Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Whole New Lease on Life: Claudia Moore's Older & Reckless

Claudia Moore of MOonhORrsE Dance Theatre. (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk) 

Dance is obsessed with youth, especially in an era where choreography has become more a showcase of superhuman feats of athletic ability than a vehicle of nuanced, non-verbal storytelling. It takes youth and agility to perform today’s bravura dance works. It also takes a toll on the body. Dancers today have shortened careers as a result of the heightened physical demands of their art form. Hips and knees are usually the first to go, followed by backs and shoulders in men who have spent the bulk of their careers powerlifting their female partners. The average age of retirement, according to recent industry surveys conducted in Canada and the U.S., is 29 – and largely because of performance-related injuries. For a long time dancers have quietly accepted that their stage lives will be brief. Most enter the profession already thinking about their exit; what happens after the curtain falls on that final performance preoccupies even the youngest of dancers well before they land their first job. Early retirement is built into the profession. The moment when a dancer reaches maturity as an artist is usually just when most find themselves having to go. The spirit is willing but the body just hurts too much to continue.

But increasingly dancers are pushing back on the idea that dance is a young person’s game. Significantly, the rebels are older artists, dancers over the age of 40, who, endowed with a lifetime of dancing experience, are determined to take dance beyond the virtuosic and into more spiritual and subtly expressive territory. While older dancers have held the spotlight before – Martha Graham, one of the founders of modern dance, performed into her seventies, while Kazuo Ohno, the world’s foremost butoh dancer, took his last bow at age 93 – they were usually one-offs who had defied the odds by continuing to dance into their dotage. The difference is that not only are there many more senior dancers commanding attention now than ever before, they are pushing dance in a new age-positive direction – and being enthusiastically applauded for it. Ballerina Alessandra Ferri’s much-celebrated return to the London stage earlier this year at age 52, following a six-year absence, was a recent case in point. Youthfulness is no longer a primary goal; what matters in dance today is the confidence, poise and abandon which senior dancers embody so well. It’s a growing phenomenon, seen in countries from Sweden to India, and largely because of the baby boomers who have turned the aging process on its head by insisting on working, playing and living hard, well past the age of retirement.

Claudia Moore is one of those boomers redefining what it means to be a senior citizen. A dancer still active in her sixties, she helms MOonhORrsE Dance Theatre, a forum for developing the inherently poetic language of dance. She launched it in Toronto in 1996 as a way of prolonging her involvement in the art form while in her mid-fifties. A former member of the National Ballet of Canada and Desrosiers Dance Theatre, she commissioned choreographers to work with the dancer she had become as opposed to the dancer she once was. Freed from the pressure of having to execute tricky balances and multiple turns, among other demands placed on her youthful self, Moore encouraged her collaborators to help her experiment with movement quality and emotional colouring. Age had given her new ways of moving and new ways of communicating with an audience, and she wanted to exploit her new powers. She quickly realized she wasn’t alone.

BaKari I. Lindsay. (Photo: Irina Popova)

In 2000 – for them, as well as herself – Moore created Older & Reckless, a regular series of curated dance performances in intimate spaces showcasing the unique talents and contributions of the senior dance artist, along with choreography tailor-made for their mature selves. An act of defiance? "Actually, it was the opposite," Moore explains. "It made sense to me, and at my more mature age I had the confidence to go with my impulse. I just wanted to work quietly, in a smaller venue, to focus more on developing craft and taking risks without the exorbitant costs of the big stage. I was looking for a way to grow, survive, develop, to apply my creativity to the task of developing as an artist." Older & Reckless has grown with her over the past sixteen years. Usually they're tucked away in small theatres far from the mainstream, but the most recent edition took place at the Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Nov. 12-13. The relocation to a bigger and more prominent venue – 350 seats compared to 65 at its former location at Dancemakers in the Distillery District – is directly a result of demand.

The 39th Older & Reckless opened with "Danser Joe," an excerpted revival of "Joe," a principal work of the late Quebec choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault performed on this occasion by 25 novices from the local community (in her introduction emcee Veronica Tennant called them “amateurs,” emphasizing the word’s connection to the French noun for lover) and six professional dancers from the original boot-stomping production of 20 years ago. BaKari I. Lindsay, co-founder of COBA (Collective of Black Artists) in Toronto in 1993, followed with his powerful 2012 solo, "Ancestral Calling," a shamanistic work delving deep into the collective unconscious for an understanding of personal identity. New Zealand performance artist Charles Koroneho lead the second half of the evening with his ceremonial (and long) "The Song - Ethnomusicology and the Maori,"a work combining choreography, voice and recorded song which felt too much like a research project to be compelling.

Margie Gillis (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk)
The return to the stage of several icons of Canadian contemporary dance, some 30 years after first gaining international recognition as trailblazers, was more cause for excitement. They included the one-time enfant terrible of Canadian dance, the fantastical Robert Desrosiers, founder and chief choreographer of the aforementioned Desrosiers Dance Theatre, and Margie Gillis, the Montreal soloist whose visceral dancing style earned her worldwide recognition as Canada’s answer to Isadora Duncan. Moore also participated in the dance equivalent of a hockey legends all-stars show, dancing "Sylph(a)," a previously reviewed solo of lightness and charm which the choreographic duo, Apolonia Velasquez and Ofilio Sinbadinho, created for her on the occasion of her 60th birthday in 2013. Now 60-plus, the dancers performing their respective pieces might not have jumped and thrashed and tumbled to the floor on this occasion as in the olden days, but they nevertheless held the capacity crowd spellbound, thrilling not with pyrotechnics but with a gravitas of presence.

This was particularly true of Gillis, whose self-created work, "The Wonder of Dissolve" – a premiere – explored the dancer’s changed relationship with her body and willingness to accept that change as part of a deepening relationship with the cosmos. Intense and magnetic, Gillis began the work in silence with her face pointed upwards into Pierre Lavoie’s softly celestial lighting design, signaling an openness to take in whatever the universe would throw at her. The ensuing dance, a series of sculpted images created with sickled arms, contracted torso and feet tracing whirling patterns on the floor, culminated in ecstasy – literally an out-of-body experience – which saw Gillis returning to her source of light, hand on heart, grateful for the spiritual journey.

Drawing on his diverse training in ballet, modern dance, mime, and the Japanese-inspired performance of Lindsay Kemp (David Bowie’s former teacher), Desrosiers also embarked on a voyage of discovery with his contribution to the program, "Character in the Choir’s Carnival (Section A: 'At the Bottom of the Pool')," a phantasmagorical work performed to live accompaniment by cellist and singer Anne Bourne. The title suggests a watery point of view, a fluidity of meaning which the work itself took great pains to support. Wearing white gloves and fluttering his hands, Desrosiers incarnated a bird in flight before undulating his upper body to appear next as a snake. The transformations continued apace with the dancer splaying his fingers on his forehead to create the appearance of antlers. Desrosiers’ rapidly fluctuating imagery, borrowed from the bag of magic upending inside his imagination, pushed him forward and back into the shapes and personae of various animals. The skillful mimicry included an old man bent over an illusory cane, and a wide-eyed captive in a prison of air. This intricately crafted and stunningly realized piece of miniaturized dance theatre invoked memories of "Incognito," an earlier Desrosiers work dating from 1988 which similarly explored altered states of consciousness in a solo performance. But comparisons to his former self stopped there. Exploring ambiguous human nature, Desrosiers demonstrated a heightened sense of purpose and sharper clarity of vision than he had in his younger days. Age has not withered his powers of performance, nor diminished the urgency of his danced message. It has made him stronger; a trait shared by the other senior dancers on the program for whom “older” has come to represent a whole new lease on life.

– 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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