A Hopeful Message 

By Kathleen Smith
  • Jennifer Dallas in her own work Zetetica / Photo by Andrea de Keijzer 
  • Jennifer Dallas and Bienvenue Bazié in their own work Converse / Photo by Andrea de Keijzer 

Longer Than A Shadow

Kemi Contemporary Dance Projects

Toronto February 24 - 27, 2011 

Is it just me or does anyone else feel that too many dance shows are formally presented before they are quite ready? The feeling of incompleteness inspired by the works on Kemi’s recent program at the Dancemakers Centre for Creation seemed all too familiar. Perhaps that has something to do with the nature of dance, re-materializing for a moment in time and never the same twice. How can anyone know for sure when a dance is ready? This is not really a criticism, just an observation. And now that it’s been said, I will also say that the two works comprising Longer Than A Shadow were fascinating to watch and full of harbingers of much more refined riches likely to come from this fledgling company.

“Zetetica” is a solo performed by choreographer and Kemi founder Jennifer Dallas. First presented at Dance Ontario’s Dance Weekend in January, it is basically a series of character sketches, worn on the body during a series of progressions across the stage. Simple and effective, it suggests a world of richness and depth without actually allowing us to visit that world for any length of time. To the laid back jazzy sounds of Alemu Aga from the Ethiopiques compilation, a woman walks in a stately and dignified fashion while carrying a large bundle that obscures her path. It turns out to be an open umbrella wrapped in a white shawl. She crosses the stage and back, her hips swaying slightly. In another procession, Dallas plays with a small gourd or nut – catching it, shaking it and balancing it makes the movement. There is no music to accompany this passage. In yet another, Dallas wears a long formal coat made from stiff woven cloth – here the character is bird-like, bobbing her head and strutting like a cockerel or peacock to another selection from the “Ethiopiques” series. The movement for all the characters is typified by swaying hips, sinuous arms and hands and a sense of connection to the ground. What a great introduction these walks would make to a longer, more dimensional piece. However, our characters disappear, after revealing an idiosyncrasy or two but without really telling us their stories. 

Separated from “Zetetica” by a long intermission, and clearly a very different kind of work, “Converse” is a collaboration between Dallas and choreographer Bienvenue Bazié, who works in France and Burkina Faso. Dallas and Bazié make use of three benches in this dance of complementary and contrasting movement styles. A spare lighting design with occasional light projections (designed by Ron Snippe) and an unobtrusive jazzy score by John MacLean and Bema Konaté enhance this simple staging. The performers re-configure the benches – sliding them around, enclosing them to suggest a room, laying them up in a long line for one of them to traverse, sitting on them (though not together) – responding to each other and then breaking away for solo and duet sections on the floor. Some of these are playful and return repeatedly to the same vocabulary of movement phrases or poses – side to side swaying with hips fully engaged, rolling on the floor ending in a kind of modified plank position, bird-like bobbing of the head and sinuous arms. The pair has devised a rich choreography combining the tone variations of contemporary practice with the groundedness characteristic of most traditional African dances. They are both beautiful movers (though in very different ways) but I felt a vague longing throughout for Bazié to have an opportunity to really let it rip. It would have been exhilarating to watch more expansive, more extreme movement from the long limbs of this remarkable performer.

Dallas and Bazié seem highly attuned to each other even if they do not always meet each other’s gaze. There is a coyness, or perhaps it is a shyness, to their connection. Yet connection is the point of the piece. At the midway mark in the performance, they exchange pleasantries: “ça va? Oui, ça va.” The exchange is repeated in the closing minutes of the work, when the pair is seated together (finally) on the same bench. “Converse” is a collaboration about collaboration, with its inherent struggles to understand and communicate with, create with, artists from a different culture. Voice, humour, mimicry, compassion – these are the enabling universals that allow such an exchange to happen and they are all evident in this work.

It’s a hopeful message that couldn’t be clearer in its implications for the wider world and everyone in it. 

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