Saturday, July 14, 2018

Altered States: Danny Grossman Dances His Swan Song

Danny Grossman. (Photo: Liliana Reyes)

Nearly 20 years ago, the American-born dancer and choreographer Danny Grossman was in his 50s – then considered an ancient age for a dance artist – and had just had hip surgery to repair the damage brought on by his jumping, swirling, body-slamming profession. While he was recovering, I went to interview him in his Toronto home where I found him walking with the aid of crutches. But not even they could slow him down. Grossman had already – and likely against his doctor’s wishes – tried to dance again and the experience confirmed for him something he had long held true: that dance isn’t just steps set to music; it’s a process of transformation. “It’s a miracle!” Grossman said at the time, bursting out laughing as he threw his crutches to the floor to tentatively trace what looked like an old-fashioned waltz across his living room floor. “I feel no pain! I feel like a kid again!” Conversation grew somewhat more serious as the morning wore on. The operation had made him feel his mortality and looking back at the sizeable body of work he had created for his Danny Grossman Dance Company since its founding in Toronto in 1977 (the troupe stopped performing in 2008), he summed it up like this: “All my work has been about altered states. People are transformed by dance, some by just doing it, others by watching."

The scene came flooding back at me while watching Labour of Love (Its Innate Proclivities and Myriad Variations) , the program Grossman presented at Toronto’s intimate The Citadel: Ross Centre of Dance for three nights only, June 19, 20 and 21. Obviously, the transformative power of dance had worked for there he was – still going strong with six choreographed works, half of them world premieres, providing the proof. Aided by Eddie Kastrau, a powerfully expressive dancer from his now defunct eponymous company, Grossman also performed in the program’s titular, and final, piece, gleefully gliding through it on a stool with roller wheels. Inspired in part by Billie Holliday singing the blues, Grossman conceived Labour of Love as a portrait of a marriage, with flirtation, inventive sex and marital breakdowns woven into the humourous choreographic narrative.

The title was telling and could be applied to the program as a whole. Dance for Grossman always has been a labour of love. Certainly, it’s been his life’s work. And now it looks to be over. Before the show, Grossman told me that this program would be his last. “It is my swan song,” he said. The show will not go on. But what a way to end it.

The occasion, attended by a who’s who of local dance luminaries, among them former National Ballet of Canada ballerina Vanessa Harwood, choreographer Robert Desrosiers, Toronto Dance Theatre co-founder Patricia Beatty, and Indian classical dance artist Janak Khendry, also marked Grossman’s 75th birthday and his recent induction into the Dance Collection Danse Encore! Hall of Fame. The ceremony, which took place in Toronto in March, honoured the contributions Grossman, a former Paul Taylor company dancer in New York, has made to the development of Canadian dance since coming north to teach at York University in the 1970s. Explicitly, Grossman was recognized as an iconoclast, a dance artist who has long fused social and political commentary to his jazz-meets-modern dance aesthetic. The son of two San Francisco activists, Grossman has long discombobulated the status quo, frequently tackling topics usually not explored in dance – a brutalized, post-apocalyptic world in Endangered Species (1981); American jingoism, parodied in National Spirit (1976), and non-stereotypical gender roles in Nobody’s Business (1981), to name just a few of Grossman’s more prominent works.

A mosaic of a life and career as an iconoclast of dance. (Photo: Dance Umbrella of Ontario)

Some of these earlier themes, gender roles and identities especially, continue to resonate with him as seen by this recent program in which he revisited subjects he had explored in the past, but with a renewed perspective. Among the new works were Miss Thing, an androgynous tour de force danced by soloist Mateo Galindo Torres, and Double Self-Portrait, a Canadian premiere described in the program notes as focusing on “a person of ambiguous gender” who “awaits a visit from her/his hidden self.” Dramatically danced by Julia Sasso with Kastrau, both performing a series of interlocking expressionistic tableaux, the piece, set to a minimalist score by Ann Southam, riveted as a portrait of a secret emotional life.

Hidden selves, and their desires, also formed the focus of 9 McAllister Street, a world premiere performed by the sensually beautiful dancer Nicole Rose Bond and a tautly focused Philip McDermott. Both the male and the female character strip away what covers them, revealing a freedom of erotic expression not readily discerned behind the buttoned-up coats both wear when first seen on stage. Their fantasia of the flesh is curiously mythological: he wears satyr horns, she curves and undulates like a woodland nymph. A strange work that was totally fascinating, expertly crafted, exquisitely danced.

Beyond the sex was love and the bonds that tie deeply and for life. This was the main idea behind Two for the Road, a poignant duet performed by Kastrau this time with Meredith Thompson, playing lonely people who find each other and become as one. The muscular choreography was shot through with innovative partnering work and balances serving as a metaphor for the quest for equilibrium. The instrumental score, featuring pieces by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden, showed Grossman returning to his roots as a lover of jazz. Several of his earlier works (among them the bebop-inspired Hot House-Living on a Riff, created in 1986 for the National Ballet, and Chasing Bird, his 1998 tribute to Charlie Parker) are set to jazz without being merely illustrative of the music.

As seen in Beguiled, a 2016 work set to a Nina Simone song sequence, jazz provides an impetus for exploring emotion. In this case, the emotion is stoic misery, the feeling that follows a love gone wrong. Performed by an all-star cast of Toronto female independent dancers (Danielle Baskerville, Mairéad Filgate, Mairi Greig, Syreeta Hector with the aforementioned Thompson and Bond), this cleverly Delsartian work, with its Matisse-like dance-in-the-round imagery and stark architectural groupings of female bodies in the fashion of Bronislava Nijinska, was visually striking and socially perceptive. A work where content and form came together in refreshingly original ways, it presented humour along with the heartbreak, and pleasure amid the pain. Dancing together, moving as one, the women transcended the hurt of rejection. Moving together as one, they were altered, as Grossman knew they would be, by the regenerative power of the dance. May it be his legacy.

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). 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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