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Review

Ensnared in Memory 

By Aubrey Reeves
  • Heidi Strauss in her own work “Das Martyrium” (2002) / Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh 
  • Heidi Strauss in her own work “ohne” (2008) / Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh 
  • Heidi Strauss in her own work “ohne” (2008) / Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh 

Adelheid Solos

Heidi Strauss

Toronto April 24-26, 2008 

Heidi Strauss’s Adelheid Solos is a program of two pieces that demonstrates the dancer/choreographer’s impressive versatility, stamina and strength as a dancer. Side by side, the works also reveal her interest in exploring powerful psychological states. “Das Martyrium” (2002), a stunning collaboration with Jan Komarek (lighting/sound/direction), details the ecstatic and self-destructive hysteria of a martyr. In contrast, Strauss’s new solo “Ohne”, created with Jeremy Mimnagh (sound/visuals), Orenda Cahill (costume) and Komarek (lighting) is a stark search for self-fulfilment.

Inspired by Joan of Arc, “Das Martyrium” is a visually arresting work that builds to a violent climax. A pair of pretty lace curtains hangs mid-stage, framing Strauss as she begins by chanting wordless psalms with a clear bell-toned voice. Wearing a petal pink costume that is part-tutu, part armour, Strauss’ innocent beginnings remind us that Joan of Arc was a mere girl of twelve when she saw her first visions, and only seventeen when she led her people into battle.

Sweet devotion swiftly turns to obsessive zeal, as the character thumps her chest and slaps her thighs in a penitent rhythm. Her self-flagellations become more extreme as she thrusts her tightly clenched fists against her chest, as though plunging an imaginary knife into her own heart at the behest of an unseen commander. Channelling the frenzy and passion of her visions, she is in a terrible ecstasy, yet also constrained to a small area of the stage delineated as a white rectangle of light on the floor. By focussing the intense energy within such a restricted space, Strauss and Komarek suggest a frightful psychological prison.

These first violent possessions give way to almost robotic movements as the prophetess learns to bear the weight of her God’s demands. The rectangle becomes a single, bright white line of light on the floor, marking a boundary between her innocence and her future calling. As she steps through the sliver of light, it anoints her. She touches two fingers to her lips then draws her hand out, reaching her arm to its full extension. Repeated frequently throughout the rest of the piece, this movement takes on different connotations with each reiteration, simultaneously a gesture of blessing and of silencing, power and submission. 

A small sword (really no bigger than a dagger) appears dangling in a shaft of light, which Strauss commandingly grasps. A projection of horses and the pounding sound of hooves suggest a battle. Strauss extends the sword high above her head, then lays it in the line of light that has reappeared in front of her. It’s a puny sword and clearly lightweight as Strauss wields it. Since she evidently possesses the strength and ability to handle a weighty prop, I wanted to see her grappling with the heft of a real sword, enriching the metaphoric struggle with the actuality of exertion. The small prop is an awkward choice given the magnitude of the responsibility, which the sword represents. Komarek’s brilliant economy with lighting design is fully revealed in the concluding moments, when the line of white light turns red. An exhausted Joan dips her hand into the crimson beam, bathing her up-turned palm and sword in blood-red light. Finally, she is purged of her religious delirium.

Whereas “Das Martyrium” is steeped in historical allusions and theatricality, “Ohne” starts without any pretence at all. After the intermission, Strauss comes striding onto the brightly lit stage to strike the set from “Das Martyrium”. Dressed in white pants and matching sleeveless top and wearing heavily heeled shoes, she is a woman just taking care of business. Stomping about the stage, she pulls aside the lace curtain, puts away the sword and the cords that rigged these props. She unrolls a large white dance floor, starting from upstage and kicking it along until the core tube eventually falls off the stage into the pit, with a dramatic thud. With a more heavy-handed touch, this prelude could easily have become comedic, but Strauss deftly skirts just along the edges of farce, charming the audience with the matter-of-factness of her presentation. Given that “ohne” means “without” in German, it is an apt beginning to the piece.

Once the floor is in place, Strauss starts to pace across the stage, jangling a set of keys in her hand like a performer fidgeting nervously before a performance. After she has worked herself up a bit going back and forth across the stage, she drops the keys loudly at the side, punctuating the shift from this prelude into the piece. 

In the main section of “Ohne”, we become aware of a psychological “without” – a lack that the character is desperate to fill. Leaving behind the minimalist approach of the prelude, Strauss moves into a more expressive mode. The stage is naked and brightly lit as though in a rehearsal. There is little or no sound except the tapping of Strauss’ anxious shoes. Who or what is she missing that makes her so restless? An atmosphere of loss permeates the actions. In search, she runs and leaps across the stage, explosively stretching out across the space, in sharp contrast to the tightly confined choreography of “Das Martyrium”.

Just as a particular scent can instantly re-ignite a long forgotten memory, a gesture seems to trigger something for this character, interrupting her current state with memories. As the piece progresses, she seems to be drifting back and forth in time. With each bout of recollection, she becomes more deeply submerged within the cloudy past. These spells of memory are represented by the stage growing darker and Jeremy Mimnagh’s electronic soundscape coming strongly to the fore, further influencing her temperamental mood. In one of the clearer daydreams, she is swaying her hips to a club beat – perhaps remembering a distant night of seduction – then she is jarringly back in the present, trying to start over in her search.

“Ohne” is most compelling in the hard reality of the present, with Strauss existing in the same world as the audience. She seems to directly acknowledge the us with her candid attitude, breaking the fourth wall. Her physical statements of control over anxiety, nervousness and loss are clear and the audience can closely identify with Strauss. When the piece drifts to the past, the expressive language is not able to emotionally transport the audience with her. The shifts back into a theatrical space are hard to fully achieve after she so successfully destroyed the barrier between the audience and herself. As a result, her dances of remembrance seem opaque and unknowable to me. These sections are acutely private, with the meaning almost withheld from the audience.

Toward the end of the piece, Strauss slips further and further away from the present, ensnared in the seductive miasma of memories. Contorted, Strauss is up-turned on her back with her feet in the air, shaking and quivering, but then she reaches her toes up to a full extension of joyous release. Finally, a faint white ghostly projection, resembling a twin of Strauss, materializes at the back of the stage. This apparition paces as Strauss did at the start, but calmly, without Strauss’ original anxious energy. As Strauss stands watching this echo, it becomes clear that she has found within herself that which she was psychologically without. Like a deep sigh of relief, the yearning for completion is over. 

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