Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dance on the Edge: Toronto Dance Theatre's Rare Mix

Jarrett Siddall in Vena Cava (photo by Guntar Kravis)
The body beautiful and the body decidedly un-beautiful are both amply on display in the current program which Toronto Dance Theatre is presenting now through Sunday at Fleck Dance Theatre inside Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Consisting of four works – all revivals – Rare Mix shows the city’s pre-eminent modern dance troupe flexing its muscles in new and also tried-and-true ways.

The new belongs to a transplanted Frenchman, the Montreal-based choreographer Jean-S├ębastien Lourdais, whose work, Etrange, presents the human body through a series of spastic, spit-drooling, limb distorting vignettes designed deliberately to be un-pretty, un-graceful, un-elevating – a dance that debases the human condition as opposed to dignifying it. His approach goes contrary to the initial tenets of modern dance as an art form meant to give divine expression to the human spirit, as described by its early 20th century creator, Isadora Duncan. And precisely for that reason his work, as disturbing as it is, comes across as fresh and exciting. Certainly it is one of the most riveting new dance works out there, as novel (if not as shocking) as Vaslav Nijinsky’s mongoloid movement experiments for Les Ballets Russes. Equally outstanding are the three performers who dance it – Mairi Greig, Yuichiro Inoue and Naishi Wang. You have to see them to experience this as dance on the edge.

Resembling a fragmented Francis Bacon painting coming to life, Etrange debuted with TDT earlier in February at Winchester Street Theatre where the company is headquartered. Artistic director Christopher House is to be applauded for reviving it for the fall season at a bigger venue like Fleck Dance Theatre where people are sure to see it. House has emphasized the bracing newness of Lourdais’ piece by showcasing it along side older works that more traditionally explore such modern dance concepts as flow, space, time and weight as part of their overall artistic presentation. House in particular embraces a more free-flowing style of movement than what Lourdais expresses. Two of his works bookends the nearly 90-minute program, each representing dance as an ennobling pursuit: the body interpreting music.

composer Robert Moran
In both cases, the music is by Robert Moran, a contemporary American composer of operas and ballets who has inspired House to create dance that soars and sings along with the instrumental arpeggios inherent to Moran’s fundamentally rhythmic compositions. The first of these on the program is Four Towers which debuted in 1993 with Denis Joffre’s unisex costume design of kilts and tank tops for both the men and women dancers and a chiaroscuro lighting design by Roelof Peter Snippe. The work begins in medias res, so to speak, with the curtain opening on a solo male dancer immediately drawing his arms out from his slightly angled torso to draw an elegant line from running perpendicular to his beautiful, taut body.

The movement flow then quickens and the dancer looks wind-blown across the stage, but artfully so, as if he were a willow tree bending and rustling in time to the tempestuous bursts of pizzicato sound in Moran’s score, excerpted from his Towers of the Moon opera. Vena Cava, the 1998 work which is House’s second contribution to the evening, and the work which concludes the show, also has about it the feeling of rushing energy. Inspired by Moran’s Open Veins, a faster and more kinetically score than that heard in Towers of the Moon, the dance features a multitude of steps performed in rapid-fire bursts by all eight members of the company, plus its two interns. The choreography flows right and it flows left. It runs forward and backward, on a straight line and on the diagonal. Gusty group formations give way to serene, even sculptural solos. The choreography’s propulsive dynamism lends the work an appealing visual texture, abetted here by Lori Tirez Endes’s costumes of black tank tops and red skirts (short for men, long for women) and Snippe’s uncluttered lighting design.

Naishi Wang in Etrange

Contrasting sharply with all this frenticism and is a revival of work by Patricia Beatty, the veteran choreographer who co-founded TDT together with David Earle and Peter Randazzo in 1968. She represents the program’s tied-and true. Against Sleep, a dance about a woman who at night encounters her demon lover through the erotic mists of a Jungian-tinged dream, debuted along with the company, 44-years ago. House, with Beatty’s permission of course, has remounted it for the fall season and time has not withered its power. Seen in the context of the new, bustling, male created works which dominate Rare Mix, Against Sleep appears as a Canadian modern dance classic, a work worthy of re-examination – all these years and choreographic experiments later. Set to a buzzing, clanging, ringing score of tintinnabulating sound by the late Canadian contemporary composer Ann Southam, Against Sleep unfolds on top of, under and around a set design by Ursula Hanes in which a sky-high central metal pole – held in place by metallic wires anchored to the four corners of the stage – is outfitted with a low-rise bed for the dreamer and an elevated perch for the sexual succubus seeking to dominate her soul. The main prop is a large piece of red cloth which initially covers the sleeper and ultimately enshrouds the demon. In between, the red cloth is used to symbolize the ropes that bind desire to will and also the blood of an imagined virgin sacrifice.

Not surprising, given the subject matter, the work is crafted like an intricate cage of erotic impulses. The two dancers – male and female – prowl and pose and pounce. They fight each other even as they are drawn to each other. But there can only be one victor and the winner of the sexual contest literally occupies the dominant spot on stage. Beatty originally danced the work with her company co-founder Earle. Reviving the roles on opening night were former TDT company member Michael Sean Marye and guest artist Danielle Baskerville, an associate of The Dietrich Group in Toronto. Alana Elmer and Pulga Muchochoma perform the roles on alternate nights.

Artistic Director Christopher House
Marye has always been a gorgeous dancer, blessed with a tall and muscular physique and a handsome face. In the past, he danced as if self-conscious of his beauty. He appeared to dance behind it, letting the physical make-up speak mostly for itself. With age, he is no less physically attractive but he is more emotionally confident and more willing to fully inhabit the role at hand. His performance in Against Sleep was nuanced and sure, a bewitching performance that showed him having evolved into a major modern dance interpreter. Bravo. Baskerville was equally compelling and arresting. She has a sphinx-like presence on the stage, imbuing her every gesture with a sense of mystery and deep-rooted majesty. Wearing an elegant floor-length gold dress designed by Susan Macpherson, her hair tied back neatly in a chignon, Baskerville shimmered from within the confines of her darkly feminine role.

Together with Marye, she gave the audience a thrillingly theatrical performance by using dance in something of an old-fashioned way – as an ennobling expression of both body and soul.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). She will also be the guest author at the Writers Trust Gala in Toronto on Nov. 15.

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