Sunday, May 24, 2015

The King's Domain: Laurence Lemieux's Looking for Elvis

Looking for Elvis (photo by John Lauener).

Elvis Presley was recently back in the building belonging to Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, the dance company located in Toronto's Regent Park. The occasion was Looking for Elvis, the work created by the Quebec-born choreographer and dancer Laurence Lemieux in 2014 and recently remounted at the intimate The Citadel performing space on Parliament St. for four nights of performances during the first week of May. As he did the first time around, Elvis appeared in the piece as a casualty of his own fame. But with Lemieux having sharpened the focus on his isolation within the culture of celebrity, the poignancy of his end-of-life story was heightened, resulting in a more nuanced encounter of the King. Looking for Elvis shared the program with a 2010 work inspired by another great of 20th century American popular music, James Kudelka's The Man in Black set to a sextet of haunting end-of-life songs by Johnny Cash (and danced in cowboy boots by the National Ballet of Canada in 2013). Both works were united by their use of popular music to get inside the memories and emotions of their viewing public and by a shared masculine sensibility.

The Man in Black is overtly butch. The main theme is death. Cash, as can be heard in one of his songs, more euphemistically refers to life's finality as a state of being found further on up the road. Kudelka expresses the inevitable as a four-way dance performed (brilliantly it should be said) by three men in jeans together with a lone female in a short skirt designed by the Toronto fashion house, Hoax Couture. A country-and-western square dance varied by body drags across the floor, tosses in the air, swaying hips, boot stomps and slides. The characters as portrayed by dancers Luke Garwood, Tyler Gledhill, Daniel McArthur and Erin Poole are recognizable but thinly drawn – deliberately so. All engage in barroom punch ups – the lady is as tough as her partners – that have been slowed down to the point of looking like frames from a comic book. Their puny brawls are no match against the bigger power at work in this piece: mortality. It leaves even the most hardened of cowboys in the dust, showing no mercy.

A nuanced study of faded male beauty, or more precisely its tarnishing by a cloying public, Looking for Elvis also embraces death and dying as themes. The title suggests a quest for identity and Lemieux takes a multimedia approach in bringing her multifaceted image of Elvis come alive, combining dance, pantomimed gesture, edited music interspliced with lip-synced song (sound design by John Gzowski) costumes (Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell for Hoax Couture) and a rear wall projected video of Elvis's funeral procession (projection design by Jeremy Mimnagh). Heard speaking on tape to an interlocutor Floyd Sheaver as part of series of 1962 interviews which make reference to his time in the army and the sudden passing of his mother while he was overseas, Elvis speaks of life, death, loneliness, and respecting other people's belief systems. This is not Elvis the Pelvis. This is Elvis as Philosopher King.

Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times, which notes that when Elvis was in the army between the years 1958 and 1960 he had wanted to be a regular soldier, a part of the gang, and had donated his pay to improving his barracks in Germany among other acts of kindness shown to his fellow men. The inhabitant of Graceland's fall from grace – he goes from being as a leather-wearing, hip-swinging liberator of uptight 1950s America to a crooner of schmaltz dressed in sequinned sunsuits in Las Vegas – is seen not as a result of hubris but of mismanagement of his unique talent by his manager, Colonel Parker, who tended to dehumanize Elvis when he crowned him King of his Memphis Mafia dominated entertainment world. Looking for Elvis avoids these biographical details, zooming in instead on the tortured soul behind the bling: Elvis distilled, as it were. In her program notes, Lemieux quotes from music critic and Elvis authority Peter Guralnick's 1994 book, Last Train to Memphis, to elucidate what she's after: "Elvis Presley may have lost his way but even on his darkest moments he still retained some of the same innocent transparency that first defined the difference in the music and the man."

(photo by John Lauener)

His rumination on the meaning of fame and the role of show biz in his and other people's lives – he is heard on tape calling it a racket, an organized illegal activity – draws out his "Love Me Tender" side. Elvis sounds sincere, coming across as a misunderstood artist. His lack of arrogance has previously been explored by biographers in such books as 2011's

Lemieux's powerfully expressive ensemble of seven dancers (the aforementioned Garwood, Gledhill, McArthur and Poole together with Michael Caldwell, Andrew McCormack and Victoria Mehaffey) gets to the heart of the matter succinctly and with feeling as they perform her signature style of freeze-frame poses that bend and crumble with a sense of surprise, teetering off balance as they succumb to the pull of gravity. The transfers of weight serve as a kind of metaphor for Elvis in this piece: a tragic hero who appears to have lost his own sense of centre. Lemieux gives a glimpse of the man that was, playing snatches of his early acoustical work over which Elvis can be heard angelically singing.

She quickly moves on from there to show Elvis, as Guralnick put it, having lost his way. In a scene that stands out for actualizing the pathetic reality of Elvis in his later years, imprisoned inside an illusion of his former glory, Elvis, as impersonated by dancer Luke Garwood, is stripped of his black Hoax Couture shirt and redressed by the other performers in a white tuxedo shirt with sparkle jacket bow tie and rings on several fingers. He takes the microphone and lip synchs to Elvis's 1970 version of the Dusty Springfield hit, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," a song with the line, rendered ironic within the context of the dance, "It wasn't me who changed." The music plays, but this Elvis can't get in the groove. Garwood stops mouthing the words, letting them sound without him. His audience, in this case the other dancers, look concerned, and urge him to persevere, play the game. When he does, smiles return to their faces. All is good. Elvis is back to form, even if his soul isn't in it. His public has played him like a puppet, manipulating him to embrace his celebrity while downplaying the reality of the man. Elvis in the end is a series of hollow gestures signifying little more than the made-up lyrics of his songs. Which he didn't even write. The piece ends with the dancers using gestures to sign key words in Elvis' 1971 rendition of "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You," an attempt at visualizing the music. As the lines, "Wise men say only fools rush in/But I can't help falling in love with you....", are amplified across the intimate performing space, the sense is that Lemieux's dance is itself a love song. She is fascinated by Elvis's inner life, the sadness behind the spandex. While she ignores some of the less savoury aspects of the Elvis story – his penchant for machine guns, pills and peanut butter and banana sandwiches, all in copious amounts, and the fact that he begged US president Richard Nixon to make him an FBI informant – Lemieux's romantic view of the the original rock and roll icon succeeds by being well crafted, exuberantly danced and tightly edited to reflect her sympathetic point of view. "Take my hand, take my whole life too." Looking for Elvis is not a happy piece. There is no sexy rock star at the centre. Just a broken record.

– 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

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