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Review

The Why and How

In Threes and The Fall at the Toronto Fringe Festival By Molly Johnson
  • Colleen Snell in Frog in Hand's The Fall / Photo by Voitek Pendrak
  • Madeline Wright in Frog in Hand's The Fall / Photo by Alvin Collantes
  • Denise Solleza and Justine Comfort in In Threes / Photo by Craig Chambers
  • Miles Gosse, Denise Solleza and Justine Comfort in In Threes / Photo by Craig Chambers

July 4-15, 2018, multiple venues

A choreographer recently said the word “review” to me with some trepidation. In response, I said, “Let’s call it a critical conversation between friends.” That is what I aim for and one reason I am writing such criticism for The Dance Current. While starred reviews or those providing a numeric value can be of notable benefit to selling tickets during events like the Fringe, they don’t always serve to further the conversation around the art being made. I’m still trying to understand if any review serves this lofty goal – the following is, in any case, another effort.

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In Threes is a collection of separate choreographies by Alison Daley, Miles Gosse and Tracey Norman exploring common themes of presence and connection. While the dances each have their own intent and aesthetic, a shared cast and a set of folding chairs work together to form loose links between the three. The whole thing is set inside the proscenium stage of Toronto’s Al Green Theatre.

In researching the production, I realized this team shared a similar bill at the Fringe in 2017, with a comparable cast and at the same venue. I’m intrigued by their desire to continue this specific trajectory and interested in the possibility of a kind of measurable growth, though I’m admittedly at a disadvantage to offer insight on this point, having not seen the previous production.

I glean a lot of my understanding about all three works from the program notes. It’s hard to know if this is a bad thing. In Norman’s (an)other, Justine Comfort and Denise Solleza act as “mirror neurons” to one another in a sort of explorative attempt at true empathy. Though there were some very clear and striking images where I felt the two performers literally trying to become one another, I was frustrated by an outstanding sense of bully-ish antagonism between Comfort and Solleza that I just don’t understand in the larger context of the work.

There is an understated quality to Gosse’s The Feeling of Knowing that I was happy to see, as he is the most emerging of the three choreographers. The chairs do their best work here as a concrete rendering of the clarity Gosse seems to be searching for, and Solleza and Comfort are joined by Oriah Wiersma who alters the feeling of the scene with an engagingly strange mix of calm and anxiety. The work is at its best when it recognizes Wiersma as its neurotic centre and the two other performers as a network of support. When the spotlight shifts away from this centre point, focusing instead on Comfort as she is hoisted into the air, I question the logic.

The hardest work of the evening for me was Daly’s. You threw me off begins with a welcome change of tone: Gosse is now a player alongside Solleza and Comfort in a type of game in which the performers vie for the audience’s attention. Mad dance skills are on display, and there are some funny moments (a blindfolded Gosse seeking out his colleagues in a low-key game of Marco Polo), but the showboating structure requires an amped-up approach to audience complicity beyond the tepid one it achieves.

In spite of relative blind spots around intent and execution, the cast of In Threes are deeply committed and give it their all. Comfort and Solleza are necessarily and effectively the glue throughout. Wiersma creates a focal point for Gosse’s piece; Gosse shows up for the limelight in Daly’s (and we love him for it). It’s clear the artistic team as a whole are working on building a trajectory of collaboration together. My hope is that they include more questioning about what they want their individual and collective voices to be and how best to serve that. The baseline of want is there – it’s about refining and pushing the mode of delivery.

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I saw Colleen Snell’s The Fall at 1:30pm on a Saturday. Light streamed in through the arch of stained glass; the green leaves of trees shifted just beyond reach; and inside the Trinity-Spadina area auditorium, a world was being created. How to describe? Maroon curtains, a gym atmosphere heightened (or made) by a big blue crash mat positioned just left of centre. The work begins, a voice-over starts, and a figure dressed in white tank, boxer shorts and gym shoes emerges from behind the mat where she has been hidden in plain sight. Just past the not quite floor-length curtain, fourteen sets of feet, also dressed in white sneakers, descend from nowhere and stay, hovering just above the floor as the lone dancer physically describes an inner monologue with gravity and a kind of retracted presence that makes you look closer.

I’m not one for descriptive reviews, but this scene feels important to offer. It achieved a zooming-in for me, an immediate entry point into the work, and having seen In Threes at the Al Green the night before, I think about the setting and the usefulness of seeing dance in “non-traditional” spaces. (That implies theatres are traditional when they aren’t for many dance forms – I’m talking about concert dance here.)

Snell has a long history of presenting site-specific and environment responsive work, and this was my first time experiencing her craft in action. I use the word craft because it was so measured and clear. From the opening solo, performed with such vivid curiosity by Sydney McManus (who I now have a dance crush on), to well into the halfway point of the work, I was held captive by Snell’s deliberate rendering of human response – falling, of course, also scrambling, pushing up, resisting, being taken over, giving in, being shut out and let in. Much of this action took place as the herd of fifteen artists, dressed just as McManus, shifted throughout the space, using the crash mat as receptacle, obstacle, accomplice and refuge. It’s a bit sad how satisfying and rare it is to see a group of this size (I inevitably thought about the budget). It was even more satisfying to see bodies flying through space, trusting the mat and each other implicitly, all within the frame of something considered and significant.

Held as I was, my attention began to wane as the pack broke apart, smaller groups began to form and the movement changed shape from an embedded functionality to something more decorative. In the clear mechanics of the first half, I saw the youth of the artists onstage as something untamed and vital. But inside a more sculpted choreographic language, I found myself desiring the economical body and distillation of form that sometimes only comes with maturity.

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My trip to the Fringe got me thinking. Over the years, I’ve noticed what feels like a specifically Toronto problem of wanting to dance and wanting to tell a story and never quite figuring out how to do both at the same time. While conceptual work is very much a part of the scene, there are still a lot of people trying to say something narrative through movement. The fact is this is very hard to do – particularly when your body has been trained to move in a form-based way that, despite everything your teachers have told you, is likely not serving the intent of your work. In my experience, intent actually has a tendency to take a nap where “capital D” dancing lives – unless capital D dancing is the point of the work, which it rarely seems to be.

Both In Threes and The Fall suffer from some degree of this disconnect, though in different ways: the former struggles with the why of the moves while the latter gets muddy inside the how of interpretation. That both productions are replete with emerging artists knee-deep in learning and growing makes sense, but again, it’s a Toronto problem not an emerging artist problem.

Luckily, as artists, we have choice and can deal with this by keeping two simple questions in the room: Why are we doing this? How are we doing this? The answers may unearth more problems, but ideally, there is joy to be found in the digging – and your audience will thank you for your labour.

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