Friday, April 14, 2017

Dance in the Raw: Denmark's Kitt Johnson at Toronto's World Stage

Kitt Johnson in Rankefod, which opened the World Stage Redux festival in Toronto on April 4. (Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen)

Performing Rankefod, a mesmerizing dance piece which opened the World Stage Redux live performance series at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre last week, Danish solo dancer and choreographer Kitt Johnson fully inhabits a minutely observed world of nature, truncating and twisting her half-naked body to conjure creepy-crawly lifeforms pre-dating human existence. An examination of the evolutionary process, it's a tour de force.

A small woman with an enormous stage presence, the former elite athlete at the helm of Copenhagen's internationally acclaimed X-act dance company combines Japanese Butoh with elements of German Expressionist dance theatre to hone a vision of raw and elemental life. The series of grotesque images she unleashes through Rankefod, a Danish word meaning a small crustacean marine creature, are so powerfully and convincingly conceived they discombobulate, completely. Aliens from our own planet.

Johnson thrillingly embodies the strangeness of prehuman existence with a potently protean body that makes her look less mammalian, more purely organic matter. She performs her transformative dance in a loincloth, bare breasts, limbs and spiny back covered by a thin layer of clay connecting her to the mysteries of the earth. Her hair is pinned back and her face largely hidden in a 50-minute dance unfolding in the shadows of Mogens Kjempff's sublunary lighting design. Sture Ericson's loud and vibrational score teems with oozing, crunching, hissing sound that wrestles the senses into submission.

Rankefod begins with Johnson showing her back to the audience, arching it to look like a carapace. No other body parts are visible. Her head and legs are hidden inside Charlotre Ƙstergaard's set design of gouged and bark-like textures on a blanketing wall of cloth, making her seem more thing than person. Identity remains elusive. 

For a long time, it is not even clear that Johnson is female, so effectively does she erase all traces of the anthropomorphic from her dance. To create the illusion of invertebrate life, Johnson commands every ounce of bodily strength and control. She moves at times quickly, spasmodically, elbows sharply bent to resemble sensory antennae stabbing blindly at the dark. At other moments the progression is slow, if barely noticeable. A frightful still life.

Kitt Johnson in Rankefod.

The contorted positions Johnson holds and sometimes for prolonged periods at a time – yoga for masochists – look torturous to execute. But they also serve to inspire renewed respect and admiration for Johnson, a senior dance artist who has been presenting her visionary creations to the world since the founding of X-act in 1992. Also phenomenal is her intense and unwavering focus which anchors her so profoundly in the work that she seems inseparable from it. Dance and dancer together form a singular pulsating entity, amazing to behold.

A revival of a work that toured Toronto and Vancouver almost a decade ago, Rankefod garnered a Canadian Dora Arts Award nomination for best dance performance when it first appeared at Harbourfront in 2008. The work continues to impress. Its return to World Stage dovetails with this year's edition of the festival whose subtitle, Redux, represents a bringing back into focus some of the best work of the past 10 years. Continuing through April 22, Redux is showcasing nine works altogether, from Canada and around the world, at different venues inside the Harbourfront complex.

In addition to Rankefod, last week's opening line-up featured revivals of Steer, the Toronto-based Zata Omm Dance Project's electrifying dance piece at the intersection of biology and technology, and LEAR: A Retrospective, a collaborative, post-modern interpretation of Shakespeare starring the ever-captivating Canadian stage actress, Clare Coulter, in dialogue with Philip McKee.

The coming weeks will see the return to Toronto of U.S. choreographer Kyle Abraham's The Radio Show (April 11-15), KAMP, a Holocaust-inspired work of puppetry by Dutch theatre group Hotel Modern (April 13-16), and a gritty reinterpretation of August Strindberg's 1888 play Mies Julie, set in a Capetown ghetto and performed by South Africa's Baxter Theatre Centre (April 19-22). For more information about the festival go to harbourfront.com.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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