Friday, April 22, 2022

Self-Renewal: New Tricks by Christopher House

Christopher House in New Tricks. (Photo: Ömer Yükseker)

Canadian modern dance innovator and Order of Canada recipient Christopher House officially became a senior citizen when he turned 65 in 2020. That’s the age of retirement in Canada and after 25 years as artistic director and chief choreographer of Toronto Dance Theatre, House exercised his prerogative and announced he was quitting the company.

He had planned to have a big send-off – a retrospective season showcasing some of the work he had created over the decades for one of the country’s leading modern dance troupes, in addition to a couple of new commissions made especially for him to dance in. But then the pandemic rudely disrupted what was to have been his grand finale, compelling House to leave his position without the anticipated fanfare.

The curtain never did come crashing down on his dancing career, which in retrospect is a good thing. Without a fixed ending, House has just kept on going, creating, and performing now as an independent solo artist. New Tricks, a multipart work whose premiere took place at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance during the last two weekends of March, is the first choreography he has made since becoming a pensioner, and it's among the best he has produced in years.

A piece about self-renewal, New Tricks taps intrepidly into hidden powers of artistic expression, appearing as a testament to the artist House is today – older but also wiser in knowing how to make the most of his aging (but still taut) body. He can’t twist or fall or back-bend as he once used to, but he emotes and plays with character with a more masterly touch. Armed with the confidence that often accompanies maturity, he is relishing retirement as a period of increased personal freedom. He’s now answering only to himself.

New Tricks showcases some of the different ways House is now wanting to present himself, sometimes dressed, other times naked, his strengths as well as his vulnerabilities exposed to the world. Daring to be different, or just truer to himself, he adopts several personae, each marked by a change of clothes or no clothes at all. Sarah Doucet’s costumes – comprising logoed T-shirts, elastic waist skirts, a sarong-like patterned cloth, coloured underwear, flashy accessories and an oversized suit worn back to front – are grouped in distinct piles around the perimeter of the performing space, serving as dressing and undressing stations.

Every time House selects from the clothing on display, he jumpstarts a new section of his picaresque dance. Each section, and there appear to be nine altogether, has its own idiosyncratic movement gestures and dramatic atmosphere. House stands sideways like an Egyptian hieroglyph, prances like a horse, braids steps in a show dance parody, dons a blonde wig and balances on his knees, promenades, wipes his scrotum clean of sweat and dares you to stare. The mood and movement shifts are highlighted by Simon Rossiter’s scene-setting lighting design and Thom Gill’s soundtrack featuring experimental pop covers of Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Emmylou Harris’s “Deeper Well,” to mention just two out of a dozen on a pre-recorded song list. The music is on a laptop that House logs into in between dances. The computer is positioned on a small table fronted by a chair. When House sits down to select his music, putting on his glasses to see, he pauses the artifice only to start it up again when he’s good and ready.

It is touches like these, as unpretentious as they are unpredictable, that make New Tricks so fascinating to watch. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Is he going to pick the red purse hanging on the wall, or the track pants on the floor? What music will he choose and how will he dance to it? House invites audience members in, or appears to, when he stands and stares them in the eye, demanding they take a good look at him looking at them.

But any sense of intimacy is upended when he pulls a shirt over his face, wearing it like an identity-obliterating mask, or lies prone on the floor, still and withdrawn. And yet he keeps you watching and wondering, alert to all the subtleties of his constantly evolving presence. House is in complete control of the artistic journey and just like his so-called retirement it has no fixed destination. It’s a quest of (re)discovery. 

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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