Intellectually Playful Dance 

By Kathleen Smith
  • William Yong / Photo by David Hou 
  • Members of TDT / Photo by David Hou 
  • Members of TDT / Photo by David Hou 

Sly Verb

Christopher House, Toronto Dance Theatre

Toronto November 18-22, 2003

In the intellectually playful world of Christopher House, dance is usually just one of many ideas. House regularly wraps his full-length works in layers of text and theatrical imagery to express a very catholic curiosity about history, science, art and life. So it comes as no surprise that heady themes abound in House’s newest work for Toronto Dance Theatre, “Sly Verb”, which opened on November 18th in Toronto. Happily for those of us who’ve watched his career unfurl as one of Canada’s leading dancesmiths, this work is equal parts choreographic content. The piece opens to a stage stripped down to bare wings and back. A series of sculptural wire “cages” are suspended from ropes and sand-bagged into position. Their silvery coldness is a contrast to the warmth of the frequently nude or semi-nude performers. Flesh – its frailties, its tactility, its sensuousness, its inherent warmth – provides a through line for Sly Verb. As House states in his program notes: “Sly Verb is about perception, the human gaze and the flesh of the world & Our skin is the surface layer of our brain. Without the sense of touch, we have no relationship with the present moment. Touch is the mother of the senses.” 

To House’s credit and that of his performers, the nudity in Sly Verb never seems forced or gratuitous but rather is an honest portrayal of fleshly vulnerability. It often shows up clad in a subtly playful humour – at one point a male dancer starts shaking his parts in time to some inaudible disco beat. This particular dance ends when he sheepishly pulls on the boxers handed to him by a colleague. Such moments punctuate a collection of solos, duets and ensemble dances of varying quality. Company members each get their time in the spotlight – Jessica Runge performs a wriggling solo with sweet and silly vocalizations; Johanna Bergfeldt performs a kinetically charged dance, albeit with the lights out; William Yong is featured in the closing moments of the work, naked, enmeshed in wire, struggling to stay warm. The always interesting Sean Ling has several star moments, most notably as the centre piece of an exhilaratingly athletic section in which he swings a weighted rope in a circle as the other dancers jump, duck and somersault to avoid being hit. Other sections are more serious than sweet. A vaguely medical procedure (collecting body debris – hair, nail clippings, etc., – using a tray of surgical tools) is performed at the front of the stage and videotaped, briefly putting to use monitors that have glowed bluely over the set for the duration of the show. It’s slightly squeamish-making, but here as in the rest of the work House’s exploration of the themes in Sly Verb is gentle to a fault. The work is not overly “pretty” yet House could have spent more time on the outskirts of this subject matter without bringing everybody down or drastically changing the tenor of the evening. There are aggressive, violent and dark aspects to the world of the flesh that are given the shortest of shrift here. 

That said, “Sly Verb” is more entertaining than most of what we see in Canadian dance and that is likely House’s intent. His co-conspirators in keeping things cheeky and effervescent – Jeremy Laing for costumes, Scott Euston for set design and particularly Steve Lucas for impeccable lighting design and Phil Strong for a wickedly danceable score – make it even easier for everyone to buy into the fun. 

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