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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Kathleen Rea: A Life in Motion

Kathleen Rea in Five Angels on the Steps. (Photo: David Hou)

Toronto indie dancer Kathleen Rea has put her life – the good bits and the not-so-good – in a dance created for her by friend and choreographer Newton Moraes. He’s credited as the choreographer. But Five Angels on the Steps, as this visceral and enigmatic solo is named, is so rooted in the performer’s own autobiography that it might be fair to label it more of a collaborative effort. It’s one woman’s personal journey rendered as a dance.

Moraes scrupulously and sensitively translates it into movement, using some highly charged psychological themes, including madness, self-loathing and the struggle for self-acceptance, to create kinetic motifs and imagery that resonate dramatically as well as poetically on stage. Toronto lighting designer Sharon DiGenova has also played a significant role in illuminating the personal content. She doesn’t just spotlight the dancer; she bathes her in shimmer and shadow, adding to the emotionally nuanced atmosphere.

The world premiere of Five Angels on the Steps took place at the city’s Toronto’s intimate Wychwood Theatre on November 19. There were only three presentations in total, a hybrid of live and livestreamed performances that took place over a weekend. A film version by Olya Glotka is said to be in the works, so there might still be a chance to see Five Angels on the Steps again, and let’s hope so, because the work deserves it. Rea throws herself, body and soul, into the solo, performing with a co-mixture of acute self-awareness and glorious abandon, a testimony to her resilience as a flawed but fearless individual. 

It’s taken a lot to get her to where she is today, dancing uninhibitedly at the age of 50. Rea trained in her youth at Canada’s National Ballet School, going on to dance with the National Ballet of Canada as a member of the corps. She has previously described this first part of her dancing career in terms of pain, a result of forcing her body into toe shoes, unnatural positions and thinness, all prescribed by the art form’s pursuit of perfection.

Rea later found freedom, if not relief, when she moved on to study contact improvisation, becoming a well-known practitioner of this looser and more spontaneous form of dance in Toronto. She also became a student of a functional movement system called the Axis Syllabus, a dynamic biometrics-based system allowing for heightened mobility and muscle control, especially in dancers and athletes with a history of injuries. Rea attributes functional movement, what she now teaches to others seeking the benefits of the training program, for giving her a deeper understanding and appreciation of how her own body moves.

Kathleen Rea (and Skelly). (Photo: David Hou)

The prop she uses in the classes she teaches is a life-size skeleton, an anatomical model, that she has nickname Skelly. He plays a significant role in Five Angels on the Steps. Skelly partners Rea in scenes of dance and also of sex (it’s not as creepy as that might read); he also poses as a rapt audience member and doppelgänger who, when attached to Rea’s high-arched feet, mirrors and amplifies her every move. Skelly also provides comic relief in a work where sometimes the darkness seeps in.

Rea’s past experiences with psychosis, including the hearing of voices, push the dance into scary territory. In those instances where an unseen outside force appears to taker her over, Rea snarls and coils like a trapped animal. Poignantly, her monster faces melt into looks of bewilderment as she scans the space above her head, looking for the source of the voices that taunt her and eventually, as happened in real life, lead her to seek treatment for the demons in her mind. Skelly watches but does not judge, the support she comes to rely on and need.

With or without her skeleton friend, Rea moves nimbly in and out of vignettes depicting everything from her life in classical dance to her periods of obsessive and self-destructive behaviour. Abetting her zesty physicality are large yellow and red octagonal cushions, the type typically used for tumble training. These gymnastic cannons, as they are called, are like bricks in a moveable set, cushioning risk-taking movement while pushing it forward in new directions.

Rea tumbles but does not fall as she tosses herself headlong into the unknown. Guided by the sure hand of her choreographer, she allows herself to become exposed, literally stripped bare, as she peels off layers of clothing to reveal herself almost naked before the eyes of her audience. It’s often said that flesh is weak. But here, dancing in only her panties, Rea looks anything but fragile. She’s a super-charged woman, a wife and mother with the stretch marks to prove it. As a self-portrait, even one painted by another’s hand, it’s nothing short of bold. 

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 and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.

 

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