Friday, October 4, 2013

Emotion in Motion: ProArteDanza at Fleck Dance Theatre

Anisa Tejpar, Erin Poole and Tyler Gledhill performing Shifting Silence, for ProArteDanza (Photo: Geneviève Caron)

Funky, fast and fierce, ProArteDanza opens with a bang at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre, affirming its status as one of the most exciting small dance ensembles in the country with a new showcase of original work and hard-core dancing that will have you panting for more.

Three eye-grabbing pieces dominate the approximately 90-minute program, which opened to an enthusiastic crowd on Wednesday night and continues through Saturday. Each is by a choreographer with an association with ProArteDanza (literally, for the art of dance) which was founded in Toronto in 2004 as a vehicle for new creation: Shifting Silence, by company artistic associate Robert Glumbek, is a reprise (and Canadian premiere) of a work the Polish-born dancer and choreographer originally created for Ballett Nationaltheater Mannheim in Germany in 2012. Beethoven’s 9th-3rd Movement is a world premiere created jointly by Glumbek and artistic director Roberto Campanella, while Fractals: a pattern of chaos, the third and final piece, is by guest artist Guillaume Côté, the celebrated National Ballet principal dancer recently appointed to that company’s newly created position of Choreographic Associate in recognition of his burgeoning talent as a choreographer.

While by different people, the trio of works share a love of risk-taking, one of the factors lending the evening a palpable sense of artistic unity and a defined sense of direction. That direction deliberately follows the road less travelled. Each choreographer takes an individualistic approach to choreography where movement is generally just one part of a visually and musically inspired whole. The resulting dances are as densely imagistic as they are muscularly kinetic. But they are also fascinating for what they are not: dramatic while eschewing narrative, viscerally emotional without caving to sentimentality. Being unpredictable, the work of ProArteDanza exerts a strong appeal. But it’s not the only reason why the company is one to watch. The dancers are young but they are powerhouses. What they might lack in experience they more than make up for in commitment. Their performances are electrically physical and impassioned, no matter what the piece is they are dancing.

And yet the range of styles isn’t that broad. There is a curious similarity to all the works on this program, as if they were all made in consultation with each other. Glumbek’s and Côté’s works, for instance, both open with solo dancers seen caged inside rectangular blocks of light. They also share a fascination with darkly atmospheric industrial music that inspires them to create movement that is hard, propulsive, jagged-edged and physically exacting, if not exhausting.

Ryan Lee, Tyler Gledhill and Benjamin Landsberg ((Photo: Geneviève Caron)

Côté’s Fractals: a pattern of chaos is scored to an eclectic piece of electronic music by Venetian Snares (aka Canadian breakbeat composer, Aaron Funk) and it literally buzzes from start to finish. The movement is hyper-kinetic, punctuated by bodily vibrations tied to the spastic techno glitches in the boom-boom pulse of the music. Originally created in 2011 for ProArteDanza, and nominated for a Dora Award, Fractals is a dazzling piece of mercurial choreography, drawing inspiration from the same-named phenomenon in nature where patterns of increasing complexity are formed from chaotic equations (snowflakes, sea shells, and the swirls on certain types of broccoli being prime examples). Cóté sees these variants as symbols of the creative process and in his piece he explores how patterns are repeated and redesigned as a result of random encounters.

In dance, fractals could be said to occur when a choreographic idea is reshaped by the shifting elements of different body types and personalities all coming together to perform the same piece. The resulting dance is never the same twice, depending on who dances it. The set pattern of choreography changes ever so slightly into something new. Fractals might be inspired by those shifting realities of the dance studio and stage, but it is never literal in its communication of the idea. Here, the repetition of strict and physically punishing movement patterns – executed at lightning speed  morph as bodies detach, collide, and readjust to their changing position inside Bonnie Beecher’s boxy lighting design. Ensembles give way to solos and duets and trios. The permutations appear endless, and yet the act of creation (the implied chaos) is kept in check with choreographic movement that is militaristically disciplined in its execution and machine-like in its precision, almost scarily so. The dancers are so tightly harnessed to the choreography they looked trapped, even frightened, their eyes lifting to those uncompromisingly bright lights pinpointing them from above as if hoping to find a way out of all the devilishly driven order being imposed upon them. But there’s no escaping. They are tied to the dance and to the music: when it twitches they twitch, when it bends they bend, their arms and upper bodies moving with the rapid precision of pistons.

Speaking of repetition, there are eight dancers performing Fractals, several of whom also dance prominently in Glumbek’s Shifting Silence. The most prominent among them is Tyler Gledhill, who appears in both pieces caged in light. In Fractals, he is part of a group, only temporarily demobilized. But in Shifting Silence, he is meant to be isolated: a man on an island whose purpose is to find solace in his own solitude. In the program notes is a quote by Eda LeShan, the late American writer who wrote on life as a journey: “When we cannot bear to be alone, it means we do not properly value the only companion we will have from birth to death.” So while Fractals is rooted in mathematical thinking, Shifting Silence appears to be anchored in existential philosophy. The message here is to know thyself, and find comfort in the company of one. Gledhill is a physically beautiful dancer, long of limb and with a stately stature. He was trained at the National Ballet School and perhaps his air of good breeding comes from there. He is also a dancer with a strong stage presence  there, but not so much so that you notice the man more than the performer. Gledhill exudes both self-confidence and mystery and so he quietly intrigues as he convincingly embodies the dilemma at the centre of this piece. Without question, Gledhill enlarges its theme, both on his own and also when, later on, he joins forces with those who might serve to distract him from his solitary purpose, among them his fellow dancers Ryan Lee and the wonderfully nuanced and elegant Mami Hata.

Anisa Tejpar and Tyler Gledhill ((Photo: Geneviève Caron)

Gledhill is first seen bare-chested and wearing red pants inside the box of light. He moves slowly and perhaps even meditatively to the English Suites by J.S.Bach, music that has in it a feeling of solitude, a result of it having been written for a single keyboard. But he is trapped inside and not at all calmed by the music. He turns his back to us and violently flexes his back muscles. He raises his arms and flutters them, fast. Six other dancers soon surround him, five of them in costumes of muted grey and one in a red dress, the latter perhaps a kindred spirit. Their identities are never quite clear. But they are the others, the people on the outside with whom relationships are formed and forgotten. There’s an aggressive quality here and it builds through seven sections of a work that forsakes Bach for the hard hammered post-minimal sound of German-born techno composer Senking as soon as the others appear on stage. The menacing atmosphere builds through seven sections of a dance running just over 30 minutes, with only an occasional respite. Ultimately, Gledhill, our everyman, returns to his box of light, and dances alone. He has found his solitude, or perhaps solitude has found him. In any event, he dances alone in the end and with this image Glumbek has created a perfect choreographic world where the alpha and the omega, the beginning and ending of all things, are masterfully in his hands.

Beethoven’s 9th-3rd Movement, the middle work on the program that Glumbek created with Campanella, is not so complicated. Its title, in fact, gives it all away. Yes, this is an homage to the Beethoven symphony of the same name. In his program notes, Campanella writes that he and Glumbek are in awe of this famous piece of music, believing it to be inherently physical in nature and in synch with their own aims as no-holds-barred choreographers. Certainly, Beethoven’s famous 9th Symphony is coloured by sweeping movements that climb and fall in melodic heaves. It also has in it the sound of loneliness and of exaltation, themes that easily lend themselves to dramatization. But it is a sign of how distinctive Campanella and Glumbek aim to be as choreographers that they approach the dynamism in the score with a sense of adventure. They use chairs to mount their ensemble of dancers up and away into the dizzying heights of the music.

The pedestrian prop is not entirely original. Think Bob Fosse and his chair-draping dancers in the movie Cabaret to know just how common a device it is. But it is not what you typically associate with Beethoven, unless the idea is that when listening to his music you can’t sit still. And the dancers here simply can’t. In perfect step with the music, they twirl and lift themselves on the balls of their feet, holding their chairs for balance when not using them to build ladders augmenting the height of their pointed toe extensions. They pause in sculpted stillness, arms linking and braiding, and then rotate again, moving chairs like stepping stones in a river of mellifluous sound. It’s one way of seeing the music, so to speak, and in an original way.

– 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, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates. At 7pm, on Saturday, October 26, Deirdre will be at the Meaford Hall Arts & Cultural Centre as part of Georgian Bay Reads.

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