Sunday, November 10, 2013

Now You See Her, Now You Don't: Dancer Claudia Moore

Claudia Moore (photo by David Hou)

By calling her latest show Escape Artist, Claudia Moore conjures an intriguing picture of herself as a kind of Houdini of the dance. Technically an illusionist, the death-defying escape artist alluded to in the title strives to be free of restraints, be they handcuffs, straitjackets or cages in a sea of sharks to name some of the claustrophobic situations these suspenseful performers have been employing since their arrival on the pop culture scene at the end of the 19th century. Moore, a seasoned dancer who is artistic director of her own MOonhORsE Dance Theatre company, obviously loves the concept. But her solo show of four commissioned works which played at Toronto’s Dancemakers Studio in the Distillery District during the last weeks of October (including a Hallowe’en performance where the audience was invited to come in costume) did not take the shackle and bust theme literally. In other words, no real chains only imagined ones.

Along with the four Canadian choreographers she invited to create new work for her to perform at this show – Susanna Hood, Paul-André Fortier, Christopher House and GADFLY (the nom de la danse given by the Dora Award-winning choreographers Apolonia Velasquez and Ofilio Portillo) – Moore used the idea of escape artist more loosely to explore dance as a kind of transformation, a freeing of the self through catharsis. Art as a personal act of liberation, if you will. Certainly, each piece on the 70-minute, intermission-less program in some way or other was about breaking free of restrictions, whether they're states of mind or situations where the dance itself appeared binding. At least two of the works – Hood’s Beside You and House’s Archival Feints – had false starts built into the fabric of the choreography, a device that served periodically to padlock the dance, impeding flow but also inviting the imagination to seek resolution. Fortier’s Broken Lady presented a not-too-gentle state of being where identity, the communication of self-hood and authenticity, was more often than not a fragmented process. Moore, as the solo dancer, appeared locked in, incapable of progressing forward. Sylph(a), by GADFLY, the fourth and final work on the program, articulated an idea of escape as learning how to be in the moment, enjoying the process and not worrying about the outcome, a message custom-made for its signature performer. Dressed in white (the three prior works were costumed in either black or red or a combination of the two), Moore in this piece appeared to be embracing a lyrical, wistful quality not seen in the more jagged edged works which had preceded.

Claudia Moore rehearsing Broken Lady (photo by Omer Yukseker)

Trained at the National Ballet School from which she graduated in 1971, and also in London where she briefly studied with the legendary performance artist, Lindsay Kemp (also David Bowie's movement teacher), Moore is such a gifted artist, so fully in the moment and unselfconscious when she performs that watching her you feel completely taken out of yourself (another form of escape), and sucked into her clownish, pathos-ridden artistic world. With this body of work she appears to be merging the personal and the artistic, structuring a journey that often teeters between extremes. In Beside You she oscillated between coquettish smiles and animal-like growls, drawing attention to a split identity: civilized but also primal, an artist walking a tightrope tethered to restraint on one hand, and abandon on the other. In Archival Feints, she sent herself up, attempting a series of self-consciously artistic poses (at one point, with hand on hip, eyes and nostrils flaring, she bore an uncanny resemblance to the Marchesa Casati painting by Augustus John hanging inside the Art Gallery of Ontario) which felt almost self-parodying.

Broken Lady was a more somber exploration of the artistic soul, and it was one of the only works to use props – here a tree branch, a megaphone used for cheerleading, and a flaming red piece of fabric, each of which Moore interacted through a series of vignettes separated by blackouts. The megaphone she used for a silent scream, the branch she placed upright on her stomach while laying down, making it look as if a tree were growing out of her; the red fabric perhaps suggesting a river of blood. The dance which followed was marked by repetitive gestures, including quick moving arms that appeared to spell out a semaphore of helplessness. In Sylph(a), a title that plays on the mythic ethereal creature immortalized in the ballet which Moore originally trained in and practiced while a member of the National Ballet of Canada, she appeared tender, washed clean. She had busted through. Clearly, Escape Artist represented a personal struggle of some sort, resulting in a happy ending. Moore recently turned 60 – which you wouldn’t know to look at her; she has the face and a body of a woman at least half her age – and these four new works were a birthday present to herself. Dance, it is generally accepted, is an art of the young. For Moore to still be doing it, proving most convincingly that she still really can, is its own stunt. With this show, Moore was also escaping ageist stereotypes that would keep dance shackled to a youthful ideal. She was tricking time, and her own body, by dancing beautifully and with a touching degree of delicacy and nuance.

Claudia Moore rehearsing Escape Artist (ph. Yukseker)

As acclaimed Canadian theatre director and writer Daniel Brooks intimated when he stood to introduce Moore at the start of last Friday’s (Nov. 1) show, Moore being on the stage at all was almost an act of defiance. Brooks reminded the capacity audience (there had been a waiting list to get in, such is the draw of Moore’s artistry) that in the 1980s, while an integral member of Desrosiers Dance Theatre, the internationally acclaimed Canadian dance-theatre company founded by her ex- husband, and fellow National Ballet School graduate Robert Desrosiers, Moore fell victim to a terrible car crash while the troupe was on tour in Paris. She was later hospitalized and couldn’t dance.

Out of this near tragedy, Moore went on to have two children fathered by her new partner in art and life, the creative director Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy. But in 2007 and 2008, she had back-to-back hip surgeries when only in her 50s, suffering another set back. It could have spelled the end of her dance career. And for most dancers it would have. But Moore is not like most dancers. She obviously worked hard to come back to dance, and at an advanced age. The long, sinewy lines of her body are a testimony to that. She is like a butterfly in a snowstorm, brave and beautiful and determined to keep going no matter what the weather. Brooks appeared to have given an impromptu address. How else to explain him leaping unexpectedly from his seat in try audience before the commencement of the show, resulting in him accidentally kicking in one of the footlights? But however spontaneous, his words aptly captured the essence of a dancer who truly has defied the odds.

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 www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates. On Nov 28, Ballerina will be the focus of an author's talk and signing at the Collingwood Public library in Collingwood, ON starting at 7pm.

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