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Review

Renaissance, Ritual and Passion

Toronto Dance Theatre’s Persefony Songs By Collette Murray
  • Performers of Toronto Dance Theatre in Christopher House's Persefony Songs / Photo courtesy of Toronto Dance Theatre
  • Performers of Toronto Dance Theatre in Christopher House's Persefony Songs / Photo courtesy of Toronto Dance Theatre

March 5-9, 2019, Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto

As Christopher House graced the stage to thank and acknowledge the first residents of the territory we call Toronto, I was reminded of the significance of the space, broken covenants and the need for reconciliatory acts. House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) and choreographer of Persefony Songs, produced a revisioning of his work Persephone’s Lunch (2001).

The work was enhanced by the oral poetry and rhapsodes (professional performers) of the live band Bernice. Sung in sixteenth-century Latin, Italian and French, the riveting musical accompaniment further added to this work. The work is part of TDT’s three-year Reimagining Repertoire project.

Persephone’s Lunch was inspired by a series of imagery from Homer’s Odyssey, whereas choreographic exploration in Persefony’s Songs bridges the Renaissance era with House’s 2001 choreography, all through a conscious lens embracing non-gendered sensuality. Through solos, duets and ensemble work, the TDT dancers and Bernice musicians paint a passionate story across this classical canvas.

The curtains open to the musicians of Bernice, setting the tone beside a feast table, where dancer Peter Kelly lays among pomegranates. Other dancers shift into poses reminiscent of Greek statuary in their cream-coloured clothing. Each dancer brings a personalized flare to shape the music until they all move together toward the feast table, becoming onlookers of a character lying on its tabletop. A sensual touch and kiss become the impetus to awaken the dancer and begin a movement conversation as the chorus collectively robes and congregates with him.

While the dancers kneel at this feast, an inquisitive storyline begins as a pomegranate flips through the air. In response, the ensemble rises to engage in a syncopated choreographic trail that I interpreted as the discovery of feelings and senses – touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight are uncovered. The musical pulse of experimental beat-making maintains the order, creating a conformity of ritualism as the dancers unilaterally follow along in this sense journey.

The feast and conversation enfold in vulnerable gestures as the dancers exchange pomegranates. What is poignant is how the fruit isn’t exchanged through hands, but via embrace. This non-verbal communication flows into a solo as Devon Snell explores a narrative of curious sensuality both to musical score and in silence. Duets take further shape with poses, displays of trust, strength, sensuality and vulnerability. Unconventional combinations and physicality transcend binary notions of as feminine or masculine in contemporary dance tropes. The poses challenge gender stereotypes while displaying human expressions of sexuality and sensuality, evolving into, I felt, a vocabulary of non-gendered communication: zie/zir/zirs/zerself/they/them. The Fleck stage fills with striking angles, arabesque turns and jumps. Along with the music, the tender quality of movement conveys a secret language of gesture where bodies and their contact offer varied constructions of femininity, masculinity or neutrality.    

Another exploration is initiated as Sonja Boretski gracefully picks up a pomegranate to walk along a choreographic pathway of sheepskin rugs. To me it symbolized a response to the continuity. The past meets the present as Bernice creates an elevated climatic, upbeat tempo, and in response the dancers pick up speed, echoing a canon of statues coming to life, rippling across time and space. Throughout, I’m struck by the inventive use of the downstage: the choreography becomes a mesmerizing whirlwind across this space with a passionate live soundtrack.

Centre stage, the scene includes the Bernice vocalists, who join the cast in choreographed group costume change. A visual poem manifests when acapella voice meets movement in a brilliant display of sensuality and partial nudity. Was the change of white to red costuming meant to convey a transition to the bold or liberated state of our era? Yes or no, the red sets the mood for romance as we witness duets under dimming lights. There’s a hint of comfort and gentleness as the vocalists whisper in the background.

Overall, it was fascinating to see how this work honoured the remounting process. Livestreaming services, provided by Menaka Thakkar Dance Company, made this performance available on TDT’s website for patrons to view and share until the end of March, making performance even more accessible and archive-able for future viewers and iterations. I spoke with company member Pulga Muchochoma who was excited that his family in Mozambique could see him perform, albeit remotely, for the first time with the company. Ideally, we would all be able to make our songs and dances accessible, across borders and great distance.

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