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images and rituals: dance: made in canada/fait au canada 

By Michael Crabb
  • Jolene Bailie in her own work “Switchback” / Photo by Hugh Conacher 
  • Susie Burpee in her own work “A Mass Becomes You” / Photo by Ömer Yükseker 
  • Louis Laberge-Côté in “Radiant (Variant)” by Holly Small / Photo by John Oswald  
  • Freya Olafson in her own work “New Icelander” / Photo by Markus Wernli-Saito 

dance: made in canada/fait au canada 2009

Susie Burpee, Jolene Bailie, Freya Olafson, Holly Small

Toronto April 2-11, 2009 

The latest edition of dance made in canada/fait au canada – a biennial event curated by princess productions’ Yvonne Ng, a multi-talented Toronto-based artist with a quaint aversion to uppercase letters – begins with an arresting image. 

Jolene Bailie’s “Switchback”

What appears to be a helmet, with its Mohawk crest reminiscent of the kind sported by Roman centurions, floats mysteriously in a black void, but as Hugh Conacher’s effective lighting plot opens up we see that it is worn by a woman in a tight-fitting tunic with a spinal fin, a costume designed by the choreographer and Royal Winnipeg Ballet wardrobe director Anne Armit.

With Aphexx Twinn and Jared Powell’s mostly drum-generated, rumbling score as an aural backdrop, the woman, poised beside one of a number of reflective floor mats, conjures thoughts of a warrior goddess – indeed there is a good deal of chest thumping to come – or of some strange prehistoric creature. Appliquéd sparkles on helmet and fin suggest the presence of scales. Human or beast? Likely both.

The woman is Winnipeg dancer/choreographer Jolene Bailie, an extraordinarily powerful and compelling performer with some 200 concerts to her credit and a company, Gearshifting Performance Works (formerly Cuppa Jo Inc.), to produce them.

“Switchback”, the work in discussion, is a solo Bailie has been developing for several years but on the basis of its Toronto premier at d:mic/fac she might do well to leave it alone now because it looks very good just the way it is.

“Switchback” unfolds in a series of episodes performed at different locations on the Betty Oliphant Theatre’s large stage and delineated by fadeouts and subtle changes in the texture or tempo of the music. Each seems like a step in an epic journey that, while the piece itself lasts a mere twenty minutes, conveys the impression of a complete cycle in the life of its subject, ultimately returning Bailie to her starting point where her helmet is left as the only visible reminder of what has passed.

Among her many dancing attributes, Bailie is notable for intense concentration, extreme and pertinent gestural economy, an extraordinarily mobile and expressive torso and an ability to isolate and move parts of her body in disarming ways. It might be a repetitive twist of the head or odd bouncing motion, the way she composes her limbs into a striking sculptural image or laboriously hauls herself across the stage on pawed fists like a creature struggling for survival. And in “Switchback” Bailie’s character is constantly alert, as if hyper-sensitive to the imminence of unseen dangers. 

Susie Burpee’s “A Mass Becomes You”

According to its promotional material, d:mic/fac aims to pair emerging and established artists but in the case of “In Tune,” the first of the 2009 event’s two programs, it would be hard to say who, between Bailie and program companion Susie Burpee, is “emerging” and who is established. Each is an accomplished artist and, although both trained at the school of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, they have evolved distinct personal styles.

For d:mic/fac, the Toronto-based Burpee fashioned a new work, “A Mass Becomes You”, that draws heavily on absurdist elements of the performance art tradition with a dash of clowning for good measure.

Burpee’s funny/sad/hysterical solo presents us with a character dressed in black, front-slashed skirt, shoulder-padded, tailored jacket and shiny black high heels. Topping these is a monstrous, curly blond wig, worn blindingly back to front. The inspiration for this Tanya White-designed costume is “Untitled #122”, a disturbing 1983 self-portrait by acclaimed American art photographer Cindy Sherman.

In her photograph Sherman presents an image of volcanic fury on the verge of eruption. Her fists are clenched, her shoulders held tight and high. Between the falling curls she peers out at us through a bloodshot eye. What has prompted the emotional state portrayed by Sherman remains undefined.

The same is true of the character in Burpee’s solo although it might be inferred that the choreographer has thought hard about the context of Sherman’s image and concluded that some form of oppression, personal or more generally societal, is at play.

Enter the blasting boom boxes; allegedly fifty of them, although I was too busy watching Burpee to count. These variously sized sound devices become the visual symbols of a quasi-techno hell-on-earth through which Burpee must negotiate her way to freedom and self-realization.

Although Burpee attempts to control them, these boom boxes have a life of their own, spurting distorted and random samplings of Mozart’s D minor “Requiem”. Given the nature of this revered masterwork, musical purists might easily object to the butchering to which Burpee subjects it, but there is a point to her apparent sacrilege. And, of course, she needed some kind of musical mass or the solo’s title would not be a pun.

Initially Burpee is on hands and knees, shaking and quivering like a bizarre contemporary version of “The Dying Swan”. Once on her hind legs, she is all over the place, fetching and positioning more boom boxes – their telescopic antennae or power chords are useful for dragging. She carries them on her shoulders or above her head and steps triumphantly on another like a hunter with her latest trophy. She lines them up in ranks. She steps carefully among them as if through a minefield.

Burpee occasionally whistles or sings through the wig and is rarely motionless. At one point she’s precariously balanced, leg raised into yoga-like pose; at another flailing and rolling about in a circle like Danny Grossman in his “Curious Schools of Theatrical Dancing”. She also, as Grossman was famously wont to do, regards her posterior as a body zone worthy of conspicuous presentation. When she’s on the floor she often sticks it in the air.

All this activity is very consciously directed to the audience with the fine-tuned, playing-for-laughs timing of a seasoned comic, except all is not funny in this madcap world Burpee’s character inhabits. There is a constant undercurrent of desperation and Beckettish hopelessness. Even at the end, when she hauls off as many boom boxes as she can manage, we get the sense she’s scored an incomplete victory. 

Holly Small’s “Radiant (Variant)”

The second d:mic/fac program, Evanescence, paired York University professor Holly Small and Winnipeg’s Freya Björg Olafson. Here the distinction between established and emerging was blatantly apparent for although both artists favour an interdisciplinary approach, the seasoned Small is the more adept at bringing the elements into purposeful focus.

As with Burpee, Small’s work started with a photograph or rather, as she explained in her commentary as a “National Post” arts diarist of the week, a series of photos. As Small told it, she and partner John Oswald, the renowned composer/visual media artist, set out to capture an image that had long haunted her, “an image of a wrapped body, more chrysalis than mummy, floating in space, corpse-like, yet alive or coming into being.”

Those images, with fellow York faculty member Keiko Kitano as the model, led to an earlier solo from which “Radiant (Variant)”, Small’s d:mic/fac work for six dancers – four women and two men – evolved.

In addition to Oswald, who provided the images and a mournfully elegiac score – played live by an ensemble of four trombones, two trumpets and a flugelhorn – Small had chosen to work with highly skilled collaborators. Theatre designer Emile Morin provided the shifting arboreal scrims that allowed Oswald’s projected images and Lionel Arnould’s live-captured videography of the dancers to float and morph in ghostly fashion. Katherine Mallinson’s simple white costumes suggested an exotic, perhaps Asian setting that somehow suited Small’s own movement references and hints of religious ritual – the men appear as hooded monks in one sequence – even of martial display. And all was beautifully lit by Pierre Lavoie and danced with conviction by Johanna Bergfelt, Michael Caldwell, Kitano, Louis-Laberge Côté, Rebecca Mendoza and Jessica Runge.

The work as whole is like a theatrical realization of the haunting image Small described in her public diary; except, as that description suggests, this is not a Tales from the Crypt shocker. Its subject is the fragility and evanescence of life itself; of birth and death; of sadness and resistance; finally of spiritual acceptance. 

Freja Olafson’s “New Icelander”

Olafson’s “New Icelander” did not sit easily on the program with Small’s elaborately layered, thoughtfully integrated and technically well-produced large-scale work. In a different context “New Icelander” might have made a stronger impression.

The work, part of a like-themed series, dates from 2006 and is fuelled by Olafson’s interest in her cultural heritage, she being a descendent of Icelandic immigrants – not those who briefly settled at L’Anse aux Meadows more than a thousand years ago but the later, nineteenth-century wave that came to Manitoba and suffered grim hardships. The set, video and sound for the excerpted touring version of “New Icelander” are all by Olafson, who also performs the work – live and in recorded projections.

Her program note provides historical background and recounts her personal journey into the past, exploring her present-day identity among the relics – including the eroded skeletal remains of those nineteenth-century settlers, many of whom died of smallpox early on.

It was sometimes hard to keep track of past and present. Was Olafson a ghost from the past in the tutu-like frock designed by Sharon Johnson or was this a reference to her brush with ballet as a former RWB School student? The modern-day snow suit was more easily explicable as Olafson, who often created duets for herself and her projected image, cavorted on video in speed manipulated sequences in the frozen wastes of the Icelandic River basin. In another sequence Olafson appears on film underwater. The soundscore includes natural sounds and drifts of speech like voices from the past.

The layered imagery, close-ups and long-shots, Olafson robing and disrobing, examining a skull or the soles of her feet, wielding a club-like implement – a human limb bone perhaps? – staring enigmatically into the camera; it all piles up but does not fall into a recognizably coherent impression. But then Olafson’s investigation into the intersections of her cultural heritage and present identity is probably not the kind that yields definitive answers. Yet, with a work that is so intimate and personal a little more elucidation would have gone a long way. 

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