Friday, March 6, 2015

Dancing the Body Electric - William Yong's vox:lumen

choreographer William Yong.

The lights burn bright in vox:lumen, a new work of electrifying dance whose world premiere took place Wednesday night as part of Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage series in Toronto. Powering them is kinetic energy of the human kind together with other renewable energy systems like the solar panels on the Harbourfront Centre Theatre where vox:lumen continues through Saturday (March 7). Solar power created during daylight hours is stored in massive 100-kilo cubes for use during the nightly 90-minute run. Additional energy comes from audience members participating in an Energy Fair set up in theatre lobby an hour in advance of the show’s 8 p.m. start. The dancers, five physically strong men, add their own muscle to the collective effort. At the centre of their dance is an enormous bike power generator which one of the dancers pedals slowly in the dark until there is suddenly, wonderfully, illumination. This is ecology in motion and, despite sometimes stumbling in the shadows of its own confusion, it succeeds brilliantly.

An initiative of Canada’s Zata Omm Dance Projects, this groundbreaking work of eco-dance was conceived, choreographed and created by William Yong, a dancer originally from Hong Kong who trained at England’s London Contemporary Dance School before moving to Toronto with his family in the late 1990s. A past member of Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance and Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures, internationally celebrated British dance companies known for their risk-taking choreography, Yong embraces an experimental approach when creating works of his own. He has about 60 already to his credit. Vox:lumen, his latest, was four years in the making. It shows Yong going where no Canadian choreographer before him has gone before. This is without question.

Interdisciplinary in nature, it was created in collaboration with the Toronto interactive design firm, Aesthetec Studio, together with innovation researchers at York University. A hybrid of science and art, the piece incorporates an elaborate wire-and-light set design by Ian Garrett, an associate professor of ecological design at Toronto’s York University who is also billed as the work’s sustainability consultant, and original electronica-meets-the-spoken-voice score by London-based film composer, Andrea Rocca, edgy Game of Thrones-esque costumes by the Saskatchewan-raised, Toronto-based custom dancewear designer, Jody McLennan, and technical support by stage manager Kirsten Labonte and scenographic technologist, James McKernan. Simon Rossiter served as lighting designer. For his creation, Yong also received support from World Stage artistic director Tina Rasmussen and Harbourfront dance director Lynanne Sparrow, both of whom encouraged Yong to develop his early idea about illuminating a theatre using people power into a full-scale, multi-layered piece of renewable dance. The metaphor is apt.

Dance is born of human interaction. It feeds on an exchange of energies. Physicality is what powers it forward and onwards into uncharted territories of bodily (re) invention. Dance, as a fearless exploration of the human body, uncovers limitless possibilities in the name of art. It is a renewable resource, constantly using and reusing the human body to come up with new ideas. Yong’s dancers vividly bring this concept alive as they hurl, jump, climb, bend, drape, crouch, pounce and prowl about the stage floor. The choreography, a fluid mix of static sculptural poses, supported duets, heavy lifting, acrobatics and flashes of nudity, easily holds its own in a piece where science provides the wow factor.

vox:lumen (photo by David Hou)

Performing it is a masculine ensemble consisting of Yong as well as Brendan Wyatt, Daniel McArthur, Michael Caldwell, and Irvin Chow. There is no plot to speak of; the dancers appears to be free (within the intricate confines of the choreography) to explore the surounding space as well as each other. There is darkness in both. The men frequently act aggressively towards each other, pushing and shoving without apparent reason. The violence comes in unexpected bursts. A dancer strips to the waist like a warrior, brandishing a sword of light. Another is bound and tied to the generator, a prisoner of sorts who cowers when the other men advance menacingly toward him. In another sequence, the men work collaboratively, piling on high a series of illuminated cubes that a dancer mounts one by one by jumping on top. These movement sequences occur mostly in a kind of twilight zone, lending the action a sense of mystery. But while the dancers slip through the shadows with the stealth of Bondian assassins, they are not without vulnerability.

In duets, they use their bodies to create points of contact that result in mutual acts of lift and balance. Solos also have an introspective quality. When one dancer (inexplicably) strips naked the spotlight is on fragility. Holding flashlights, they explore the contours of their bodies. They shine light on the inscrutability of the flesh. When the lights go out flashes of brilliance occur among the audience where large light bulbs harnessing some of the pre-show generated electricity unexpectedly turn on and off. It's an arresting effect, and it goes back to the beginning: a sharing of energies.

The careening extremes of strength and weakness makes sense in a work that is fundamentally about the exploration of light and dark. That theme could be better focused, however, by trimming the dance down by as much as 30 minutes to let the choreography really shine. Vox:lumen already shows so much originality, it would be a worthwhile exercise. It would ensure that this exploration into sustainability for the stage would be sustained, and into the future.

– 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, 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.


  1. In a piece such as this where light plays a pivotal role, I feel I must point out a small oversight - you've mentioned most of the people involved in the project except for Lighting Designer Simon Rossiter.

  2. Another thoughtful, well-written review from Ms. Kelly. Thank you.