On the outside looking in 

By Bridget Cauthery
  • Simon Renaud, Amanada Acorn and Robert Abubo in Michael Trent’s Adaptation Project / Photo by David Hou 
  • Amanada Acorn, Kate Holden and Simon Renaud in Michael Trent’s Adaptation Project / Photo by Ömer K. Yükseker 
  • Thom Gill, Benjamin Kamino and Kate Holden in Michael Trent’s Adaptation Project / Photo by David Hou 
  • Robert Abubo, Benjamin Kamino and Simon Renaud in Michael Trent’s Adaptation Project / Photo by David Hou 

Adaptation Project

Michael Trent / Dancemakers

Toronto April 18 - 29, 2012 

I notice his long, sinewy feet and toes. I notice his tattoo. I notice his fencer’s stance with arms curved upwards, wrists twisted inwards. I notice the look of concentration on his face and the tautness in his neck and calves. I notice his strength and his vulnerability.

In the opening moments of Michael Trent’s Adaptation Project dancer Benjamin Kamino is intense, mesmerizing. The lighting hits him just so and he is sculpted and carved by the interplay of shadow and light. I am very glad I came.

In 1974 American choreographer Mitchell Rose created a work for five Toronto-based dancers called Following Station Identification. Those five dancers were Carol Anderson, Peggy Baker, Robert Desrosiers, Andraya Smith and Mitch Kirsch. Back in the day, Rose was very “New York” and was regarded as the “Woody Allen” of dance. As a choreographer he had an offbeat sense of humour –- droll and frank but also campy and ridiculous.

Trent went into the extensive archives of Dancemakers –- more than 100 works by Canadian and international choreographers over thirty-eight seasons –- looking for a piece that would pique his choreographic interest. He selected Rose’s Following Station Identification as a source, a text from which to build a new work. The endeavour was simultaneously a means of looking back and of looking forward; a way for Dancemakers to stay true to its dual function as a repertory company and as a centre for new creation.

As I read the program I think that Trent must be feeling the love –- love is mentioned four times in his artistic director’s message and an additional two times in his choreographer’s note. There must be something about this work and the process of its creation that has made him feel… well, warm and fuzzy? 

I listen to him giggling quietly to himself a few rows behind me and to my left at certain moments during the performance. He is clearly pleased and finds his work pleasing. Not in a smug, self-satisfied way, but as though this has been a particularly enjoyable, pleasurable process for him and his dancers.

Yet the process of responding to Following Station Identification and the resulting work has left me asking questions. Lots of questions. Such as: why this particular work? What was it about Following Station Identification that made Trent go “Yes! This is the one!”? And what were the entry points into the work? What hooked Trent and his five dancers –- Rob Abubo, Amanda Acorn, Kate Holden, Kamino and Simon Renaud –- to keep looking? What captivated their attention? What kept them tuned in to Rose’s work, unpacking and resurrecting its movement and its message?

Smashing chairs, piling chairs, throwing chairs, stuck under chairs. Putting on clothes, putting on more clothes, slithering over each other whilst removing clothes, peeling off layers down to black briefs. Spinning in circles, running across the stage, attempting to balance, swaying drunkenly on one leg, falling down. Repeat. 

Trent and his team worked with dramaturge Jacob Zimmer to frame their exploration. In his program note Zimmer describes how he and his collaborators “made a number of discoveries” about adaptation as a methodology and about “the many varieties and techniques … the resonances and lines of inspiration we can follow from a dance work.” Trent’s collaborator, musician Thom Gill, followed the same process drawing on themes from the original score creating an ambient soundscape that filled the space. In addition, dancers from the original work were invited to the studio to share recollections of Rose’s piece.

One of the ideal outcomes of an encounter with postmodern visual culture is a lot of questions, but mine seem to derive from a nagging feeling that this may not have been the piece to which to attach so much significance. The three- or four-minute grainy excerpt that was shown at the end of the Trent’s adaptation is curious. It helped to stanch the flow of questions –- ah yes, there’s the jumping sequence, there’s the card table, there’s Kamino’s curving arms with the inverted wrists echoed at the beginning of the work – but did not ultimately stem them.

(As I write this review I keep changing the order of paragraphs. Much like the piece itself I cannot find the through line of my own response to it.)

The dancers themselves look good together. Besides Kamino, Abudo and Holden command the stage. Acorn and Renaud, less so, but between them the quality of camaraderie, of integrated-ness is unmistakable.

Overall, Adaptation Project has a garage band sort of feel about it. This is not just because of the guitarist downstage with a reel-to-reel tape player fed through an amplifier manipulating and extending live sound, a second reel-to-reel upstage playing excerpts of the original score, the mismatched chairs, the broken card table, the piles of tired clothes, Kamino muttering a stream of consciousness wordplay too close to the mic. It is also the informality of the piece and the way it has been staged. It is unfocussed and dingy, but also honest and earnest in its execution. 

There are several duets that speak of shielding, of remembrances that hold one back, of physical impediments that keep one tethered, unable to move forward. Holden suspended upside down, Acorn perched on Renaud’s back then later following Kamino around the stage holding his arm behind him willing him to alter his course, reorient his path. There are other sections, such as the one featuring the cast putting on of layers upon layers of clothing – collared shirts with ties, flouncy skirts, striped tops that are selected by each dancer indiscriminate of gender –- that are interesting for their juxtapositions and absurdity and when the dancers themselves cannot help but laugh, but these scenes go nowhere.

I want to like the work and frequently do, but it does not hold together in a way that makes a coherent statement. It borrows from a source that is disconnected from the audience in a way that is like hearing only one side of a conversation without being able to know the other half. Zimmer himself concedes in his note that “it’s delightful but a little absurd to imagine that any of you know the original work.” I want the piece to knit together but it has the opposite quality of pulling threads and watching the fabric unravel. Maybe that was what Trent wanted. Perhaps this is the statement he is making.

I think that by overtly stating the intention of Adaptation Project to utilize Following Station Identification as source material, Trent made it difficult for me to just sit back and enjoy the dancing, which comes in moody fits and starts. The dancers work supremely hard for Trent, for the idea, and I appreciate their efforts, but ultimately I want something that invites me in. As an intertextual exercise –- a dialogue or interplay between multiple texts –- I cannot appreciate the nuances and the parallels because I do not know enough about the original work.

Michael, I want to love this moment with you. But I am on the outside looking in. 

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