Friday, May 31, 2019

Last Night in Marienbad: Dancing the Elusive

Christopher House and Jordan Tannahill in Marienbad. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

To access Marienbad, a mesmerizingly teasing dance work whose week-long residency concludes tomorrow night (June 1), you enter Winchester Street Theatre through a side entrance instead of the usual front door. It’s the first clue that what is taking place inside the converted Cabbagetown church that for years has served as home to Toronto Dance Theatre has upended the normal run of things.

A two-man physical and psychological tour de force, Marienbad – likely named for the 1961 Left Bank film about an affair that may or may not have happened – unfolds not on the flat-floor black stage that normally serves as the romping grounds for TDT’s often sprightly dances. It stomps, jogs, zigs and zags down a cascading tier of stairs located where the audience typically sits.

The risers are where Marienbad’s joint creators and performers, TDT artistic director Christopher House and Canadian theatre director, playwright and author Jordan Tannahill, reprise their original 2016 version of dance performed in skivvies (Cheryl Lalonde did both the set and costume design) and laying bare the complex, sensual and at times playfully erotic world of male homosexuality. Interchangeably pursued and in pursuit, the men often feign indifference even though sexually, imaginatively, emotionally in sync.

Like players in a darkling Jean Genet drama, violently exchanging sexual roles along with body fluids, they play out their hot-and-then-not dynamic amid the shadows of Simon Rossiter’s inky lighting design and an ambient score blending a male voice choir singing a fragment of a religious song and swamping industrial noise by sound designer Matt Smith. It might not be everyone’s idea of sex. But it is a focused point of view, theatrically, choreographically, artistically solid. And it keeps everyone guessing.

Jordan Tannahill and Christopher House. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Are the two men cruising for anonymous sex? Or do they actually know each other? Have they been together before? Or are they acting out a mutually shared fantasy of a close encounter of the sexually raw and unapologetic kind? Or remembering a relationship that happened in the past and is now over? The lack of answers fires an atmosphere of intrigue. Marienbad operates on a level of evasive meanings, of things wanting and waiting to be revealed. That’s its power.

Some of the gestures look coded, and are decipherable not as language to be understood by others but as the mirrors of the quirks and non sequiturs of inner thought. House and Tannahill occasionally perform their introspective semaphore side by side. But they are not communicating with each other. They are more giving shape and expression to interior worlds where desire is caught up in memory and also periods of forgetfulness.

If they are lovers then the feeling is more that they loved in the past tense. If they know each other, they do so only fleetingly, as symbolized by the distances they put between each other while mutually navigating the precarious stairs.

They ignore each other even while aware of each other’s presence. House journeys the risers in one direction and Tannahill in another. They tread different pathways that often inexplicably intersect and entangle, drawing the men into sexually voracious knots of thuggish intimacy and face plants to the floor. But it’s not all bruise and kaboom.

Subtle eye blinks, long stares and ever-so-slight smiles go a long way in softening the virile all-male edginess of the piece. Large swaths of silent stillness intersect with loud, clanging passages of insouciantly aggressive movement, hinting at hidden danger. It all contributes to a piece that is dreamlike, intentionally incomprehensible. As stated at the beginning, you enter Marienbad by the side door. But after an hour, you leave it bowled over by the fearlessness of the performers, the freedom of the act. Dance by nature is elusive. But here that elusiveness is, quite frankly, the meat of the matter.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. 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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