BEARING

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.

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RED GISELLE

A Ballet by Boris Eifman. Eifman Ballet St. Petersburg
at the Sony Centre, May 11-13, 2017

Dedicated to Olga Spessivtseva, one of the greatest ballerinas to become a cult figure in Russia in the 20th century, Boris Eifman’s Red Giselle is dramatically bold ballet theatre that does not pretend to be a dance biography. More of a generalized picture of Spessivtseva’s unhappy fate and of those of many talented people who were forced to leave Russia and experienced a tragic end, it is a narrative executed in quick, broad strokes that are potently expressive despite a choreography that is often schematically repetitive as far as the corps is concerned. Eifman’s anonymous Ballerina is traced from her beginnings as the embodiment of perfect beauty and mystery through to her dark romantic involvement with the Commissar, who represents the new political authority and who suppresses her will. It culminates in the Ballerina’s complex relationships with her Teacher, the Commissar, the Parisian Dancer/Choreographer, and her malignly fateful identification with the role of Giselle.

The red in the title becomes a symbol of the new Revolutionary Petrograd, as well as of the Ballerina’s haunting fate, such as her treacherous entanglement with the Commissar, her subjugation to his radical political ideology, her despair, exile, and eventually madness. The piece is romantic tragedy that leaves little or no room for meditation in its compelling impetus and velocity. The Ballerina is a beautiful but fragile creature, danced by Maria Abashova with exquisite grace in the ballet rehearsal before the superbly supple and admiring Teacher of Oleg Markov. Vyacheslav Okunev’s sets and costumes are striking echoes of Bakst and Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, though on a very modified scale. When the narrative shifts into the new political chaos and strife, there is a palpable darkening of tone and colour, not the least of which is heralded by Eifman’s sudden and unsubtle tropes of lighting. However, Abashova and the muscular, gymnastics of Sergey Volubev’s blond Commissar in black leather produce a pas de deux of stunning eroticism, highlighted by her bold splayed thighs, knees, and feet and his brutally uncompromising machismo with brusque, violent, staccato movements. Volubev’s lifts and Abashova’s balances have extraordinary height and virtuosity, and the choreography denotes a different rhythm and power from the orthodox classicism of traditional ballet.

The affair of Ballerina and Commissar intertwines attraction and fear, political, aesthetic, and psychological, and the Teacher’s despair (he is tortured in an unforgettable tableau vivant) is more than matched by the Ballerina’s confusion, though she is allowed to leave Russia and find a new path in Paris at the Grand Opera, where a young dancer/choreographer (Oleg Gabyshev), who brilliantly evokes Serge Lifar without slavish mimicry. The new Partner, however, happens to have a gay partner, performed by Dmitry Fisher with a virility that one wishes were not so sketchily dictated by Eifman. The hot jazz of Paris in the 20s and 30s is given a colourful exercise musically and choreographically, and it does provide relief from the Ballerina’s morbid consciousness and experiences. However, this sequence lacks dramatic definition beyond its role as a diversion or digression.

Indeed, whatever flaws and anomalies taint Red Giselle are really Eifman’s fault in that, though there is much to admire about the solos, duos, and trios in this piece, the ensemble choreography is unimaginatively repetitive with a lot of elbow swinging and militant semaphores for the masses and crucifixion poses for some of the principals. Though the musical score (an arrangement of Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke, Bizet, and Adolphe Adam) is superbly apt, the abrupt changes in lighting do not help, nor does the libretto that rehearses clichés about exiled refugees and madness. The Ballerina’s nightmarish hallucination, like much of her interaction with the Commissar, is rendered in polyglot movement with a strong classical base, and Eifman does give each major character a distinctive stance, gestural style, and center of gravity, but the Ballerina’s disintegration is not charted with sufficient care or detail, so the climax of her disappearance into the flickering world of the mirror, identifying so much with Giselle that she never recovers sanity, falls a little flat. The sequence feels willed rather than organically generated. However, Red Giselle has enough thrilling bravura to transcend its flaws.

AN ICONIC JOURNEY (A CELEBRATION OF 35 YEARS)

By Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company
At the Fleck Dance Theatre, May 5-7, 2017

Esmeralda Enrique in “Serenidad y la Marea” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Esmeralda Enrique founded her Spanish Dance Company and her school (Academy of Spanish Dance) in Toronto 35 years ago, and she remains Canada’s premier flamenco artist. Her celebration is a nostalgic re-visitation of several outstanding pieces from her impressive repertoire, but there are also two world premieres. Nostalgia, however, does not sugar-coat the dances. Though there are the expected exercises of various flamenco dance styles (buleria, guajiras, farruca, taranto, for instance), she does not use a single male dancer, but stamps the dances with strong feminine grace and virtuosity. The minute Enrique walks out of the wings to the stage, stretching her arms, warming up her feet without appearing to strain a single muscle, she shows the ordinariness of a gypsy dancer without relying on stagy glamour. This, of course, is no mere ordinariness: its freedom is a product of years of mastered technique, and when the first dance piece ensues, there is an easy transition between ordinary movement and heightened.

“¿Que Es El Amor?” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Ana Morales’s ¿Que Es El Amor? is an upbeat, rapid dance, with spins and an emphasis on the arms rather than the midriff or feet, though the footwork with chufla, golpe, punta, and tacon come in colourfully as the quartet (Esmeralda Enrique, Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, and Paloma Cortes) resemble beautiful birds with their fringed shawls spreading like wings. Arroyo de la Miel, a guajira from 2012’s Aguas/Waters, offers a languorous rhythm beautifully expressed by Ilse Gudino and Noelia la Morocha in their flowery headdress and long yellow batas de colas (dresses with ruffled trains).

Paloma Cortes’s interpretation of her own choreography in the solo Sevilla Flamenca (from 2013’s Portales), supported magnificently by Rebekah Wolkstein’s virtuosity on violin, emphasizes the beauty of a Spanish dancer’s mid-riff. It has the bearing of a Spanish gypsy, with the celebrated lift of the waist, an expressive stretch from the pit of the stomach to the small of the back, and it heightens the dancer’s presence.

Ilse Gudino and Noelia la Morocha in “Arroyo de la Miel” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Flamenco doesn’t flounder between arrogant academicism and uncompromising private language. The dancer dances, making the strongest stage imagery from a rare duende rather than décor. The choreography should be secure, the variety accurately calculated, and an audience’s attention is compelled by no unladylike insistence. Much depends on the delicacy of the feet, with steps having an especial rapidity and brilliance. What is eye-catching is the poise of feet in the air, the lightness of little running steps, and lines of movement.

All these qualities come to the fore in the program, with the strongest dramatic flair shown in the finale for the first-half: Zona Zero, a farruca choreographed by Manuel Betanzos in 2013, and performed by Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, Paloma Cortes, and Noelia la Morocha in severe, heavy grey and black, at first statically positioned in chairs before rising as if in reaction to the strong, grainy tones of Manuel Soto, a passionate cantaor. The sharp angularities of their movement and their eloquent dramatic flair (incorporating held lifted feet) create an indelible highlight, matched only by the zapateado trio of Briz, Castro, and Cortes for Enrique’s Grazalema, a homage to Jose Greco or, at least, to his rugged seriousness and precision at their heights. Less a concert than a superb rhythmic drama with stamping feet and suggestions of erotic power by the leather-booted trio with riding crops.

Pamela Briz, Virginia Castro, and Paloma Cortes in “Grazalema” (photo: Hamid Karimi)

Nothing weak in the entire program, nothing weak about the musical accompaniment either (from Manuel Soto on vocals, Caroline Plante and Benjamin Barrile on guitar, Rebekah Wolkstein on violin, and Derek Gray on hand drum), and nothing weak about the costumes, lighting, or video design. And the alegrias finale for the full company, where the white shawls create a rhythmic illusion of billowing sea waves, and that begins with Esmeralda Enrique’s solo in black and white, is a perfect conclusion. Brava and encore!

THE RETURN (IL RITORNO)

By Yaron Lifschitz, Quincy Grant, and the Circa Ensemble
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, May 3-7, 2017

Ensemble of ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

It began sensationally, with the seven dancers (three female) lit and grouped like marmoreal sculptures. Mighty Todd Kilby’s free standing backward flip, sudden, solid, with a soft landing, striking the first vivid movement note.  The disjunctive angles, slow steps, knotted muscular limbs, legs and arms stretched or interlocked in the most grotesquely strained positions imaginable seemed deliberately counter to Monteverdi’s baroque music from his 1640 opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, with its languorous strings and sublime vocal renditions by rich-toned Benedict Nelson and mezzo-soprano Kate Howden. With minimal set design (basically a black wall to the rear and naked space) and lighting that accentuated skin, muscle, and a sense of humans caught in mortal coils (sometimes literally by straps), the piece had a cold mood. Bodies bent backwards tensely or collapsed slowly, some literally flung themselves about or were thrown, others flipped, rolled, tumbled, climbed, one was forcibly pinned to the rear wall. But as the acrobatics and gymnastics progressed, with some truly breathtaking sequences (especially the aerial strap work by Bridie Hooper, three-storey human towers, incredible balancing acts on these towers, etc), the 75-minute piece seemed to be endlessly repeating choreography without actually advancing any narrative. Although various components were impressive in themselves, they failed to coalesce into a coherent whole or to describe an arc of development as drama. And a viewer’s attention and focus were frequently blurred, with the singers or musicians compelling attention while the dancers struck their positions or shifted shapes.

Indeed, the lack of narrative cohesion was nearly fatal. For what was the piece truly about? It was clearly not simply about circus acrobatics. Nor was it really an unadulterated baroque entertainment: the mixed score of Monteverdi, Quincy Grant, and assorted, unnamed contemporary music saw to that. Director Lifschitz’s program note advanced a personal view of a tale-within-a-tale, with purposeful physical movement and singing going across styles. Yes, indeed, but what was being communicated was less clear.

Ensemble from ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

Advance publicity suggested such things as exile, return to homeland, persecution or oppression, freedom. A real grab-bag of themes. Certainly, the group work, with its vigorous interplay of acrobatics and music, puppet-like manipulated bodies, incredible images of punishment and endurance, fusion and fission could lead to assumptions about contemporary conflicts. The rear wall, for instance, could be read in multiple ways: it could have signified the old Berlin wall or a wall between Israel and Palestine or other walls. But without a defined context, any connotation lacked grounding. So it was with the human figures. Who was the Ulysses, who the Penelope, or her drunken suitors? Or, perhaps, the figures were contemporary representations of refugees in flight or captivity, in concentration camps or in exodus. Nothing was clear; nothing defined. Consequently, there was no real dramatic progression, not even a regression; simply repetition with diminishing returns.

HIERNOMYUS BOSCH: THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS.

Written, Directed, and Choreographed by Marie Chouinard
A Canadian Stage Presentation at the Bluma Appel Theatre,
April 19-23, 2017

photo: Nicolas Ruel

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, and Marie Chouinard’s 75-minute theatrical dance, derives its inspiration and some of its style from Bosch’s oil-on-oak triptych that hangs in the Prado. The original painting has three panels: one where God presents Eve to Adam; a central panel that depicts a dark, gruesome, nightmarish hell; and a third where naked figures frolic in a surreal landscape populated by fantastic mammals and fish. In many radical ways, Bosch was a critic or rebel. His art dared to defy orthodoxies of conventional painting, as well as orthodoxies of religion and the church. His God, for instance, is one of the smallest figures, tucked high away in one panel, whereas his devils are larger, literal animals that debase churchmen and nuns. There are also naked human figures engaged in a multitude of sexual and secular activities. In one panel, a figure sticks flowers into another person’s anus. And yet, The Garden of Earthly Delights is the most celebrated of Bosch’s paintings, and Marie Chouinard sticks to this art and its spirit by developing her own. What results, as she rightly claims in her program note, a spell-binding phantasmagoria that mirrors the angels or demons of our inner beings.

Chouinard’s creation is homage that expands in its own right. It doesn’t just bow to an earlier masterpiece; it becomes its own masterpiece. The work is set off by a set and video design featuring a large reproduction of Bosch’s triptych, but narrowing in, panel by panel, to match specific poses, gestures, and attitudes to particular choreography. There are circular modules, one at each downstage corner, and these become literal close-ups of details in the triptych. The principal image is a transparent sphere, that suggests a plastic balloon, as well as connoting a cosmic egg, womb, microcosm, bubble of mind/soul, cage/cell, or a fragile shell. Bosch never left any explanation or clarification of the meaning of his artistic symbols, emblems, and signs, and this ambiguity allows Chouinard to create her own rite and trance, her own exploration and experience.

photo: Nicolas Ruel

The first section of the piece favours horizontals and floor work, duos, trios, and quartets offering splendid sequences. In one, an Adamic male feeds his Eve repeated bites of an imaginary apple, before touching her belly asexually, as if to signal the fruit of her womb. The all-but-nude dancers (four male, six female (including the brilliant veteran Carol Prieur)) make nakedness a form of pre-lapsarian reality rather than something erotic, though lewd gestures do infiltrate the choreography in a celebration of the carnal.

The second section is decidedly modern in tone, imagery, and style. Growls, screams of torment, and other vocalizations are amplified into a cacophony, and movement seems deconstructed. A skeleton at the rear, a high stepladder, garbage pails—visible emblems of a denuded, degraded world, marked for decay and death. The dancers trace starkly startling images: a snake curling out of a woman’s mouth; two battling women with prosthetic attachments to their arms; a four-headed mask; a male striking a crucifixion pose while entangled in the stepladder; a group forming a tableau vivant ship of fools. The choreography is deliberately disjointed, macabre, distorted, accompanied by a sound design amplifying mania. The tone is self-indulgent, with abrupt transitions, and yet all is stunningly eye-catching, mind-engaging.

Section Three opens with birdsong and insect buzz, with a closeup of an eye. Each of the two modules, however, has a differently coloured iris. And Chouinard’s inversions or reversals are alluring: a female Jesus presents Adam to Eve, rather than the other way round. Jesus holds Adam’s wrist as Eve rests a hand on the floor, both positions radically changing Bosch’s painted images, though the dancers’ gestures are identically matched to Bosch. The most salient body movement (angular crouches in the second section) is tiptoe and from the mid-riff, but with superb poise and balance effected. To the sounds of peaceful water and hymnal chant, the piece ends with a tone of sacred trance. The signature is Chouinard and her dancers’ unparalleled eloquent economy.

BADKE

by Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero & Hildegard de Vuyst
A World Stage Presentation at the Fleck Dance Theatre. February 17-20, 2016

photos: Danny Willems

photos: Danny Willems

This joint Belgian and Palestinian dance creation has a title that is a deliberate reversal of “dabke,” the name of an ancient Palestinian folk dance, a number of whose variants exist. Of course, because of its origin as an old folk dance that was popular entertainment at weddings and other celebrations and because of numerous appropriations by non-Palestinians, “dabke” provokes much academic discourse that is pretentious at best, and irrelevant at worst–as was demonstrated in the pre-show Tea chat at the Fleck, when the resident dance scholar (an American trying his best not to sound culturally insensitive) made my eyes glaze over by encouraging discussion about such knee-jerk terms as “authenticity,” “appropriation,” and “indigenous.”

The trouble with academic discussion is that it wallows in its own ideology and truisms, mostly self-serving in a cozy complicity. That plus the fact that most academics who treasure their jargon seem oblivious to their own post-colonial appropriations. Do many of our contemporary dance or theatre or literature departments at university acknowledge the simple fact that we are all post-colonial and are, therefore, only authentic in the ways by which we express our deepest selves? Art by its nature allows us to appropriate whatever personae we desire. A true creative artist does not worry about terms or definitions because it is the art itself that creates its own authentic expression, and every worthy artist is fully justified in appropriating whatever he or she wishes, with the only criterion being the scope and quality of the product. So, we can have Derek Walcott’s assimilation of Greek mythology and literature in his Caribbean poetry and plays, V.S. Naipaul’s portraits of suburban or pastoral England in the novel genre, Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Portia, Shylock, Richard III, Rosalind, or Caliban. The true artist does not usually share the hermetic community of the academic critic. There are always exceptions, of course, and many artists are forced to teach to make a living. But it is best to leave categories and their definitions to the lecture room where definitions matter more than the art itself–as the eventual 60-minute dance performance vividly and passionately showed.

Badke is a contemporary riff on its root Palestinian dance source, whose precise origin and nature are only vaguely known. Ambiguity can have its creative freedom, after all, and the multi-disciplinary collaboration on display that absorbs politics without annotating the experience of suffering and oppression is splendidly emotive without devolving into mere victim art. Intriguingly, the piece opens in darkness, with only the sounds of yells and foot stomps delivering themselves to the audience. The intensity of the stomps changes, so does the rhythm and tempo. When the ten dancers (six male) of various ethnic backgrounds and training reveal themselves in a line, some of their footwork hearkens back to other folk or ethnic traditions: Greek, Israeli, even Scottish and modern Hip Hop. The line breaks when a female separates herself from the group, moves downstage, and tropes into semaphores from modern interpretive dance. There is a lack of uniformity, which runs counter to the oldest known form of “dabke.” One woman wears headphones and moves to the music she hears privately, but even she devolves into traditional patterns of body movement as in classical ballet or folk dance. Then a huge release occurs when the corps (to the recorded soundtrack of Arab music) breaks into quick strides with uplifted legs, leaps, and twirls. This breakout sequence breeds familiarity with old “dabke,” the dance of eruptive joy.

photos: Danny Willems

photos: Danny Willems

Modernity impresses itself on the piece via violence and sex as with one heterosexual duo where the female and male engage in a rough push-pull dynamic. The woman flings herself at the man and they both roll to the floor. There is a sense of dangerous physicality, of threat and counter-threat, perhaps as a metaphor of contemporary Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, as well as of in-fighting within the Arab world itself. The dance permutations make it difficult to pin down the precise political semiology, but this is an asset rather than a flaw. After all, Badke intends its relentless collective energy to be a statement itself on the perseverance of a people ever subject to threat of subjugation and extinction. It openly and warmly incorporates miscellaneous dance styles: street dance, Hip Hop, circus acrobatics, line dance, ballet, etc. It also revels in its freewheeling movements and groupings, but it has a dramatic thrust, as when at a high pitch of festive release, the music stops abruptly and the lighting fades, with the dancers cast into a limbo of awkward silence. Another example of metaphor incarnated–this time of political disorder and harsh suppression.

The dancing is put on edge when sirens sound at occasional moments, signifying war or military assault, and even though the exuberance and festivity is not fully quelled and there is further artistic freedom in one male dancer’s deliberate self-feminization through costume and movement, there are unmistakable reminders of the violence communities suffer and strive to transcend. A sequence of mimed murder and suicide is just one example, as is one remarkable section where with their bodies prone on the floor, some of the dancers begin to bang their heads slowly on the ground, increasing the force and rhythm of their desperation. Then they rise slowly and resume their dance, incarnating perseverance and survival. When they link hands and face the audience, their collective gaze provokes us to ponder some of the signification of the piece. It is a compelling moment, but there are many others in this formidable dance about displacement, oppression, and community, and it speaks far more eloquently to a sensitive audience than an entire book of dance theory or cultural ideology.