Friday, November 24, 2017

Surrender Not The Future: ProArteDanza at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre

ProArteDanza performing Future Perfect Continuous. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

 Dance might not be able to save the planet from ecological catastrophe. But it can illuminate some of the anxieties surrounding the future of the planet, exposing the human vulnerabilities hiding in the shadows of emotionless science. To recycle or not to recycle, that is not the only question – nor is it the sole response to a world melting before our eyes. In Future Perfect Continuous, a new hybrid work of spoken dance which opened ProArteDanza’s 2017 season at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the beginning of November, choreographer Matjash Mrozewski grapples with climate change and environmental degradation, presenting them as large and inchoate themes affecting us all but in multifarious ways.

The former National Ballet of Canada dancer collaborated with award-winning playwright Anna Chatterton on the text spoken by ProArteDanza’s distinctive performers as they move. The spoken collage of rumination, argument and expressions of hope and fear makes palpable the ambiguities that have made global warming something of an existential quagmire for the 21st century. The ensemble of 12 dancers, doubling as actors, are not eco-warriors but more eco-worriers who struggle with the very real role humans play in putting the earth at risk. They push the right buttons, giving the audience plenty to think about. Fake news, or an inconvenient truth? The fact of the matter is that no one is certain, a central dilemma of the piece. “I don’t want to know. I already know” is an utterance shared by several players. No one can say climate change isn’t confusing.

On one side are the optimists, or, depending on your point of view, those who are deeply in denial about the planet’s warming atmosphere and its affect on daily life. A bright yellow balloon here marks the spot. Holding it is the dancer (Daniel MacArthur) who declares that catastrophes have always been part of human history and here we are, repeatedly surviving the tsunamis, the earthquakes and the hurricanes which have forever tested our very existence. On the other are the doomsday sayers, those who believe that an environmental crisis is nigh, and that the earth and everything in it will wither and die due to human neglect. The guilt alone annihilates. Another dancer (Anisa Tejpar) fights back, erupting with a satiric monologue of Swiftean proportions in which she urges a quick end to our collective misery: “Pour your bacon grease into the lake,” she breathlessly urges. Better yet, just go ahead and nuke the joint. We’ve already descended into a fossil-fueled hell.

These moments of sly humour go a long way in ensuring that Future Perfect Continuous (a title born of a verb tense) is not preachy or didactic. The piece entertains even as it excavates feelings of unease and impotency. Delight lies with the dancers – many of whom never have spoken lines out loud before, not that you could tell. Mrozewski, a recent graduate of the collaborative Canadian Stage/York University MFA program in large-scale stage direction, obviously has coached them well. They execute soliloquies as confidently as the somersaults, squiggles and sudden pivots jazzing up the cut-and-run choreography, itself a renewable source of energy. But there are quiet moments as well: a solo harmonica, a dark stage and a dancer speaking softly about the stars carpeting the night sky, same as it ever was. We might just be okay, after all. The music is Orchestral Variations by Minor Victories, an alt-rock band whose ambient melodies have an emotional intensity which compliments a dance quivering with angst, irony and self-doubt.

Robert Glumbek,and Johanna Bergfelt in adjusted surrender. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

The next two works on the 90-minute program, also premieres, were by Kevin O’Day, the American-born artistic director Germany’s Ballet Mannheim, who is a frequent ProArteDanza collaborator. Op Sha!, which company founder Roberto Campanella commissioned for his season opener, is a joyously upbeat group dance set to the Balkan-klezmer-gypsy music of Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, former buskers with a big-brass sound. It’s a swooping, swirling party piece, conceived as a communal night of dancing (and presumably drinking) that ends with a soloist wandering off into the dawn-like glow of Arun Srinivasan’s lighting design. No visions of an impending apocalypse here.

More complex is O’Day’s other offering, an evocative duet called adjusted surrender. Masterfully danced by ProArteDanza associate director Robert Glumbek and company member Johanna Bergfelt, the work uses costume to both reveal and conceal an intimate relationship between a man and a woman. Bergfelt’s dress, designed by former National Ballet dancer Krista Dowson, is a stiffened but unravelling concoction that the dancer maneuvers in and out of, as it were a cocoon and she the chrysalis needing to be reborn. Glumbek’s defining accessory is more a brimmed hat, or rather a series of them. They line the stage floor of the Fleck Dance Theatre like edging in a garden. He takes the hats up to wear them, guarding himself as he warily watches his partner break free to dance on her own. But not for long. Moving in swiftly, Glumbek yanks Bergfelt close to enact a partnership full of literal twists and turns. He grabs; she pulls away at an angle. The dance evolves as an exchange of balance and opposing energies bristling with inner tension. Set to a selection of music by Chopin and Sigur Rós, adjusted surrender is a work of ritualized obsession which the dancers, both endowed with a powerful stage presence, turn into art. At the end, he wraps her back into her stand-up dress, only half succeeding in covering up her mystery and allure. The dancer haunts the imagination still.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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