Culture is to Montréal what air is to all living things. In fact, most Montrealers don't distinguish culture from their daily existence. It's just there. As they live and breathe. Perhaps it's the effect of the majestic St. Lawrence River that leads to rich voyages of the imagination. Or maybe it's the French passion that has stimulated artists for centuries. Whatever it is, it has inspired such world-acclaimed artists as l'Orchestre symphonique under the baton of Charles Dutoit, the Grands Ballets Canadiens under the direction of Gradimir Pankov, novelists Michel Tremblay and Mordecai Richler, Céline Dion and the Cirque du Soleil. Painting and sculpture flourish here, too, in the great halls of Montréal's many prestigious museums, and hundreds of top-notch local galleries. And each year the Opéra de Montréal offers a complete roster of the greatest classics, while various theatre companies stage eclectic productions, from the works of Shakespeare to the latest in fringe. Then there's Ex-Centris, a revolutionary Cinema and New Media Complex where film buffs go to see the best independent films from around the world and the totally plugged-in get their technological thrills. A veritable hotbed of creativity for all the arts, Montréal has a special soft spot for contemporary dance. Ever since the pioneering Festival international de nouvelle danse was first held here in 1985, it has provided a stage for new aesthetics and has showcased radical experiments by the best and brightest choreographers and dancers in the world.