Reviews

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Evi-Dance is now providing space for reviews of dance performances; the hope is that there will be ongoing insightful reviewing of dance and physical theatre shows. Watch this space!

POUR

Artistic Direction, Concept, Choreography and Scenography by Daina Ashbee

Interpreted by Paige Culley

Produced by TO Live in association with Native Earth Performing Arts

The Theatre Centre, Toronto

February 22-24, 2019

Reviewed by Beverley Daurio

 

POUR is a touring, full-length solo work by Daina Ashbee, originally shown in Montreal in 2016 and recently performed at the Theatre Centre by Paige Culley. The floor of the upstairs theatre is covered with 4 by 8 foot sheets of styrofoam building material in white and pale blue. They form a performance base of artificiality that is like a giant blank page or screen.

While the audience enters the theatre, the stage is dark. Someone is moving around in that darkness; we see occasional flashes of arms or a face without identification. Eerily, this person emits extremely high pitched notes. They are not quite screams, but almost. They are long, piercing, painful to the ears. They are like anguish embodied in sound.

When the stage lights come up, brighter lights hit the audience and stay there. It is like being hit by headlights while driving at night. These audience lights remain on for perhaps the first third of the piece.

In silence, we see the stage has had liquid poured onto it—clear liquid, and yellow liquid pooling on the left side. Paige Culley stands in the middle, at the front of the stage, facing and staring at the audience in a challenging, firm, strange attitude. She is naked except for a pair of jeans. Her chin length brown hair has been slicked back with oil. Her demeanour is powerfully ambiguous. She eventually removes her jeans and curls onto the stage, naked.

Ashbee’s approach to nudity reminds me of some work by Daniel Leveille—where the naked human form works in sympathy with the audience’s bodies, vulnerable, small yet full of strength, essential and somehow manifesting the soul. This is a kind of magic that dance has that is rarely used. Ashbee has used detail to control every aspect of this presentation.

Culley is an incredibly strong dancer and performer. This piece is so physically and emotionally demanding and challenging that it is almost unimaginable how she gets through it. The theatre is not warm, and Culley, naked and covered with oil, must be cold. She is also required to contort and writhe and hold odd and uncomfortable positions, to push herself. In one segment more than halfway through the piece, Culley lies on her back and begins to drum using her elbows against the floor. This looks very painful, and her elbows turn red. She pounds the floor with different parts of her body in turn, sometimes while sideways, holding balance with just a foot and her shoulders or head and hips.

As she travels in a long rectangle around the stage, slowly—this traverse takes up more than half the show—we are given flashes of many different bodily images, from childbirth to intercourse to ballet to rape to mental pain and many more. Culley, who is a very strong and elegant dancer, is always in an uncomfortable, awkward position, and for most of the show she is prone or horizontal, balancing on her side, or on her stomach. The images remain ambiguous and implied, but she is pressed low, kept down. Ashbee has constructed these images to flash at us, to remind us, to perhaps taunt and repel us, but to never be graspable. At its core, this piece presents a woman who is inutile in societal terms—she is engaged in art, in expressiveness, in a material sense completely unproductive. Culley’s confrontational looks at the audience are constructed to implicate society in something—it is almost an accusation—something that is intended to work on us after we have left the theatre.

The work mostly occurs in bright light and silence, and there are only two sections that use a soundscape, a kind of deformed violin/cello keening that is scrapy, harsh, and pressured. The lighting changes rarely—once to turn down the brights lighting the audience, once to turn them back on, and again near the end, when the darkness returns at the back and Culley returns to further renditions of the disturbing almost-screams from the opening.

POUR is disturbing on many levels; it is offputting, if powerful, to watch; it is an indictment of the cages society puts people in, and of the lack of response to and care about the suffering that many experience. It is also hard to accept its lack of offered hope. The cycle of anguish is presented and then begins again at the end when the screaming returns. Even though Culley stands at the front of the stage with her back to us, stepping sideways, surveying the performance space, outside the fray, upright, she is still naked and in the suffering space. The beauty of the dancer is used in harshness, and in movement that not just lacks, but actively rejects, joy and freedom. The piece insists on the dancer’s strength and power and endurance, on her deep integrity, which is perhaps a kind of encouragement. Yet one leaves the theatre saddened. And without even a glimpse of an implication of hope.

 

 

Who We Are in the Dark

Concept, Choreographic Composition and Direction: Peggy Baker

Composers/Musicians: Jeremy GaraSarah Neufeld

Dancers: Nicole Rose Bond, Sarah Fregeau, Mairi Greig, Kate Holden, Benjamin Kamino, Sahara Morimoto, David Norsworthly, Jarrett Siddall, Calder White

Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

February 21-24 2019

Reviewed by Ted Fox

We sit in a darkened theatre, listening to the sound of rumbling, like the ominous thunder of an approaching storm, or worse.

Gradually all becomes dimly lit and will remain this way throughout. We barely see the dancer in dancers moving and howling like wolves, keening like whales and vocalizing other animal sounds.

A video projection behind them of uni-cellular plasma organisms suggests embryos prior to birthing.

Later an abstract video of patterns, lines and forms, including one of a spinning wheel. Laser beams of light shoot out, suggestive of a war zone, of mechanization running berserk. Made even more compelling as this is accompanied by the live percussive drumming of Jeremy Gara. It builds and builds to a very high intensity that penetrates the bodies of viewers.

Certainly the effect on the dancers is impressive. Baker has composed the choreography in conjunction with them. Their improvised vocabulary consists of circling, spinning, falling, weaving in and out, clasping hands together like a rope and sinuously moving, snakelike. Creates an atmosphere of angst, dread and a fear of the unknown inhabiting the darkness.

In one segment violinist Sarah Neufeld walks while playing into their territory where they lie face down like corpses battered down by their environment. A block of light follows her as she walks.

The live violin and drums enter and embed themselves in the dancers’ bodies, impelling them like one body forward and back in waves, a crowd that morphs in the darkness into hunched over undefined images scurrying about like rats.

There are moments of respite when a couple of dancers come into slightly brighter lit spaces and engage in human interactions.

One segment features art by artist John Heward. It is painted on canvas hanging in tattered mounds folded inwards. Suggests the interior of a ruined temple after an apocalypse.

Ends with a dancer alone in front of a patterned backdrop, bathed in a pinkish golden light. Heralding perhaps a new dawning of a brighter future.

A really compelling but curiously unemotional exploration of the human condition in today’s technological society.

SKOW

Choreographed by William Yong/Zata Omm Dance Projects

Performed by Johanna Bergfelt

The Citadel, Toronto

January 30 to February 2, 2019

 

Reviewed by Beverley Daurio

 

SKOW is a full-length solo work by William Yong for the powerful and elegant Johanna Bergfelt, with ingenious lighting by Simon Rossiter and a minimalist set design that includes large paper “rocks” that light up, small, defined “performance areas” and an old fashioned black dial telephone. Bergfelt first appears facing away from us, straightbacked and speaking into a mic, spotlit in front of a vast, crinkled back wall covered with white paper.

The program notes tell us that this work intends to “create a kind of soliloquy from personal experience” and is an “expression of inner musings.” Indeed, the work proceeds in episodes of varying lengths that jump like thoughts do, through time, mood, and memories. Bergfelt dances with angular extension and incredible flexibility within set geographies within the stage—in a rectangle of light, along a short line of carpet, exploring within these limits the extension of limbs and of the body, travelling through the kind of time that the stage represents.

Bergfelt is dressed in a squarish brown lace over-vest, a t-shirt, beige capris and a blond wig that she later removes. The music is an odd collection that begins with the haunting tinkling of a jewellery box and goes on to include a variety of sounds and songs, from eighties lounge music to harsh, comic jazz.

In one sequence, the entire back wall is lit with moving, active, graphic images by Elysha Poirier, and Bergfelt is at once dwarfed by and an energetic participant in the acrobatics of light by echoing the drawings with physical acrobatics of movement, including a handstand at the back wall.

Another sequence, possibly the most dramatic in the show, has Bergfelt rolling a mic’d silver medical cart on wheels to centre stage and performing surgery, telling us what she is doing as she proceeds, using cleavers, pliers and other brutal tools, on a gourd, a parsnip and carrot and lime—demonstrating how hip replacement surgeries are done. The bald straightforwardness of her actions and her talking us through this segment, until she literally staples the gourd closed again, is charming, comic, and oddly educational.

At one point Bergfelt calls out “the black cat,” and begins a comic dance to jazzy cartoon music. Much later in the show, Bergfelt announces “black cat again,” and this time, dressed in a furry black cat outfit with ears, she proceeds to prowl across the stage, as the crinkled paper back wall glows red.

A phone call from her father asking about her hips resonates with the earlier surgery section, and adds weight and meaning to the “operation” section.

There is also much humour in this piece, which insists on a goodnatured insistence on fun as an element of art. With her back to the screen, facing us, Bergfelt precisely speaks a crying woman’s lines from a tender love scene with Clint Eastwood in a film, including all the woman’s sighs and sniffs. Bergfelt’s performance amplifies the screen romance, humanizing it and rendering it more immediate and strange.

Those who put together this show have succeeded in their stated intention of twining together “the profound and the ridiculous” into an emotional, visual, very human collage.

 

 

This Shape, We Are In

by Jeanine Durning (with the performers)

Performed by: Valerie Calam, Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Megumi Kokuba, Pulga Muchochoma, Erin Poole, Roberto Soria

Toronto Dance Theatre

Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto

January 24 to February 2, 2019

 

Reviewed by Beverley Daurio

 

The wing curtains are tied up and the stage is empty except for an isolated closed door, in a frame, at the middle of the right of the stage, and a small room that is part of the theatre at the back left. The stage is lit and the house lights remain on. A clicking and banging sound starts and metal sticks poke out through or bump against the door frame of a small room at the back left of the stage. This goes on for a little while, and then a performer emerges through the portal and into the space—he has been trying to fit a school student’s table through the doorway, and he succeeds in a small moment of triumph.

This student’s table multiplies, and emerges again at the end of the piece. It may not be too far a stretch to suggest that the student’s table is a symbol for the choreographer/creator’s struggle to bring philosophy and learning into dance, and how awkward this attempt is, and yet mysterious. The table is carried off-stage; it is brought back; performers carry the tables through the long hallways beside the risers where the audience is seated; more tables appear and are carried in and out by dancers, and scraped and jerked noisily and creatively against the stage floor.

The dancers wear casual, colourful, slightly eccentric street clothes, and shoes: a wildy coloured workout suit, plaid bermuda shorts, lace, wool, pleats and so on. Their movements are individualized, too—as they make their way around the stage, or off and on stage, and each has a particular style. They are excellent dancers, and their movements, whether angular and vertical or awkward and loping, are arresting and powerful. But in the strangest way, in the context of this piece, they seem isolated from each other and stuck within a self that is limiting. They are atomized, and this “individuality” feels like a distancing cage.

This casualness, of movement, dress and organization, proceeds apace. In such a formal situation—professional theatre, incredible dancers, acclaimed choreographer, almost sold-out audience— this disintegrated centre creates palpable tension. Audience members literally lean a bit forward—what is going to happen?

The answer is, a lot, and not very much.

The dancers’ movements, in solo, duets or in groups, often seem obtuse or random, even when done in tandem. In one long sequence near the beginning— one of the few sections accompanied by music or soundscape— the performers bob up and down in place, standing, hopping and jiggling to the beat. A similar spareness and randomness holds for most of the texts spoken by the dancers. At different points, dancers stand on the stairs in small groups and speak directly to the audience, but the things they say are mostly lyrically surreal, a bit comic, and reflect a failing, if desperate, desire to communicate—to communicate “something.”

The lighting changes little throughout the show—house lights up, full wash on stage—except at two points when the house lights dim for a few minutes, and the audience feels a certain relief from the discomfort of full visibility in a theatre. This is a subtle trick to include the audience in the performance, for their identification with the dancers to be felt, and to blur the line between performance space and audience space. The stage lights also dim a couple of times for a period long enough to be noticed. These alienation techniques—think Brecht, Osborne, Handke, and Canadian influences like Ame Henderson and Michael Trent—are applied gently and subtly.

The use of music is spare and also clearly used to play up the chaos or to foreground it. The one sequence of organized joy, more than three quarters of the way through the piece, lasts for a few minutes, as Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” plays, with all the lights up full. This segment is a centre of “order” in the piece, providing comfort for audience and dancers in terms of recognizable beat and familiarity; but its unsatisfactory nature cannot be overstated.

This Shape, We Are In coheres as an acknowledgement of formlessness in our society, relief at the wrong things, connection over the ephemeral and non-productive, constant urgency without goals, and distraction. There are clustered activities—including sudden simultaneous dancing, funny gatherings in the small room at the back left corner, and a long scene at the end focused around knocking on the isolated, standing door and being let in, or invited in, or pushing through, all excitedly and as if this segment is abstracted from a party in someone’s apartment. There are loud declarations, from “It’s over!” to surreal or philosophical musings, like the phrase repeated throughout the show, “We have all been here before.” We have been to the dance theatre, they have danced, we have watched, they have socialized.

When dancers leave the stage to speak on the steps beside the audience, leave the stage to actually exit the theatre, leave the stage to party in the small room at the back, they stitch the production to “reality,” or the reality outside the performance. The off-kilter vocalizations are openings into the surreal and imaginary—but without cohering into graspable meaning, just as the show refuses to cohere into graspable sense or meaning, and the movement refuses to add up or build, and even the meme near the end: one student’s school table and one empty chair facing it—are we meant to learn?—is purposefully vague and insubstantial.

The dancers are sublime; the precision, focus and energy of Valerie Calam, Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Megumi Kokuba, Pulga Muchochoma, Erin Poole, and Roberto Soria electrifies the space. Their physicality is transformed, as if they could be butterflies flitting across a summer garden, woodland creatures frolicking, or shapes in an abstract painting that keeps rearranging its forms and colours before our eyes. This is a challenging work that demands many complex arcs from the performers.

Durning’s disorder and pseudo-chaos is meaningful whether or not the production inspires the audience sufficiently to spend time considering the many questions the piece raises, including: what is the role of the artist/choreographer? If the artist’s role is, even in part, to dislodge complacency and ask people to question their own purposes and activities as part of a greater social reality, then This Shape, We Are In succeeds, and its subtle, complex philosophy has been made manifest. This is a very difficult achievement.

 

Slow Dance

(double billed with This Shape, We Are In, which is reviewed separately)

Choreographer: Marie Lambin-Gagnon

Dancers: Yuichiro Inque, Peter Kelly, Devon Snell, Imogen Wilson (though she did not appear in the show reviewed here)

Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto

Jan 23 – Feb 2 2019

Reviewed by Ted Fox

The set design resembles an alien landscape, not unlike those of old Star Trek TV episodes, or those outer space films like Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor as the queen who walks around wearing a tulle dress trailing behind her. Like these, Slow Dance also has a set and costume made of garish synthetic materials. And like them the predominant colours are orange, blues and gold. These costumes are draped on tall mounds created by props like chairs, crutches, stools and an assortment of objects.

For audience seating, there are only 30 chairs placed in an L shape around, and close to, the set. We gradually see sleeping human forms encased within the mounded displays. One can be seen through a gauzy material. Below, another slumbers. Initially one is hidden from our sightlines so only those to the left can see him.

They slowly, very slowly awaken, their eyes mostly closed. Gradually they slide down from their high positions and move like sleepwalkers. The costumes they are wearing slowly slide down their bodies. They pull on the materials, attempting to re-dress themselves. They fall, writhe, twist and turn; they stand and fall like unbalanced malfunctioning automatons. A sense of heaviness is created as the objects making up the display weigh down their bodies.

The costumes and objects seem to become living entities wearing the humans. One could say the humans have transformed into fashion victims. The result is that they demolish the structures, resulting in a battleground image with objects and costumes strewn everywhere.

It is very impressive watching each performer's agile movement adjustments as the structural objects fall on their heads. Each night the show changes because of their improvisations.

Asa-Sexton Greenberg's electronic score conveys a dreamy meditative state. Occasionally it becomes heightened and energetic, counterpointing the lethargic atmosphere, like a fast urban environment versus a slow more natural state.

I find I am interacting with this. It raises questions such as how the costume's colour, natural or synthetic texture and weight affect a dancer's performance.

Innovative, visually and orally arresting and very humorous.