A Spirited Portrait 

By Kathleen Smith
  • (Front L-R) Julia Aplin, Susie Burpee (Back L-R) Alison Denham, John Gzowski, Rick Hyslop, Andrew Downing, Robert W. Stevenson, Jeff Wilson in "Tziganes" / Photo by David Hou 
  • L-R: Dan Wild, Linnea Swan, Steeve Paquet in "Tziganes" / Photo by David Hou 
  • L-R: John Gzowski, Dan Wild, Steeve Paquet, Andrew Downing in "Tziganes" / Photo by David Hou 


Serge Bennathan, Dancemakers

Toronto April 20-May 1, 2004  

Family and home are usually equated with security, grounded in a place with four walls and a roof. For much of the world however, family and home might mean something much more ephemeral. The tone for such musings is set in the opening moments of Serge Bennathan’s newest work for Dancemakers, “Tziganes”, when the curtain rises on tiny model houses made of rice paper and lit from inside. Suspended above the proceedings, theyre a gentle metaphorical reminder that there’s always someone outside looking in at the warmth and light. 

Bennathan’s outsiders are ostensibly a band of Gypsies or Roma. Rag tag, undisciplined but confident, some of them quite puffed up and cocky, they wander onstage. And the music begins. Over the course of seventy-odd minutes, quiet moments with simple choreography and unadorned music (Julia Aplin sitting in a suitcase playing the accordion is one) alternate with sections of rowdy, rambunctious ensemble work. Here the movement is expansive with big, wide arms, proud heads and swirling circles. When this kind of dancing is whipped up by John Gzowski’s glorious music, the performers convey joy and passion and the effect is exhilarating.

Much less entertaining are the theatrical segues into fussy stage business – setting up for a communal meal, a vaudeville type act involving mind-reading and an over-the-top portrayal of one of popular culture’s favourite East European female archetypes mesmerizingly played by a be-wigged Susie Burpee. The comedy in these sections feels a bit forced and some of it treads dangerously close to racial stereotyping (the mouthy, noisy Gypsy spirit thing feels like a bit of a cliché). But then, as a member of Toronto’s arts community, I think I might be somewhat over-sensitized to these issues of cultural representation. Certainly, audience members at the show I attended were not concerned in the same way about whiffs of the politically incorrect. They seemed (and I wish I could have too) to be experiencing the skill and exuberance of this wonderful company with pure pleasure.

After thirteen years in the business of running a well-respected dance company, Bennathan knows what he’s doing, so accusations of ignorance or insensitivity simply make no sense. The press kit for the show is full of clippings citing acts of hatred against the Roma, a persecution theyve suffered for centuries. Bennathan has gone on record saying that his shock at ongoing incidents of intolerance in Europe informed the creation of the show. Did he intend his messages to be subliminal or was he consciously hoping to make people like me uncomfortable – I just don’t know. 

Whatever the socio-political agenda or lack thereof, the performance component and production values here deserve unequivocal praise. The outrageously talented John Gzowski composed the score and leads an onstage dream team orchestra (Andrew Downing, Robert W. Stevenson, Rick Hyslop and Jeffrey Wilson) in increasingly intricate concoctions drawn from globetrotting sources. Inspired by the peregrinations of the so-called “travelling people”, Gzwokski includes North Indian, Greek, Middle Eastern and Eastern European influences in his score. The musicians in “Tziganes” are as choreographed as the dancers and their integration into the performance is fascinating to watch. They get their star turns as well – Hyslop singing mournfully and wailing away on a violin; Gzwoski as the mind reader Orlando or playing mandolin alongside Jeff Wilson on tabla during a sultry duet for Linnea Swan and Steeve Paquet.

Other production elements shine as well – Heather MacCrimmon’s summery and colourfully mismatched costumes, Yannick Larivée’s set elements. Beautiful film projections by Toronto filmmaker John Price (evocative black and white images of trees, a boat crossing the water, Dan Wild’s manically grinning face scrolling across a tilted screen hung like a canopy) are less successfully integrated into the mise-en-scène, but lovely to look at nonetheless.

In so many ways, it’s the music that drives this show – where the dance might be a bit hit-and-miss, and the politics slightly squirm-inducing, the music provides basic enjoyment, no explanations necessary. Together Bennathan, Gzowski and Dancemakers have created a big, spirited, romantic piece of dance/music theatre. For all its faults, you can’t accuse it of being anemic. 

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