Performing Performances

By Kathleen Smith
  • NO FUN by Helen Simard
  • decoherence by Jesse Garon in collaboration with Jarrett Siddall
  • Ellen Furey in her own work Performing Performance
  • Fame Prayer/EATING by Andrew Tay
  • Sara Porter in her own work Sara does a Solo
  • Simon Renaud and Joanie Audet in noyé/e by Renaud

SummerWorks Festival

August 11-14, 2016

Dance was front and centre at SummerWorks this year, building on some serious bonds forged during past editions of this annual contemporary performance festival in Toronto. The festival’s dance curator, Jenn Goodwin – who has a long history as a choreographer and performer, and also as a program manager for the City of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche – proposed an impressively diverse series. I saw what I could and was disappointed that so many sold-out shows kept me from seeing some of the artists on my wish list, but here are my highlights.

Montréal artist Helen Simard presented a stripped-down version of NO FUN, an Iggy Pop-inspired ensemble piece with three dancers, three musicians and a mysterious collapsing vocalist (Ted Yates) who neither danced nor played an instrument, but who seemed to embody the reckless, maxed-out quality of an aging rock star.. They all performed the hell out of the show, which is more to the point than trying to figure out who was what.

On a stage strewn with blenders and tin foil, Stéphanie Fromentin, Emmalie Ruest and Justin Gionnet pump their fists, thrash, twitch and toss their hair as the band plays on – loudly (earplugs were kindly provided at the door). On a trajectory toward exhausted oblivion, the entire cast is mesmerizing and energetic. I couldn’t help but think of the recent (and for me, disappointing) remount of Holy Body Tattoo’s monumental with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, which felt awkwardly and clumsily tied to its theme of urban distress. In notes, Simard suggested that her show is about nothing. That lack of a defined narrative allows the audience (and the cast?) space and time to zone in and out of their experience. Much less, well, monumental, NO FUN felt a more authentic nod to the fan experience of music as well as to the anarchic spirit of rock performance culture. And I loved the DIY vibe to the scenography; the imaginative use of bicycle lights was especially effective. NO FUN was in fact lots of fun, juxtaposing chaotic bursts of nonsense with more synchronized group movement, each working its own kind of magic.

In contrast, Jesse Garon and Jarrett Siddall’s stately duet decoherence was a much more controlled affair. The pair said they were inspired by the theory of quantum entanglement in which particles relate to each other’s movement, regardless of their location or proximity. It’s a neat metaphor for partnering in dance. The performers begin by breathing together, leaning in to each other, connecting hard. A largely improvised series of spiralling runs, falls and brief interactions ensues. The pair attempt to communicate with each other with gestures, but it is the invisible link between them that really communicates, whether they are spinning away from or toward each other.

If decoherence mostly followed the proscriptive laws of physics and contemporary dance in a way that sometimes felt overly familiar, Ellen Furey’s solo, performing performance, which followed it on the double bill, felt like it was charting newer and stranger territory.

The work starts with Furey wandering around picking through plastic bags of clothes and possessions (material abundance was a feature of many of the works I saw at SummerWorks, stages scattered with detritus pointing at the meaning/meaninglessness of stuff, whether or not the artist actually engaged with it). She sends items into the audience tethered loosely to a piece of masking tape (one of the items seemed to be her mobile phone; the guy sitting behind me thoughtfully secured it more firmly with some additional wraps of tape). She cues the audience at times, with gestures and nods or occasional verbal notes: “Everything will shift a little now.” Deadpan, she reads from a business magazine, which prompts howls of laughter from the audience. It feels random, yet is likely calculated – but the percentage of one to the other is a complete mystery. Furey is an enthralling performer and I am still mulling over what it is specifically that makes her so interesting. She is very present, self-aware but not self-conscious, and seemingly fearless. The section in which she dons high heels and staggers/crumbles to the ground to a recording of Rita MacNeil’s Working Man is as inexplicitly moving as anything I saw at the festival.

A different playground of different stuff informed Andrew Tay’s casually brutal and very funny Fame Prayer/EATING. Performed by Tay, photographer Katrzyna Szugajew and visual artist François Lalumière, the work addresses consumerism and spirituality in a queer space. We know this because Tay tells us as the piece begins. In his opening address, Tay also notes that the work was made quickly and is very new (i.e. still in process). I’m glad he spoke up, so that any expectations of polish could more quickly give way to delight as the performers smack each other in varied configurations, dance wildly and read/sing prepared texts about attraction and love. For me, the loose structure and visible mechanics of the piece are very much part of its charm – polish would probably destroy it.

Fame Prayer/EATING was paired with Valerie Calam’s ensemble work, Dull Roar.

Some of Toronto’s most compelling performers took part in its creation: Kate Franklin, Robert Abubo, Luke Garwood, Christianne Ullmark, Amanda Davis and choreographic consultant Brendan Jensen. In program notes, Calam refers to the “states of the body” method, in which the performers work on something rather than demonstrate something. The idea is to create a constant churning of thought and action, of intent and awareness, within the space; it’s a churning that seeks to include audience members. That idea was fully supported by a remarkable synthesized score, mixed and looped live by composer Joseph Paul Shepherd. The harsh music fills the room with shifting currents that the performers seem to ride or fight or ignore. I’ll admit that it took a while for me to access the piece, and even by the end I still had many questions: Why does Franklin’s face radiate affect but not the others? What is behind Abubo’s abrupt entrances and exits from the performance space? And so on. Perhaps that is fine.

Sara Porter’s one woman show Sara does a Solo has been touring around in various iterations and made a solid landing at SummerWorks for four performances at the Pia Bouman Scotiabank Studio Theatre. Tight and well produced, it required little effort to enjoy. Coming as I had from edgier fare, that almost felt like a letdown for the first few minutes, but then Porter’s mastery of diverse theatrical elements drew me in.

Porter states bluntly and early on in the work that she’ll try to avoid talking while dancing at the same time (“I find that hard to watch sometimes”). Yet the piece is all about wordplay and the concurrence of text and movement. Yes, at the same time. Built along a musical spine provided by singer Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ethereal vocals and Porter’s own crooning, the work juxtaposes domestic reality and fantasies of the long evening gown and full moon variety. A kind of obliquely witty standup monologue with movement, the work exudes sweetness – of the bitter variety, but gently so. We see so little of this quality in theatres these days; it makes Porter’s work that much more compelling.

Though sparer than many of the works I’ve described so far, Simon Renaud’s noyé/e was one of the most simply beautiful and moving works I saw at this summer’s festival. Largely devoid of props (two chairs, a laptop computer, a small speaker – that’s it), the dance took place in a small rehearsal space with many windows and a square of masking tape delineating the performance area. Performed by Renaud and Joanie Audet, the duet was both elegantly athletic and emotionally intense. The audience is close, sitting on the floor at eye level with the performers – who do not so much and yet a great deal. Moving the chairs to the sidelines is a drawn-out collaborative effort; sitting down and standing up seems to engage every muscle. Both wear high heels, which tax the long leg muscles even further. Everything moves at such a glacial pace that there is time to really observe all of the details to the movement and pre-movement. The performers separate, tremble and then slam back together more closely than ever. The final moments are acrobatic and epic, with Renaud bearing Audet’s full weight on his shoulders. So simple, so rich.

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