Before you see their performances, there are many things about Compagnie Marie Chouinard that cry out for a furrow-browed contemplation punctuated only by cultivated “ahs” and “hms.” An avant-garde dance company from Montreal, the group bears many of the markers of high pretentiousness in the American cultural imagination – abstract dance, 20th-century classical music, nudity. And did I mention they’re French (-speaking)?

The Statue of Liberty must have been the last moment of genuine cultural camaraderie between the U.S. and the Francophone world, since in response to the stereotypes of French-language media we as Americans carry with us – disaffected, independently wealthy faux-radical youth smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in a seedy bar – we typically give little more than an irritated sigh.

When Compagnie Marie Chouinard came to Ann Arbor on Jan. 23, they performed two different works. The first, entitled Gymnopédies, was built around Erik Satie’s canonical series of compositions for the piano of the same name. Beginning with the company’s 11 dancers silently walking through a yonic curtain rigging in pairs, suggesting creation or birth or a reverse birth, I expected an uninhibited, self-indulgent performance. But Compagnie Marie Chouinard is a lot smarter than its audience.

The next scene, a formation of about five to seven dancers donned in clown noses comes out bunny-hopping across the stage. A few audience members, including myself and the person I went with, laughed a bit. Is it supposed to be funny?, we sheepishly wonder, as we try to suppress our laughter because it seems like we’re supposed to strain for its commentary on the human condition with an expressively unexpressive face. It becomes obvious that there’s something more at play when a second group, similarly garbed in red noses, enters stage right hopping in the same way toward the first group. And then something extraordinary happened: everybody laughed!

Stunt after stunt, the company brilliantly played on its audience’s expectations by foregrounding the silly and the goofy amid the gorgeous choreography. Compagnie Marie Chouinard does not eschew expertise and technique in refusing ballet-as-serious-art and its attendant stuffiness. But perhaps even more importantly, this dance company is interested in sex. And yet, the depiction of sex is no less awkward or goofy than the rest of the show. This aspect is part of the company’s great success.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s thoughtful and inclusive sex-positivity consists of its interest in the unsure, early erotic encounters that often fall outside heteronormative conceptions of sex. There is no shame or guilt or pretentiousness; rather only a sense of goofy, playful, tender and merrily raunchy unknowingness in their representations of sex: gay and lesbian and hetero.

The second half of the show, titled Henri Michaux: Mouvements, is an engaging exploration of the representational capacity of ballet as each dancer, dressed in a black body suit, mimics the monochromatic ink drawings of the Belgian poet and painter of the title. Once again, Compagnie Marie Chouinard averts the risk of coming off as uncavalierly pretentious with the choice of music – abrasive, fast-paced metal. This choice cements the company’s commitment to poking fun at its audience by saying, We’re not stuffy, so why do you watch it that way? Their delight is in subverting the typical conditions of the reception of ballet and high culture by producing an intelligent and simultaneously very funny show.

A note on reduced ticket pricing for students from the UMS website: “UMS will set aside a limited quantity of student tickets in select seating areas at half-price. Purchase online at ums.org/students or in person at the League Ticket Office. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis on September 8, 2014 until they sell out, or until 11:59 pm the night before the performance (11:59 pm on Thursdays for weekend performances). Students must be enrolled in a degree program. Student ID must be presented to pick up tickets; if no student ID is presented, student must forfeit tickets or pay full ticket price.”

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