Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Choreography of Dissent

Dominion at Canadian Stage.

Dance as a form of protest is something of a retread trend right now. Choreographers from around the world, and representing a wide range of genres, are again using the wordless art of the body to draw attention to important societal and political issues. Non-purposeful dance, or dance in the abstract, performed for the sheer enjoyment of interpreting music through movement, is not for them. As seen recently in Toronto where several international choreographers chanced to perform in various venues within weeks of each other during the last week of April and the first week of May, they are more interested in returning to dance as a form of cultural expression dealing with themes of oppression and suffering rooted in the experiences of actual people.

The choreographers in question included Luyanda Sidiya, a participant of Canadian Stage’s month-long Spotlight South Africa dance and theatre festival, whose double bill at the Bluma Appel Theatre on April 22, featured Dominion, an unflinching portrait of militaristic dictatorships in the modern era. The masterfully crafted piece presented the likenesses of Adolf Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi and Robert Mugabe as part of a damning critique of the protest cycle which starts with revolution and ends with repression only to repeat itself endlessly and at great cost to the people who must bend and sway with every turn of the political wheel. Dominion, and its sister piece Umnikelo, a work that almost nostalgically celebrates the unfettered energy, grace and beauty of African tribal dance, spoke to the thwarted idealism of post-apartheid South Africa (which includes the xenophobic violence sparked by anti-immigrant rage which had South Africa in the headlines ironically during the week that that the Spotlight South Africa performances were taking place in Toronto) while responding to the broader issue of abuses of power on a global, if not universal, scale. Communicating the profound message of the work was the ensemble of dancers who make up the Johannesburg-based Vuyani Dance Theatre company of which Sidiya, 31, is artistic director and chief choreographer. The all-black company is remarkably fluent, able to voice several dance languages at once, from Western-style modern dance and ballet to Zulu and other traditional dances of South Africa including Umxhentso, a healing dance of the Xhosa people. Sidiya is a member of that tribe. During a post-performance discussion, Sidiya, winner of the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance, a leading South African arts prize recognizing artistic excellence in an emerging talent, said that dance for him is a blend of the personal and the political; it is a form of truth-telling. “Dance is an offering of thanks,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to connect with another person and inspire a shift of perspective.”

The same night as Sidiya and Vuyani Dance Theatre company were performing at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on April 23, next door at the Sony Centre, Siberian-born choreographer Boris Eifman, once labeled a subversive by the Soviet state into which, in 1946, he was born, presented as part of a Canadian tour his 2005 ballet, Anna Karenina, based on the Leo Tolstoy novel of the same name. Like the original work of literature, the two-act ballet examines the role of women in changing 19th century Russian society, and the price paid by individuals who reject tradition. Featuring Eifman’s signature style of classical dance mixed with gymnastic agility and expressionistic imagery resulting in a heightened sense of dance drama, Anna Karenina was superbly danced by the riveting members of the St. Petersburg-based Eifman Ballet in spite of the canned music representing a clichéd melange of emotionally overwrought Tchaikovsky symphonies. Strongly drawn, the characters pulled the audience into the psycho-sexual power play at the heart of the ballet, ensuring that Anna’s affair with Vronsky, resulting in the loss of her son by her husband, Karenin, and ultimately her own life by suicide, grabbed hold of the emotions. A dance whose narrative was clear.

The Eifman Ballet’s Anna Karenina. (photo by Kurdryashova Hana).

As if the Eifman Ballet and the Vuyani Dance Theatre were not enough, that weekend, and a few blocks south at Harbourfront Centre, the Spanish-born and Toronto-based dancer and choreographer, Esmeralda Enrique, unveiled Letters to Spain, a multifaceted work exploring a theme of immigration through the art of flamenco, a dance and music form that long has expressed resilience in the face of difficulty. Performed by members of her Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company together with musicians and singers assembled for the occasion, the performance opened with Poeta, a dramatized piece of flamenco exploring the life of celebrated Spanish poet, Rafael Alberti, who had been forced into exile following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 for his Marxist beliefs. Deeply involved in politics, in 1977 Alberti had returned to Spain after the death of Spanish dictator, Fernando Franco, two years earlier, and was widely celebrated. In 1983 Alberti was the recipient of the Premio Cervantes, Spain’s highest literary honour. He was in his later years a national hero. But Enrique’s dance is not overly concerned with these biographical details. The main intent of Poeta is to present a life that was committed, passionate, and deeply enhanced by the love Alberti showed his wife, the writer and political activist, María Teresa León, who died in 1988, 11 years before his own death in 1999 at age 96. It’s definitely a romanticized view that avoids some of the more controversial aspects of Alberti’s life which had they been presented, in dance terms or otherwise, would have served to strengthen a work inspired by historical events. It’s more after the fact that the subject matter of Poeta seeps into the imagination, provoking thought. The performance itself felt pretty rather than intellectually demanding and that was ultimately unsatisfying as Alberti’s life story demanded more gravitas.

Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr Gudirr.

On the same Harbourfront stage a week later, on the night of May 6, award-winning Australian solo dancer, Dalisa Pigram, more than delivered on that request with her performance of Gudirr Gudirr. While having nothing to do with poets or romantic love for that matter, this arresting one woman show, a North American premiere, was very much political in addressing, and in personal terms, the threat of industrialization on the Yawuru people of Broome, a remote community in northwest Australia. A presentation of Australia’s Marrugeku company of which Pigram, an Australian of mixed Asian and Aboriginal heritage, is co-director, Gudirr Gudirr was jointly created with choreographer Koen Augustijnen of Belgium’s acclaimed Les Ballets C de la B dance company in collaboration with Indigenous Australian visual artist Vernon Ah Kee (he had represented Australia in 2009 at the 53rd Venice Biennale). The title comes from the warning call made by the Guwayi bird signalling when the tide is turning. Pigram, an award-winning dancer who is also a teacher in Broome, sees it as a metaphor for her own community, forced to turn in directions that might lead to its destruction.

Her multimedia piece used video, spoken word, Malaysian martial arts, gymnastics and a brilliant set design consisting mostly of a large fishing net suspended from the ceiling in which Pigram variously got entangled in and rode like a swing, soaring over the shards of ancestral memory eviscerated onto the stage. Pigram’s fluid dancing style flowed from a unique dance language influenced by her Malay, Pilipino, and Indigenous Bardi and Yawuru background. It often stood in stark contrast to the guttural utterances of outrage and anger (including a spirited volley of F-words) that spewed out of her with volcanic intensity, hitting the viewer right where it counts: in the jugular. Pigram was fantastically defiant as she cursed and recited government-sanctioned policies to poison and prostitute a people dependent on their traditional lands for survival. Her dance uncovered past injustices as it pondered the future of Indigenous people, world-wide. In light of Canada’s own troubling history with First Nations People as underscored this past week by the long-awaited Final Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada which has accused the country as a whole of racial discrimination and, worse, cultural genocide, as a result of the government having removed more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their parents’ homes over a 100 year period, from roughly 1840 to 1948, and placing them in residential schools where they were brutalized, her dance had relevance beyond her own experience. Her Gudirr Gudirr is a protest dance, a cry of the body drawing on nature and the need for self-expression to make itself heard.

– 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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