Strauss and Acorn at The Citadel: Baseline/Multiform

Baseline/Multiform

Baseline/Multiform

Heidi Strauss (adelheid) and Amanda Acorn

Baseline: choreographed and performed by Heidi Strauss

Sound and projection design by Jeremy Mimnagh

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Multiform: choreographed and performed by Amanda Acorn

Lighting design by Paul Chambers

The Citadel, Toronto

March 31-April 1, 2017

REVIEWED BY BEVERLEY DAURIO

Baseline/Multiform is an ambitious program produced by Heidi Strauss’ adelheid and Amanda Acorn, and presented at The Citadel Theatre in Toronto. Both performances use experimental audience arrangements, eschewing the theatre’s usual banked seats on risers, with viewers on the same level as the performers.

Heidi Strauss’s Baseline begins with the audience randomly placed, sitting, slouching or standing around the undemarcated flat theatre. We do not know where our attention should go. The light is pale but we can see clearly. People try to figure out what’s going on, and eventually the room settles, as Strauss, on the floor, dressed in a formal modern dance costume of black sleeveless top and cropped black pants, travels around the room slowly, approaching different people gently and touching or greeting them softly, gaining verticality. This has the effect of grounding the audience and focusing energy both on Strauss as dancer and on the process of her invitation to us as participants. She climbs, so that she is standing in a window well very high up in the wall. She asks for help to get down, and receives it from an audience member.

This is the first of several segments that form the piece. Strauss tells us that she is “thinking about you right now” and “our first encounter.” She thanks us for “the situation.” We are treated to large projected “selfies” Strauss took, projected on the wall, and a commentary on how uncomfortable selfies can be to look at; she shares a strange experience she had, seeing someone who looked like her, in a German train station.

Next is an exercise in semi-dark, where audience members gather around a long diagonal of light on the floor, facing each other in lines, disperse, then gather again for a re-try. In the re-try, Strauss makes her way, dancing in the light between the two lines of audience members, speaking here and there to people, thanking the young man who helped her down from the window well, encouraging, noticing, and present. In the next segment— a game show with an ’80s disco theme— Strauss invites us to pretend to be a different audience, and includes the semi-ritualistic unlooping and spreading of light strips, and the opening of a bottle of champagne, sharing it around the audience. The projections and soundscape change to a mechanical uproar, and Strauss, in the most dance-like section of the piece, performs a robotic, exploratory few minutes that contrast sharply with the humourous and friendly sharing that surrounds it, and especially with the next segment that follows, about ecology, the planet and our fragile existence.

The lighting and sound beautifully support every movement of the piece. The mood shifts are magical and make the kind of sense that dreams make— except that this is a consciously constructed experience. Underlying themes, from daily life to high culture, are subtle: we experience elements of a yoga class (including closing our eyes when asked to, re-opening them, and lying on the floor, breathing, at the end of the show), of corporate team-bonding exercises, of a family keeping faith with a father whose hearing and health are failing. Gently and circuitously— and courageously— Strauss informs us that we create situations and our ways of dealing with them. There are moments when Strauss is more direct, suggesting that “we” (“the audience”) have been “sitting in rooms for 25 years”— and all that that asks and implies. Societal structures are good to question, even when, as with Strauss leading the room, there is mutual trust.

As a performer, Strauss has a commanding presence, a precise and elegant fluidity as a dancer, and an excellent practised voice. She wears a mic and speaks to us through the different phases of the work as they emerge, in her effective, casual and deeply emotional poetry and narratives. The projections of large images— from silvery mathematical formulae to a country highway to verdant forest to words and phrases— punctuate and enhance the performance. Strauss has a rare capacity for melding the present, the philosophical, and the personal, in an entertaining, moving, impelling and thought-provoking hybrid of writing, dance and theatre.

***

“Multiform” is a term applied by art critics to the transitional phase of Mark Rothko’s painting, between earlier, more image-populated work (think the broken up and colourful abstract elements in Kandinsky or Chagall) and his mature, spare style of stacked, soft-edged rectangles of bold colour. Acorn draws on Rothko’s ideas and theory in this piece. Its particular focus on movement also calls to mind the photography of Eadward Muybridge. The lighting does not change. The soundscape is pulsing and mechanical. Acorn performs naked, both strong and vulnerable, present and not present. For much of the performance, her eyes are covered by her long hair, which hangs over her face and swings with her movements.

This is an intellectual show. It is not a show about prettiness, nor is it a show about dreaming. As Acorn says in her program note on the piece, “a singular body is both mechanism and magician.” Acorn becomes a human clockwork. Her limbs and body expand and contract, expand and contract, moving just a little further across the floor, arms angular, legs angular, her body curled around what might be an idea. She turns and returns to positions as if her spine is a fulcrum.

She pivots on the ground. We feel for her skin pressing and turning against the not entirely clean floor. She works very hard and her intensity marks a line in time. Her body moves with a measured continuous force. Viewers, on chairs in a semicircle around her, experience Acorn’s mild harsh repetition that seems neither compulsive nor driven. Rothko sought a life force, attempting to capture passion, life, and energy, in abstract colour shapes. It is the power of the colours, how they are contained, and how they interact that concentrates their effect. The remarkable discipline of Acorn’s work refocuses the viewer on a similar limitation, as she circles to the same spot where she began. She iterates the uniqueness of each human body, the circle of time, and the effort we expend in movement. Acorn herself becomes a propelled human heart, beating, making us think, making us want to move out of stillness.