Friday, February 14, 2020

Looking Back, Stepping Forward: A Choreographer’s Greatest Hits

Devon Snell in Echo Dark (2020). (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Farewells are rarely easy. But Christopher House, outgoing artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, has managed to turn his into a rousing valediction celebrating his 40-year-plus career as an award-winning dancer and choreographer. 

House Mix, the title given to the 100-minute program of past works his 12-member company is presenting at Harbourfront’s Fleck Theatre until Saturday, is one sparkling grand finale, an intelligently curated show of greatest hits that sends House, due to retire at the end of June, off in a blaze of glory.

Mining his past, House has rediscovered gold. He had more than 60 pieces to choose from but has settled on just four – 1998’s seductively rhythmic Vena Cava, 1993’s athletically sculptural Encarnado, 2005’s dramatically dazzling Echo Dark and 2014’s playfully kinetic Martingales. Guest artist Tedd Robinson’s luxuriant and witty 6 People Doing 6 Poses from 6 Photos to Music rounds out the evening. It’s the only new work on a program spanning the decades to stunning effect.

Even familiar pieces look remarkably vital, having undergone a bit of a facelift at the hands of House, a dance artist for whom the creative process is an ever-enchanting thing. He’s done such a remarkable job reviving what he considers to be among the best work he has added to the TDT repertoire since taking the company reins in 1994 that that they look fresher than the day they were born.

Did he revisit Simon Rossiter’s scene-defining lighting? Readjust Cara Johnson’s gender-fluid costumes? Remaster the music existing in enigmatic counterpoint to the choreography and drive it lyrically forward? The compositions range from opera composer Robert Moran’s exuberantly minimalist score for the Homer-influenced duet Encarnado to Thom Gill’s original score of electronica played live off musician Robin Dann’s laptop in Martingales, a loping group dance accented with tossing balls and arcing spirals of air-bound movement.

The company of Toronto Dance Theatre in Vena Cava (2020). (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Or is the elusive difference – that je ne sais quoi – part and parcel of the company that House has refined and reinvigorated over the years? Certainly TDT, which he first joined as a young dancer in 1980, is much better off than when he first found it.

Benefitting from his disciplined steerage and exacting artistic standards, what was founded in 1968 as a vehicle for Martha Graham and José Limon-inspired works of Canadian modern dance has evolved into a progressive enterprise drawing on experimental dance talent from across the country and around the world. House has been an important contributor to the continually expanding repertoire since becoming TDT’s resident choreographer 40 years ago. But he’s always made room for new voices – his inclusion of Robinson on his self-contained program being only the latest example.

House has also encouraged and nurtured the dancers under his care and this latest crop is superb. Technically assured and theatrically attuned, each is a soloist capable of melding seamlessly within a tightly crafted ensemble. Individual personalities shine but without detracting attention from the stronger appeal of the group dynamic. It takes a strong leader to pull that off. The impression is that House knows his worth and has the confidence to let others realize their full potential while under his watch.

His official swan song takes place in May when he takes to the stage himself to dance – one last time – in a new work created for him by long-time choreographic collaborator Deborah Hay. Following that final curtain call someone else (not yet named) will step in to pick up where House left off. If this majestic show is any indication, it will be a daunting task. The legacy is his work which –  to the very end –  is peerless.

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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