By Michael Greyeyes and Yvette Nolan.
A Signal Theatre Production presented by Luminato.
At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, June 22-24, 2017
For the world premiere, the program note claims that Bearing, a three-act 80-minute dance opera, is about Canada and a family—mine and yours. A humanist claim, no doubt, but one that eschews the particularity of the show’s genesis. Greyeyes and Nolan have, in previous projects, addressed in some way the horror of the Indian (read First Nations) residential school system, where countless youngsters were abused by religious and secular figures, without recourse to justice. Indeed, for too long, all Canadians have been implicated in one way or another by the appalling history, bred and sustained by a colonial framework. Perhaps the horror is proving too much for many survivors and their descendants, so the creators of Bearing put filters (what they call “layers”) between perpetrators and aggrieved, but in so doing, they dilute history, almost anesthetizing it, in order to arrive at themes of redemption and healing. This benevolent aim harms a project that has many admirable artistic qualities, yet not a real catharsis or organic coda.
The creative team boasts many fine artists: music director Gregory Oh, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, lighting designer Michelle Ramsay (whose dance floor traces ghostly images of a haunted past with the help of projection designer Laura Warren and costume designer Joanna Yu), and nine dancers who enter into an intense conversation about memory and stolen identity. But without the help of the program synopsis, much of the dance fails to cohere. The dynamic interplay of semi-nudity and clothing, authority and servility, torture and abasement, anger and tranquility is expressed by sequences of harsh arm, torso, and leg movements, rapid violent staccato, and contained stillness. Tall, strikingly powerful Ratsienhanoron Brandon A. Oakes weaves his way in and out of the central dance, projects a terrifying violence especially in the wreckage sequence of Act 2, and is transformed at the end to something gentle. The dancers sometimes involve themselves in segmented solos; at other times, they perform duets and trios, combining into a total ensemble only sparingly. But the characters are generalized—drunken Indian, drug addict, sexually raped and tortured teen, estranged family members—and though Joanna Yu’s costumes help to designate Lawyer, Clergyman, and Sojourner, the narrative is not clearly developed, and what I read in the program only sporadically was expressed on stage in a distinguishable manner. It was only the words of Christ, illuminated on the floor and later intoned by the dance ensemble, that crystallized the moral or spiritual thrust of the piece.
The music (a mix of Bach, Vivier, and commissioned work by Denomme-Welch and Catherine Magowan) is marvellous, combining percussion and electronics, and headlining mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, but the heavy European quality works against the setting. Some of the spoken or sung text is indistinct or garbled, and the eclectic score actually diminishes the authenticity of indigenous experience by refusing to stage ethnicity. In short, a worthwhile experience but far from satisfying in the ultimate analysis for those of us who want a more specific context, musicality, and choreography that does not soften history just to show that one’s heart is in the right place.