Saturday, April 12, 2014

Harmony in Motion: Contemporary Dance in Toronto

Aleatoric Duet No. 2 from he/she

Three different programs of contemporary dance by three different companies took place within days of each other in Toronto at the end of March: Dichterliebe, a revival of a 2012 suite of 16 dances set to 16 sung sections of Robert Schumann’s same titled song cycle (the lyrics are by the late-Romantic German poet Heinrich Heine) which Coleman Lemieux & Co. presented at their Citadel theatre and studio complex in Regent Park; he/she, an evening of new and revised work by Peggy Baker Dance Projects at the Betty Oliphant Theatre, and Around, a new 60-minute work by Dancemakers artistic director Michael Trent which the company, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, performed as an ensemble at its Distillery District-located Centre for Creation.

While distinct from the other, the works, each of them ingeniously exhilarating in their own way, had elements in common. All in some way explored a theme of oppositional forces: soft and hard, slow and fast, light and dark, control and abandon. In his program notes for Around, Trent described the dramatic tension apparent in his highly playful, surrealistic work as a combination of “known worlds” in which “unexpected encounters can emerge.” In other words, a theatrical environment where predictability and surprise delightfully and imaginatively collide. Created in a collaboration with the 10 dancers who today make up Dancemakers and dramaturge Jacob Zimmer, Around, which was performed in the round, was unconventionally tinselly and haphazard, a work of controlled madness that's pungent artifice was laced with bits of reality – fragments of narrated memory, for instance. Acclaimed veteran modern dancer Peggy Baker communicated her interest in duality by calling her presentation he/she, a title drawing attention to the male/female, head/heart, concrete/abstract themes veining through each of the four works presented, two revivals and two world premieres.

stone leaf shell skin

Baker’s fascination with doubleness was made obvious through the collaboration she instigated between music and dance, a theme dominating the program as a whole. Most of the works on the he/she program emphasized the special relationship between music and movement by presenting musicians on stage with the dancers and having the dancers, to some degree, interact with the musical instruments surrounding them during their performances. The net result was to see dancers giving vivid expression to musical motive, measure and mood while watching musicians actively inspired by the dancing and the choreography at hand.

This was an idea investigated as well by Coleman & Lemieux, whose Dichterliebe was performed with solo dancer Laurence Lemieux frequently interacting with guest singer, the thrillingly dramatic Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson, in addition to musician Jeanie Chung and the piano she passionately played in drawing out the storm clouds and tender blooms within the Schumann score. Together, musician, singer and dancer formed an inseparable unit of high artistic expression. At Dancemakers, the musicians were the dancers themselves who created sounds using hand-held microphones they swung like lassos or else wrapped in cellophane before stuffing them noisily into the all-white shirts, shorts and long pants chosen for them by costume designer Vanessa Fischer. In another segment, dancers performed to sound chips concealed under their clothes which emitted beeps, boings and a jangled fairy dust sound commonly associated with children’s toy wands: art brut for the 21st century.

Sylvan Quartet
Dichterliebe – the title translates as The Poet’s Love – consisted of a tight pastiche of 16 intimate postage stamp sized choreographies created by an equal number of people, not all of them dancesmiths. The Toronto-based fashion designers Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell, the duo behind Hoax Couture, for instance, counted among a list of choreographic participants that also included such unusual additions as architect Donald Schmitt of Diamond Schmitt Architects, designers of Toronto’s Four Seasons for the Performing Arts and the new Mariinsky Theatre in Russia, among other landmark venues; playwright Ken Gass; and two Toronto high school students, Destinée Taylor and Juliette Coleman, Lemieux’s daughter. Among the “real” choreographers were the award-winning James Kudelka, Toronto Dance Theatre co-founder David Earle, Guillaume Côté of the National Ballet of Canada and Nova Bhattacharya, a classical Bharatnatyam dancer in the city with her own dance company. What a motherlode of talent! Each brought a unique stamp to the inspiring Schumann score. The fashion designers even brought shoes, a hat and a boa. Schmitt’s contribution included stand-still architectural poses tinged with modernism; Côté’s was frenetically gestural. With so many hands involved in its making, it had the textured beauty of a quilt. Lemieux, a seasoned and compelling dancer of resonating depth and nuance, brought each choreographic stitch vividly alive.

In the he/she program, Aleatoric Duet No. 2, a world premiere created by Peggy Baker, dance and music were also tightly aligned in a mutually respectful partnership. At the centre were two of the Baker company’s profoundly expressive dancers, Sean Ling and Andrea Nann, who performed under the watchful eye of musician and composer John Kameel Farah poised on a platform above the stage where he simultaneously improvised on an electronic piano, a synthesizer and a computer with samples while the dancers wove their bodies through a rich fabric of choreographic colour and pattern below. Chance and risk were motivating factors here, a theme underscored by the work’s title. Aleatoric, as Farah explained in a published pre-performance interview, describes the element of chance in musical performance. Baker, he continued, was here creating a series of dances rooted in chance. The process involved asking each dancer to create solos for themselves based on snippets of her own previously performed dances which she then melded together to produce a densely physical piece of choreography – movement for the sake of movement – with three distinct sections. Farah’s role, he said, was “to react to the dancers and bathe them in sound.” The results of this experiment in dance inspiring the music, a reversal of the traditional order of things, were mesmerizing. Constantly moving, every inch of their bodies busily exploring the sound-saturated spaces between them, the dancers occupied a rarified realm of serenely kinetic dance, at times pictorial as well as sculptural as they paused between bursts of concentrated energy. While not as exhaustively physical, Farah nevertheless was likewise kinetically engaged in the performance, his own body moving rapidly from keyboard to computer sampler as he strove to keep pace with the dancers.

Farah appeared again later on the four-part program as one of three musicians performing live on stage alongside the remarkably lyrical and robust soloist Sahara Morimoto in a stirring revival of Baker’s 1998 piece, Sylvan Quartet. The score, I Think That I Shall Never See ... by new music composer Chan Ka Nin, featured Farah on piano, the acclaimed Shauna Rolston on cello and Max Christie of the Esprit and National Ballet of Canada Orchestras on clarinet. Again, the relationship between music and dance was foregrounded in a work of choreography as abstract as an expressionist painting. The thrusts, swirls and pitches were mirrored by the dancer as much as the music served as a reflection of her dynamism and verve. Sylvan Quartet was a wholly gratifying artistic experience, a walk on the sonically wild side punctuated by the stunning visuals of a dancer in full command of her body, her art, her role on the stage. There were two remaining works on the program, Box, la femme au carton, a densely minimalistic work created by by Montreal’s Paul-André Fortier in 2011 (Toronto needs to see more of this unique artist’s work) which Baker herself performed to a taped score by Alain Thibault, and stone leaf shell skin, a world premiere by Baker inspired by the still-life photographs of Edward Weston and set to a commissioned score by Heather Schmidt. This time around, Rolston was the solo musician, again on stage with the dancers. Those dancers were the aforementioned Ling dancing a trio with fellow Baker company members Ric Brown and Mateo Galindo Torres. With this work, the he/she dynamic intimated in the program title was given full expression: the female Rolston producing powerfully kinetic music with her instrument, the three male dancers shifting sensuously around her. Except there was no clear divide here. Rolston appeared to dance with as much as play her cello, while the dancers, with their flowing and staccato movements, seemed the very embodiment of the music. A relationship based on the principle that opposites do attract.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She has written for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London (official magazine of the Royal Academy of Dance) and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). She was the award-winning dance critic for Canada's The Globe and Mail and is currently the newspaper's Style reporter. She is the author of the national best-seller, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre), a Paris-inspired memoir with a chapter featuring Rudolph Nureyev. Deirdre's second book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published (Greystone Books). Married with two children, she lives in Toronto.

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