Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Danger in the Drawing Room: James Kudelka's Love, Sex & Brahms

Bill Coleman, Evelyn Hart and Ryan Boorne and the cast of Love, Sex & Brahms. (Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Actors who move. It's an image Canadian choreographer James Kudelka had in mind when creating Love, Sex & Brahms whose world premiere took place at Toronto's The Citadel Theatre on March 16. Set to the Intermezzi for Solo Piano which composer Johannes Brahms created late in his career, the work is more costume drama than dance, focusing on the emotional underpinnings of the characters more than on the spiralling spurts of their bodies hidden behind the Victorian-era dress created for them by Toronto fashion label Hoax Couture.

A Tissot painting come to life, the work is an expanded version of the two-time Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms which debuted in April, 2015. The new hour-long version now has 10 characters compared to the original 8 and more than twice as many scenes. Coleman Lemieux and Compagnie, the critically acclaimed and community-based dance organization where the award-winning Kudelka has been choreographer-in-residence since 2008, both produced and danced it. Among the performers for the run that ended on March 19 were company founders Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux and independent dance artists Danielle Baskerville, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Victoria Mehaffey, Louis Laberge-Côté, Ryan Boorne, Andrew McCormack and Daniel McArthur.

The superb ensemble also included the celebrated Canadian ballerina, Evelyn Hart, making something of a comeback after retiring from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2006. Now 60 and dancing in low-heeled shoes instead of her usual pointes, Hart played a kind of matriarch figure overseeing what looks to be a formal gathering of family and friends with much to say to each other but with little opportunity to speak the truth. Displaying a surfeit of emotion with an economy of gesture, the seasoned artist first appeared in the 2015 edition. Her return signals a deepening collaboration with Kudelka, presently working with her on Vespers, a new ballet to debut at the RWB in Winnipeg this week, on May 10.

Another significant reappearance from the original production was Andrew Burashko, whose Toronto-based Art of Time Ensemble offers up refreshed versions of musical masterpieces, often in collaboration with dance as an interpretive component. Burashko on this occasion again played a grand piano situated at the corner of an otherwise bare stage. An overhanging chandelier and Simon Rossiter's prismatic lighting design, creating the illusion of a beautifully patterned parlour carpet, were the only elements of stage design. The score largely dominated, shaping and colouring the various components of the accompanying dance.

Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh
Wordlessly yet powerfully expressive, Love, Sex & Brahms carves deeply into each piece of music within the18-part intermezzi to shape a series of flirtatious and romantic relationships. There is no storyline. Love, Sex & Brahms is more a mood piece in which 10 characters, six men and four women of various ages, interact with each other in a series of interlocking scenes of varying emotional intensity. From a structural point of view, the work recalls Austrian-born Arthur Schnitzler's fin-de-siècle play, Reigen, the German word for "round dance," which similarly depicts a chain of intimate encounters with no real beginning or end. A main difference is that here the sex is only ever implied, never consummated. Desire percolates just below the surface of politeness and other carefully mannered poses, resulting in a simmering cauldron of repressed feeling.

Symbolizing the theme of passion in lockstep with conformity is a bald-headed, bare-foot puppet, attired like a gentleman and appearing in most of the vignettes as both connective thread and cipher. Kudelka has named him Sarkis, elaborating in a pre-show interview that he is cousin to Malcolm, the puppet dominating one of his earlier works of the same name. It's an inside joke, but it also speaks to Kudelka – his offbeat perspective, his capricious seriousness as an artist. Sarkis is weird but wonderful in the sense that he inspires deep speculation as to what the hell he is actually doing in a dance exploring middle-class angst. Characters relate to him in different ways.

Some cradle him like a baby; others guard him jealously or swat him to the ground. The stuffed and suited wonder is anything people want him to be, upping the intrigue of a work combining the psychological manipulation of an Antony Tudor ballet with the social restrictions of a Henry James novel. The puppet's role is so loosely defined that eyes are always drawn to him, as if to a thing of mystery. The audience keeps wanting to make something of him. The expectation is that he fill in the narrative gaps, anchor the characters in meaning. But he doesn't. Sarkis just sits and stares, moving only when moved. An existentialist dummy, fascinating to watch.

The puppet's muteness and reliance on others to animate him and give him purpose draws attention to the world of heightened emotional artifice which all the characters inhabit. Like Sarkis, they are repositories of projected desire. They don't act as much as they are acted upon, their emotional needs only occasionally met. Moments of anger and built-up frustration burst through the starched collars and buttoned-up bodices, suggesting danger in the drawing room. But the collision between private longing and thwarted desire is quietly explosive. The decorous twists and turns of the choreography are muted and nuanced, highlighting an atmosphere of strangled despair. The characters move but don't actually go too far. Like their fancy dress, they are frozen in time. Beautiful but broken creatures of habit.

– 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 for 32 years, 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, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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