History Lesson

By Ben Portis
  • Louis Laberge-Côté in Nenagh Leigh's Terra Incognita / Photo by David Hou
  • Christianne Ullmark in Patricia Beatty's Skyling / Photo by David Hou
  • Jessica May Hall and Michael Caldwell in Danny Grossman and Judy Jarvis' Bella / Photo by David Hou

Toronto Heritage Dance

Toronto September 26 - 29, 2013

The 2013 season of Toronto Heritage Dance (THD), its second, assembled a stellar program of works by the pioneers of contemporary dance in Toronto, including Patricia Beatty, David Earle, Judy Jarvis and Danny Grossman, and Nenagh Leigh. Their works were performed mainly by mature, seasoned dancers whose training and early careers took shape under the guidance of these figures and whose current careers (in some cases) remain closely associated with them. A few of these performers have gone their own way as choreographers and company leaders – their return to work with their formative masters represents a poignant tribute  in terms of sustaining and replenishing artistic visions. Among the performers were also a few young dancers, in roles that demand youth and natural freshness, a recurrent and underlying theme.

All of this occurred at the Winchester Dance Theatre, renovated in 1979 as the operational base of the Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT). The company and school were founded by co-artistic directors Beatty, Earle and Peter Randazzo in 1968, making this program a tremendous generational legacy event, not only for the principal participants but also for its audience, who came to reacquaint itself or, in other cases, discover a Rosetta Stone in the history of Canadian dance.

The evening opens with Beatty’s minimalist Skyling, “a lyrical exploration of life in the sky; a dance of joy and freedom,” according to the program notes, a work that premiered at the Winchester in 1980. It begins with a series of formal motifs of solo-into-twinning movements, at first male/male and female/female (the six-member cast was equally divided by gender) that eventually phase into male/female mimesis and melding. The “figures” (with the highly appropriate sculptural connotations of that word) suggest associations with Eros, Narcissus, Psyche and nymphs, not only human creatures of Greek mythology, but also the dramatis personae of Freudian literature. Most striking is the portrayal of precocious sexuality aloft against a backdrop lit in blue and scalloped by a long roll of white fabric (an original set piece by Aiko Suzuki) before which dancers dressed in vaporous blue-and-white leotards blow about the stage and in and out of one another’s arms as if propelled by winds. This innocent ideal of love predates the onset of AIDS.

The poignancy of a post-AIDS worldview is epitomized in Earle’s Two Soliloquies, new and recent works for solo men – Anh Nguyen in Soliloquy I, a premiere, and Bill Coleman in Soliloquy II (the latter excerpted from Night Garden, 2011). These relatively brief pieces enshroud each dancer in localized lights amid darkness. The essence of soliloquy is to give the illusion of being in a state of self-conversation or reflection, with the audience representing the possibly disinterested eye of God. Nguyen, a veteran of Dancetheatre David Earle, adeptly incorporated this attitude in a vulnerable, almost confessional state of solitude. Coleman adopted a ravaged, abandoned comportment, persecuted and finally surrendering to the terror of combined external and internal forces.

Earle’s Love Duet, excerpted from Maelstrom (1996), is a torrid and frank exposition of mature sexuality, spirited desire rekindled within a presumably long relationship. Danielle Baskerville and Michael English, long and loyal members of Earle’s company, dance the lovers. They establish a convincing emotional unison, which begins with aroused mutual intent and depth of coupling, culminating in an explosive coital mime and finishing in climax and expended denouement. All is enacted with gravity and austerity, which is also reflected in the dour costuming and a swelling, looping Gavin Bryars composition as score. Here dance is reduced to its elemental courtship ritual. Particularly fascinating are the signature elements that have persisted as the TDT style, even among subsequent artistic directors. Earle’s emphasis on counterbalance, distribution of weight and transferral of actions between individuals are today given continued special attention by TDT’s current artistic director, Christopher House.

The first half of the program concluded with Judy Jarvis and Danny Grossman’s Bella (1977), a comic coming of age set in a nursery-cum-boudoir that seemed lifted from an eighteenth-century dalliance tableau à la Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The centerpiece of this particular playpen is a supersized pale-yellow hobbyhorse embellished with stencilled folia. Suspended above the horse is a gaudy tapestry of oversized floral blooms (both original creations of Mary Kerr, who also designed the costumes). The effect of the set’s scale is to make the young adult performers seem diminutive and childlike. The ingénue was danced by Jessica May Hall (a recent graduate of the School of Toronto Dance Theatre), opposite, in alternating performances, Michael Caldwell and Mateo Galindo Torres. The boy is presumably an interloper in the girl’s chamber, but is soon to be brought under her control. The choreography interplays with an operatic score by Puccini, sections from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. The singers’ voices suggest out-of-sight but within-earshot parental presences that lend derring-do to the Kama Sutra make-believe in which the playmates engage whereas the instrumentation lends an entirely different atmosphere, the suggestion of proximate natural life (breeze, birds and such) combined with awakening hormones. Ritual feints of seduction, conveyed with eager, fumbling synchronicity, give way to the nuzzling of a proffered bosom – which then leads to all kinds of playful, gymnastic mounting and dismounting aboard, beneath and about the inanimate steed. Eventually the dancers settle into their relational roles, the girl becoming the rider of the boy.

The second half of the program assumed a statelier disposition. First up after intermission was Earle’s Mirrors, the premiere of which, on December 2, 1968, was the first performance of TDT as a company. Here the mirror effect is gentle, slightly optical, as if in a rudimentary kaleidoscope. The, two couples (Baskerville and English, Kate Alton and Coleman) enact a formal pinwheel minuet (appropriately set to J.S. Bach) consisting of alternating phases of pose and repose. The dancers’ relationships to their own upright bodies, those of their partners and doppelgängers, contrasted with a mindfulness of the floor, is addressed, not only in their footing, but in the strata of implicit levels indicated by the junctures of the knees, hips, shoulders and head. Setting cognizance of these planes, the choreography moves its dancers around an invisible radial axis. This too reveals a signature code of the TDT style, its sensitivity to horizontal and vertical planes. Mirrors finished with a shattering of these planes with light aerial leaps by the men.

Nenagh Leigh’s Terra Incognita (2002) was a more complex and satisfying setting for solo male. This work also benefited from its interpretation by two distinctly different dancers, Louis Laberge-Côté and Eddie Kastrau, who originated the role. Terra Incognita is a physically demanding work of incredible tension, including strength moves and yogic positions. The dancer occupies a morphing arena of light, which eventually turns into more of a cell. The work is set to an original score by Gilles Goyette, a tonal organ-like drone that surges to a finale of a tolling bell. Kastrau is imposing, a marvel of physique and taut control. Laberge-Côté’s approach, no less impressive, is comparatively supple, disguising his virtuosic vitality. At one brief point, Laberge-Côté momentarily covers one eye, a gesture that signals the monocular sensibility of this work and the extent that its expression might emerge from the so-called third eye, rather than inhabiting the optical spaces explored previously in Mirrors. Throughout the THD program, many such intelligently correlated motifs and themes occurred.

The final work was again by Earle, Sculpting Time (2007). Its title recalls a similarly named book by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (1986), which may be coincidental, but certainly conveys the retrospection and breadth of vision that Earle brings to all his choreography. Ever the spry formalist, Earle composes an ensemble of nine dancers, six male, three female, divided by two-to-one ratios into costume colours of red, black and white, and again distinguished into triads of clothing type: slacks, shorts and dresses. Within this assignment of patterns, the nine seem at times randomly sifted into fleeting formations and re-formations, often moving in unison yet each with a distinctive expression of the movement, one no more exemplary than another, a profound expression of the community art of dance.



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