Thursday, March 26, 2015

Scenes From a Marriage: Kaeja 25

Kaeja d'Dance (photo by Aria Evans)

Wedding dresses sparkle and shimmer in Taxi!, a new work by Karen Kaeja whose world premiere took place at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre on Tuesday night. Significantly, at least one of the gowns was worn by the choreographer’s husband, Allen Kaeja, who earlier in the evening unveiled a world premiere of his own, .0 (point zero), a wonderfully unpredictable work about unpredictability. The wedding dress prop instantly telegraphed that Taxi!, at least in part, is about marriage, an arena of human experience which similarly could be characterized as being fraught with uncertainty. There are highs, lows, and never ending piles laundry. Taxi! could be described a mirror of a life lived. But it is also a reflection of mating rituals in complicated times. Its spunk, subtle poignancy and unmistakeable sense of humour make it a keeper.

Given the presence of the wedding dresses, the dominant hue in Karen’s work was white; in Allen’s it was black right down to the black-on-black pajama like costumes designed with Vanessa Fischer. Seen together, the works combined to produce a greyish tone we prefer to call silver in light of the fact that the couple’s shared show – Kaeja25 – marks their silver anniversary together as both artists and a married couple. Now in its 25th year, their jointly run choreographic enterprise, Kaeja D’Dance, is being feted with a program of new work showing that age has hardly withered its strength. It’s made it bolder. And that’s thanks to the growing artistry of this unique husband-and-wife team. Since founding their company in 1990, the couple has raised two children while also nurturing the local dance community at large. They have done that together and also independently.

A former competitive wrestler (invited in 1981 to compete as a member of the Ontario Olympic Wrestling Foundation) Allen Kaeja is the former artistic director and co-founder of the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance, now defunct, and the CanAsian International Dance Festival. Karen Kaeja, meanwhile, who originally trained as a dance therapist, is the inventor of Porch View Dances, an annual event now its fourth year (the next instalment takes places this summer, in Toronto’s Seaton’s Village neighbourhood) that gets neighbours creating and participating in mini works of dance staged on the front stoops of their own homes. Inveterate community builders respected and admired by the communities they touch, the Kaejas have won several awards over the years. The fact that their current show has almost sold out its five-night run remains a testament to their enduring popularity. He is also a prolific maker of dance films (seen on BRAVO! BravoFact! the CBC, and in the permanent collection at the MoMA and the Jewish Museum in New York) while she is a still-active performer who also finds time to mentor other dance artists across Canada (most recently as the first dancer-in-residence appointed to Newfoundland’s Memorial University). You want to love people like this, so committed to their art form and to each other. (How committed? She is by birth Karen Resnick; he, Allen Norris. Kaeja is a new name they chose for each other, in recognition of their union as artists and as husband and wife, eventually giving it also to their own company.) Happily, their new show makes the sentiment come easy.

Kaeja25 is a love fest in many senses of the word being concerned about intimacy, group dynamics, the ability (and inability) to trust when we fall (and literally when it’s a dance performance) in love. It is also lovely to behold, being expertly crafted and performed with equal amounts of discipline and seeming wild abandon by the Kaeja D’Dances dancers: the marvellous Michael Caldwell, Zhenya Cerneacov, Ana Claudette Groppler, Merideth Plumb, Mateo Galindo Torres, in addition to the married couple themselves – each of whom perform in their respective spouse’s piece. The couple are inventive dancesmiths, known for having created a way of moving inspired by contact improvisation, a dance technique in which instances of physical contact between partners provides the starting off point for improvisational movements exploring the space and rhythms of the intersecting bodies. Allen’s athletic background has lent the improvisations a distinctive heft and muscularity. Over the years, he has invented a number of brawny lifts for partners in dance where weight appears a non-issue to the point that the willowy Karen can dead-lift her brick-house of a husband without breaking a sweat.

His new work, .0 (point zero), is accented throughout with such gravity-defying lifts which serve to give the piece a constant up-and-down feeling of instability. Partners also trigger bodily spills by hooking a barefoot behind the knee of a fellow dancer, a manoeuvre borrowed from professional wrestling. The dancers tumble, but they also fly. They also bust some moves out on a discoesque dance floor, the pounding electro-pop rhythms of Edgardo Moreno’s sound composition driving them like a hard rain across the bare blackboards of the stage floor. The piece starts out more lyrically, with individual dancers spotlighted by Oz Weaver’s lighting design. To the plaintive sounds of Jessica Hana Deutsch’s taped violin, they undulate upwards from the waist, their arms, wrists, and hands curling in the air like tendrils of smoke. Jumps are soon performed with increasing energy. If .0 (as its title suggests) is about going back to the beginning, then this display of physical daring by the dancers is the rightful essence of a work where there are no boundaries (meaning is not easily pinpointed) and no regrets, either.

Kaeja d'Dance (photo by Aria Evans)

Taxi!, on the other hand, offers up a theme that is instantly discernible to the viewer. The wedding dresses worn by its five dancers –  male and female alike – straightaway draw attention to a theme of ritualized relationships. Unlike Allen’s piece which is all-encompassing physical, Karen’s is more structured as a work of dance theatre. Comparisons to Germany’s late master of the genre, Pina Bausch, and to Montreal’s Paul-André Fortier, another choreographer who has explored through dance the tensions and ambiguities of intimate human partnerships, are not out of place here. Taxi!, with its outsized characters in search of a love relationship, its snatches of spoken text, various stages of (ornate) dress and (symbolically vulnerable) undress, is unmistakeably Bauschian in being less interested in the way people move and more in what moves them. Love, the want of it, is the main motivator here. Karen, in her program notes, references one of modern literature’s randiest couples, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, in clearly defining her theme. “Things I forgot to tell you,” she quotes Nin as writing to her novelist lover. “That I love you/That I love you/That I love you.” But that’s not all there is to say.

In the text spoken by a child (Willem Kerr) in a voice-over, love is described as scary, puzzling, happy, sad and never indifferent. “I want us to swim in deep waters,” the boy says. “That is the messiness of love." With his former wrestler’s body, Allen looks clownish in the wedding dress that falls off his bare shoulders as he interacts with his fellow dancers. But that sense of the ridiculous is what lends Taxi! its special charm. The dance is concerned with serious subject matter, but it succeeds by not taking itself seriously. There are few dances that actually explore the theme of marriage; mostly the works that do exist about love are tragic, ending in death or a transmogrification (swans, for instance). Taxi! takes a more lighthearted approach.

Yes, there are instances when the dancers are shown to be uneasy about intimacy. They smell each other warily like dogs; they bob and weave in the face of an approaching kiss. They also, sitting on chairs, and facing the audience, again a Bauschian touch, verbally reveal their wants and desires, their first times. Their bodies, faces, foibles are on full display. But before it gets pass-the-Kleenex box soggy, the dancers break out into a rousing version of Alicia Keyes’ "Fallin’ (In and Out of Love)" which renders the sex talk ironic. These are couples not wanting a hook up; they want communion. They find it singing and dancing together. A union born of art.

– 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 comment:

  1. Thank you for an incredibly perceptive and intuitive review!!!