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Review

In the Grip of a Crowd

Hanna Kiel’s Resonance By Erin Baldwin
  • Dance artists in Kiel's Resonance / Photo by Sam So

September 27, 2019, Sts. Cyril and Methody Church Hall, Toronto

If you’re looking for clues to deciphering Resonance, the new dance production from Toronto-based choreographer Hanna Kiel, you might start with the name.

The word resonance is often used when talking about the quality of sound: deep, full, reverberating. Composed of alternating segments of classic rock, ambient noise and electronic tech house music, Resonance opens with a blazing guitar solo that encompasses these musical qualities. But resonance has a second meaning too, one more concerned with feeling and affect. To resonate is to evoke enduring images, memories and emotions – to provoke a lasting response. Kiel, founder of the Toronto-based company Human Body Expression, has made it clear that Resonance arose from observing South Korea’s most powerful political movement in 2016, when former president Park Geun-hye was impeached after 1.5 million people protested. It was a move supported by seventy per cent of the South Korean population, and Kiel was inspired to understand how such a vast number of individuals come together to unite and act as one, how such a revolution evolves. Her choreography concerns itself with individuals in the throes of resonance, exploring how we respond to both external stimuli, group dynamics and one another.

The production takes place on a wood floor devoid of props or staging, surrounded on three sides by the audience. The backdrop is a small stage that hosts live musicians for the duration of the piece, including a guitarist, a DJ of sorts and a drummer. The musicians move on and offstage throughout the work. Soon after a fiery orange light illuminates the space, Roger Cournoyer moves into the middle of the floor, becoming the focal point as the twelve dancers emerge from the sidelines.

Dressed in a variety of eclectic clothing – rocker vests and ripped jeans meet faux red leather pants, a kilt and a Hawaiian print shirt – the dancers form two lines across either side of the floor. Two break away and move towards one another, pausing briefly as they pass. Another duo follows, and then another, until there is a flurry of movement, the dancers scattered on the floor. Soft arm gestures and fluid upper body motions clash against stadium rock guitar, evoking a tension between the chaos of the physical surroundings and the individual dancers. It’s a sentiment that continually arises throughout the piece as dancers break away and the collective shatters, only to re-emerge as the dancers return to synchronized movement. As they form a mass in the middle of the floor, shoulder to shoulder, the dancers slowly step backwards, gazing ahead at the guitarist positioned like an all-powerful conductor facing an orchestra. With wide eyes, they evoke an enthralled group of teenagers at a rock concert. Or, more sinisterly, a crowd in the grips of a religious or political fervour.

Individual autonomy in relation to the larger group is a theme central to Kiel’s work. A heavy pulsing motion is foregrounded in the ensemble choreography: the dancers disperse with legs spread wide, knees bent, shoulders alternately hunched, with heads down, or open with eyes gazing upwards, their bodies pulsing to the beat. Much of this movement sees a centre of gravity low to the ground with deep knee bends, heavy foot stomps, hands slapping chests and the floor and curled upper bodies, delivering the sensation of a hive mentality driven by instinct and conformity.

The outbreaks of individual and small groups see a freer, more open sense of movement: dancers gaze upwards and outwards at outstretched hands; long fluid extensions mix with the quick, staccato hand gestures found more typically with popping in hip hop. It is here that the dancers shine: Martha Hunt brings a grounding, calming presence to the piece with poised legato movement; Connor Mitton shows off an athleticism and emotive range in duets with Lonii Garnons-Williams and Morgyn Aronyk-Schell; Peter Kelly appears perpetually disturbed and conflicted, desperate to break away from the crowd but terrified of retribution. 

Kiel’s choreography shows off the strengths of the dancers, and the bold decision to mix eclectic sounds, bright lights and colourfully mismatched costumes makes for a well-designed production. The risks taken pay off for the most part, except for an ill-placed spoken-word poem in the middle of the piece. The contents of the text are intriguing, but it doesn’t fit. The delivery feels too imposing, too forceful, too preachy, and it comes off as particularly ironic in a production concerned with themes of group dynamics. Perhaps this is the point, but even if it is, it’s too jarring to be effective.

But despite this one lapse, it’s a production that aptly takes on a concern and maximizes the resources of choreography, lighting and sound to explore it through movement. Resonance clearly explores the concept of what it means to resonate – to be both united and divided by consuming external forces. In doing so, Kiel’s work points past the boundaries of dance to larger socio-political landscapes, proving that dance can tackle complicated subject matter and showing why, as an art form capable of cultural commentary, it matters.

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