Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Peeling Away: This is a Costume Drama at the Fleck Dance Theatre

What is revealed by what is concealed? That’s the question posed by This Is a Costume Drama, a brave new work by Toronto’s DA Hoskins that goes below the surfaces to expose some pretty uncompromising truths about the world in which we live today. It’s a strip show, both literally and figuratively, and it’s a powerful accomplishment: defiant, irreverent, hugely comedic, inventively choreographed and staged. Clothes are put on and discarded in pursuit of carnal knowledge as well as knowledge of the self. Skin becomes its own form of drama, its own form of artifice; images of nudity are permeated by sex but not shame. Morality is M.I.A. This Is a Costume Drama, a world premiere that opened at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre on April 29, goes beyond the Biblical dilemma of nakedness as a loss of innocence, examining the human condition after the expulsion from Eden. Post-paradise, identity is a social and political construct, molded by individual taste and desire more than anything resembling faith or belief in a higher order. Everything of substance has been peeled away, exposing a loss of human dignity.

The theme of cultural dishevelment rises from potent images of a society becoming slowly unbuttoned, headed towards madness. Chaos rules, as does death, destruction and the burning of books, the latter symbolizing a civilization turned to ashes, ideas gone up in smoke. A world stripped bare of sense and sensibility. Traditionally, clothing has served to elevate humanity above nature. When clothing is taken away “unaccommodated man,” to quote Lear, raging naked on the heath, descends to a state of animal-like exposure. Certainly, the characters in This Is a Costume Drama are debased, reduced to their body parts. Yet so much cerebrally is going on. More than just a piece of choreography – the original art of the body – This Is a Costume Drama is an ambitiously intellectual work, multimedia in nature. A spectacle of the human condition, it advances an aesthetic of seeing by drawing attention to what is not there.

Nudity in the theatre has a long and established history. It’s perhaps one of the few places in society where nudity is actually socially acceptable. But This Is a Costume Drama definitely pushes that envelope. This is not nudity as seen in Hair or Oh! Calcutta!, for instance, 1960s musicals that were revolutionary in their day for depicting full-frontal nudity on the stage. Created a half century later, Hoskins’ work is more extreme and in your face, borrowing heavily from pornography (more ubiquitous today than it was during the so-called permissive ‘60s) as well as reality TV and other worlds without limits.

A painter, sculptor and photographer in addition to a choreographer, Hoskins, a resident of Toronto who grew up in North Bay, has relied on his own visual art experience to influence the piece. He has crafted This Is a Costume Drama like a moving work of pictorial art with set tableaux enlivened by potent imagery centered on human sexuality. As a practicing artist he is no doubt aware of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1956 book, The Nude, which debates the relative values of nudity versus nakedness in painting. Clark prefers nudity, saying it has “no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced and prosperous body...” Hoskins thinks differently. This Is a Costume Drama opens with that “huddled and defenceless body” image, no doubt about it. The man in question is on the floor, legs splayed, his mouth and ass open to the audience as if he were a piece of meat for the ravishing. Hoskins’ work isn’t nude. It’s buck naked. Raw.

As such, it marks a departure from his earlier work, Paris 1994/Gallery, a hauntingly melancholic and meditative piece of dance theatre nominated for three prestigious Dora awards following its debut at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in April 2012. The success of that work compelled World Stage artistic director Tina Rasmussen to commission Hoskins to create a new full-length for her international avant-garde theatre program. It has been two years in the making. Where Paris 1994/Gallery was intimate, involving just two performers, This Is a Costume Drama is bigger and more boisterous. Collaborative in nature, it draws on the remarkable talents of the nine members of Hoskins’ multidisciplinary The Dietrich Group company to pull it off: Brendan Wyatt, Brodie Stevenson, Danielle Baskerville, Greg Selinger, Jen Dahl, Lacey Smith, Mark Reinhart, Mariana Medelin-Meinke and William Ellis. Also assisting the production is set designer Dieter Janssen, costume stylist Matthew Vaile, lighting designer Simon Rossiter, filmmaker Nico Stagias, motion graphics designer Santosh Isaac, sound designer Lyon Smith and contributing writer Jordan Tannahil. Laura Cournoyea and Lindsay Jenkins serve as stage manager and Oz Weaver as producer and executive director. Bravi Tutti.

This exuberant collective of actor/dancer/performance artists performs much of the work naked. They lay themselves bare in more ways than one, exposing vaginas, penises, sphincters, nipples and toes for sucking. That’s what’s seen on the stage. On a rear movie screen, a young man, naked save for his running shoes, masturbates and masturbates again, looking lasciviously into the camera. Not a show for the kiddies, or the weakly tolerant. Being X-rated in places might serve to restrict the work’s access, and this would be a shame. Hoskins is a definitely an artist whose work you want to see, and see more of. He’s explicit but he’s also incisive, a thinking person’s choreographer.

But not everything in This is a Costume Drama is meant to shock. Running two hours without an intermission, it features parody and satire as tools of social critique. Much of it is wickedly funny. The fantastically agile Greg Selinger performs, in red underwear, a hypnotic break dance while spewing key phrases from the text; Lacey Smith, meanwhile, plays a schoolgirl in knee highs and sweater whose body rebels against her studied primness, twitching spasmodically as she recites her German grammar. Mariana Medellin-Meinke, a native of Mexico and Brodie Stevenson, a former member of Toronto Dance Theatre, do a hilarious send-up of Playboy as imagined behind the scenes, featuring a pipe-smoking, Hugh Hefner and a sparkle porn star leading him by his cock. In stark contrast to the nakedness around her, the wonderfully evocative Danielle Baskerville appears benignly in some scenes as a Victorian lady in a hooped dress costume, buttoned to the collarbone. This she teasingly swings back and forth while swaying on her heels, looking like a bell silently ringing. Her male partners (Stevenson with Mark Reinhart, Brendan Wyatt and William Ellis) scramble to lie beneath her petticoats, savouring the gentle breeze while getting a good look up her skirt. Elsewhere, Baskerville appears in a fur coat and black underwear as a bruised and battered has-been beauty queen with blood running out her nose as she drunkenly staggers, clutching an ersatz trophy. She also plays a disco queen and a social pariah and one of the bearded apostles in a wickedly funny send-up of The Last Supper. But of course This Is a Costume Drama features a lot of costume changes.

Performers, besides Baskerville, slip in and out of their clothes before our eyes, adopting new personalities with each wardrobe shift. At times, those personalities seem true-to-life as when dancer Jen Dahl takes the microphone and strips to the waist to narrate a story (told in Italian with spontaneous translation projected on a rear movie screen) of a husband telling his wife that her silk purse breasts (which Dahl dazzlingly shows off) are “1970s breasts,” naturally full, pendulous and suggestive of a time when sex was social politics, both liberating and disruptive in its permissiveness. The scene, by implication, draws attention to the present day where flesh has become more a costume, inflated by implants, frozen by Botox, engorged by steroids and the quest for the perfect six-pack. The artificiality of the human body is at an all-time high. Hoskins is possibly depressed by this. His gutsy and uninhibitedly exploratory creation does not offer up a solution. His burlesque does not titillate. The final image suggests Armageddon. It’s the ultimate act of disrobement. Feast your eyes and weep.

– 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. Good review, as usual. Thank you, Ms. Kelly.