation takes two days of setup, involving 20 computers, 11 projectors, and a technical crew of eight.
“For us the technological side is really the art of our work, but at the same time we want the machines to disappear, because they’re tools,” says Lemieux. “The heart of all that is the artists onstage. These are the ones that add the soul — living, sweating bodies onstage — and the real communication is between the real people onstage and the audience.
“The living people are like our jewels, and we create a jewel box around them which is technological,” Lemieux says. “It is like an illusionist’s trick. And you don’t need to wear 3-D glasses.”