Dance and Biology 

By Kathleen Smith

Shared Habitat Festival of Art and Science 2 

Shared Habitat Festival of Art and Science

Toronto June 2003 

Shared Habitat Week 1

Its always cause for celebration when artists look beyond their own navels for inspiration. Veteran choreographer Bill James has a gift for such long-distance vision; hes created countless site-specific works over his career, most with an intellectual hook thats sometimes missing in whats on offer locally in the performing arts. James has also been involved in mounting large-scale events such as Art in Open Spaces, roving festivals that mix dance and other disciplines with elements such as public sculpture, architecture and waterworks. Shared Habitat: A Festival of Art and the Environment in 2000 and this years Shared Habitat 2: A Festival of Art and Science are of the same head-y ilk – in concept at least.

The idea is a potentially fertile one, according to James and his co-producers Rebecca Todd and Ana-Francisca de la Mora – to encourage collaborations between scientists and artists. “Both are creative and intuitive in their essence,” says James in the Festival press material, “And, in particular, dance and biology share a focus: the human body. The rigour of scientific practice and the expressiveness of dance are well suited to one another …”

Taking over a raw industrial warehouse space (home to several of James past productions, notably “Wind” and the short film “Icarus”) in Torontos Parkdale neighbourhood, Shared Habitat offered two distinct programs over two weeks.

This space – with mile-high ceilings, concrete floors and a pronounced undercurrent of humid exhaust – opened to the public each evening half an hour before the performance in order to showcase visual arts, performance and architectural installations. “Biology as Peepshow” by Kate Story and Caroline Langill used projections and peepshow cubicles to create “a sense of how our biological reality is a site under constant construction.” “INKorWIM” by Shawn MacKinnon, Leah Cowen and Emma Somers featured a 20x12x12 traversable platform in an attempt “… to formulate a spatial model, upon which the viewer may consider larger effects of adaptation and the seeming teleology of genetic variation.” In Week 2, “Assay” was added to the installations roster. Here, collaborators Claudia Wittmann, Elaine Whitaker and Richard Mandin used salt encrusted wire panels, video, sound and butoh performance to “… question how aesthetics, substance, the human body, context and representation meet in biology.”

Though some of these works were more successfully engaging than others, all added value to the Shared Habitat experience, raising questions and ideas about the world surrounding the human vessel. And they set the mood for the performances to follow.

“Performing Sentience: The Botany of Desire” was created by Rebecca Todd with a large group of collaborators including Eryn Dace Trudell (choreography), Natasha Myers (concept and research) and Susanna Hood (score). Starting out as a slow study of bodies encased in pods of light, the movement escalates as the dancers form duos and triads before returning to their starting points. Based on the stately and inevitable rhythms of birth, mating and death found in nature, the dance references a satisfying though somewhat sorrowful circle of existence.

“Kiss”, billed as the first phase of a progressive experiment, matched veteran choreographer Maxine Heppner with neurobiologist Tim Kennedy. A trio of performers (Louis Laberge-Cote, Susan Lee and Jessica Runge) dance in front of a large screen projection of seemingly random and non-referential images from nature. The dancers seemed to be essaying physical representations of emotional states but Im really just guessing. Though clearly a work in progress, it was unfortunate that these wonderful performers seemed to be battling the environment that had been set up for them rather than using it to its full potential.

Another veteran choreographer and performance artist Elizabeth Chitty created “Earths Flesh”, in collaboration with dancers Penny Couchie, Yvonne Ng and Gauri Vanarase and based on texts by Neil Meikleham, Descartes, Goethe, Lovelock, Abram, Seed and Macy. More ambitious than the other works on the bill, “Earths Flesh” offered larger disappointments. The individual dancers are introduced and, once again, relationships between live movement and on-screen imagery are explored (pictures of an Ontario wind farm juxtaposed with wind-milling action onstage, etc). Audience and cast then break out into diverse areas of the warehouse with a live video feed sending images back to the central projection screen for those who remain seated. We choose to follow Yvonne Ng, whose disciplined solo is both dignified and exhilaratingly precise. Back in the bleachers for a third section, the dancers have less to do choreographically-speaking as Chitty intones cosmic philosophies courtesy of Meikleham in her trademark breathy and riveting voice. 


Shared Habitat Week 2 

Week 2 introduced three new dance projects.

“Iskwew” (“woman” in Plains Cree) was created and performed by Geraldine Manossa and was inspired by the work of Native multi-media artist Rebecca Bellmore. Manossa uses movement and stark metal sculptural elements to gently suggest the passages of womanhood but the central premise of the dance is much more sinister. Manossa after Bellmore is fascinated by the West Coast murders at the Pickton farm of predominantly First Nations women missing from the streets of Vancouver. DNA technology and archeological research are scientific elements that Manossa juxtaposes to her round-limbed dance mostly through the use of video images of flower picking, earth sifting and the like. It makes for an eerie if not entirely satisfying amalgamation of components.

“SAVE PROJECT AS: unrehearsed phases of A Becoming Human” was billed as “an enquiry into the nature and course of behaviour in the context of a human lifespan” and used a single performer, Chanti Wadge, both onscreen and onstage to make points about learned and genetic programming, the technology of the body/machine and the computer. Technically the most evolved of the Shared Habitat works, here screen and stage gracefully surrender to each other in turn, rather than competing for audience attention. Wadge and collaborator Karin von Ompteda are to be congratulated for creating that most elusive of events a truly integrated multimedia performance work.

Which brings us to Bill James own Shared Habitat offering “Return to Earth”. Inspired in part by the Janine Benyus book “Biomimicry”, this rather formal work juxtaposes images and choreography for a cast of six dancers based on James observations of wetland habitats. James uses video and wild sounds from nature to punctuate the work. The performers begin on their backs rather like tadpoles or larvae and metamorphose into no-see-ums or gnats. The buzzing insect noises give way to the staccato charms of the “Catalogues doiseaux” by Olivier Messiaen and we are treated to a spectacular mating duet performed by Sasha Ivanochko and Rodney Morgan. It is the first of many solid dance moments – an avian flavoured solo for Justine Chambers, another solo for Ivanochko, a duet for the men – interspersed with numerous “sheddings” of costumes created by Shelagh Young. The examination of nature-inspired movement was seamlessly organic and beautifully performed. Fittingly, James provided the most satisfying work of the festival. Unlike some of the other, more incomplete or just plain sophomoric offerings, it was also a dance that, while adhering most closely to its principle thesis, would hold up just as well outside the context of Shared Habitat. 


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