Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Right Touch: Guillaume Côté’s Immersive Dance Thrills the Senses

Natasha Poon Woo and Larkin Miller in Touch. (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Physical contact – what we all once took for granted – has become a precious commodity in the pandemic. Social distancing, lockdowns and the wearing of masks have frustrated a basic need for human contact, compelling choreographer Guillaume Côté, a long-time National Ballet of Canada principal dancer, to delve deep into what it means to form a human bond. Touch, whose world premiere took place last week (and which will run until November 7) at what is left of the Toronto Star’s former printing press at One Yonge Street, explores the powerful dynamics arising from a close encounter between two people. But it’s much more than that. Billed as an immersive dance show, Touch harnesses laser mapping, light art technology and video integration to create an all-enveloping 3D-world where the quest for forging connections is not just a theme. It’s a stunning achievement.

A strikingly original work, the first of many now being made for the recently established Côté Danse company in collaboration with multimedia designer Thomas Payette of Montreal’s multimedia Mirari Studios, Touch is a first commission from Lighthouse Immersive Artspace, the Toronto company behind the ongoing Van Gogh Immersive and the Immersive Klimt Revolution art exhibition opening next month. Like these experiential shows, Touch boldly ventures into previously unexplored territory, expanding the possibilities of art we thought we already knew. The 45-minute spectacle breaks new ground, feeling as revolutionary as what early modern dancer and theatrical lighting pioneer Loïe Fuller accomplished with her own luminescent techniques early in the 20th century. Fuller’s dance and light shows inspired the Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements in art. Touch may be similarly influential. Its presentation of dance is so avant-garde that it is bound to inspire imitations. 

Performed in the round with the audience sitting in swivel chairs allowing for a 360-degree experience of the interactive space, Touch dissolves traditional barriers between spectator and performer, encouraging a visceral and intimate experience of contemporary ballet. The dancers (Alberta natives Carleen Zouboules and Evan Webb alternating with Toronto indie veteran Natasha Poon Woo and the National Ballet’s Larkin Miller throughout the course of the work’s scheduled eight-week run) leap, scuttle, crawl and freeze unnervingly near the spectators. The dancers also interact with the space itself: throwing themselves against walls, climbing up columns, sliding across the cement floor on the back of Krista Dowson’s unisex costume design of white briefs and body clinging tops. 

Photo: Dahlia Katz

Propelled by Antoine Bédard’s original electric score and bathed in Simon Rossiter’s enveloping lighting design, the performers also form an exciting bond with the technology retrofitted into the colossal space that last summer served as Lighthouse Immersive’s first-ever drive-in for art. Light emanates from the performers whose acrobatically accented movements generate their own trailing spots along with spangled effects. The feat is made possible by means of an active remote sensing system known as Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDar. Using laser pulses to measure distance and objects in an environment, it’s the same technological innovation employed for self-driving cars. But here, applied to a theatrical production, LiDar accelerates the advance of choreographic creation, linking it to the latest in scientific discoveries. 

Everything is precisely coordinated – pixels, sound, movement. But it’s a lot to take in. The lasers delight but also discombobulate, making you feel at times like you are watching one of those planetarium celestial show while drunk. Your eye barely can take in a beautifully crafted bodily image in repose before a cascade of swirling light patterns pulls it in another direction. You also find yourself worrying about the safety of the risk-taking dancers, tossing themselves like hand grenades onto a series of hard surfaces that test the limits of their endurance and physicality. 

When the quieter moments come they are welcome because they help to bring into focus a story that compared to the complex production values is quite simple: when two beings meet, they unleash a world of possibilities. They set a life in motion. Their combined energies are boundless, like the grains of sand piled onto a section of the performing space. Their touch is the touch that sparks creation, in this case a creation that likewise is boundless in its quest for originality. It’s dance that connects with the future.

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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