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Review

Tranquility, Destruction, Struggle, Amusement: Four Choreographers, Four Very Different Dances  

By Suzanne Jaeger
  • Alana Elmer and Louis Laberge-Côté of Toronto Dance Theatre in “Neap Tide” by Sara Porter / Photo by David Hou 
  • Members of Toronto Dance Theatre in “Dead Flag” by Andrea Nann / Photo by David Hou 
  • Kristy Kennedy of Toronto Dance Theatre in “One Trick Pony” by Valerie Calam / Photo by David Hou 
  • Members of Toronto Dance Theatre in “Carnival of the Animals” by Louis Laberge-Côté / Photo by David Hou 

Four at the Winch

Sara Porter, Andrea Nann, Valerie Calam, Louis Laberge-Côté, Toronto Dance Theatre

Toronto October 5-8, 2005  

“Neap Tide” Choreographed by Sara Porter Danced by Paul-Anthony Chambers, Alana Elmer, Luke Garwood, Kristy Kennedy, Louis Laberge-Côté, Bradley Powell and Jessica Runge

A musician sits at the far left of the stage with a banjo and percussive instruments including bowls of water. In front of him is a small boat, “dry docked” with colourful nets hanging from it. Invoking familiar images of a seaside beach, a life jacket and bucket hang from ropes dropped from the fly, and at the front, seashells of various sizes and shapes are piled on the floor. The dance begins with the calming sounds of waves rolling on a beach. A lonely beach walker crosses the stage, stopping to raise one of the shells to his ear. His face shows a quiet pleasure that transports me too for a moment, as I hear with him the sound of the sea.

The scene changes suddenly with a group of dancers tumbling across the stage like waves rushing forward and then withdrawing back into the ocean. The dancers’ movements are inspired by the flow of sea water; gushes and trickles, swirling eddies caught in the contours of the beach sand. Again the scene changes; the musician plays an East Coast melody. Although the movement vocabulary is recognizable as classical modern dance, the humour in the music and the dancers, their playful, light heartedness is refreshing to watch.

“Neap Tide” is structured by the unity of a day. In the banjo tune, one hears morning sunshine on the beach. The dancers smell the air, breath deeply and relax. One sees their youthful excitement and energy. The composition of movements, the variations in the groupings – whether in sync, in counterpoint or in more random, serendipitous arrangements – has the colourful intensity of a pointillist painting by Seurat.

The scene changes with the discovery of shells and sea creatures as the dancers whisper seashore sounds. The percussionist creates a sense of immediacy, making squelching, lapping sounds by wiggling his fingers in one of the metal bowls of water.

Another change in mood occurs with the brightness of the midday sun. The percussionist’s water bowls become sonorous gongs announcing the still heat of noon. What follows is a campy section with a girl in sunglasses carrying an umbrella. She re-enters as a “doll-fin” (we know this from the large cardstock signs paraded through the space by two dancers). She swims against the blue backdrop sky supported by several dancers. Below them a motorized shark fin zigzags its way around the stage. Another bit of campy nonsense ensues with a stuffed seagull riding on the head of one of the dancers.

The afternoon on the beach is marked by a slow, dreamy quality with more languorous movements and self-absorbed preoccupation. Evening brings another change in mood with breathy movements conveying a deep sense of physical pleasure. Visible also is the meditative quietness and happy tiredness that comes after spending a whole day on the beach.

With nightfall the atmosphere changes to reflect the mystery of the waves and the majestic vastness of the ocean. The dance ends with Jessica Runge alone on stage her bare pregnant belly undulating, painted with an image that appeared to be a map of the world. Her swirling movements dipped and glided, creating an association with the ocean’s fertility as part of mother earth.

“Neap Tide” is a delightful dance partly because it alludes to experiences familiar to anyone who has spent a day at an ocean beach. The strength of Porter’s work also resides in the richness of her movement poetry, with its appeal to memory and a sense of nostalgia, to emotions, bodily sensations and perceptual senses including smell, touch, body temperature, sight and hearing. The dance is both light-hearted entertainment and more solemn reflection on the importance of the sea in human life. What was missing, perhaps, were the dangers that waves like tsunamis can bring. The only hint of threat came from the seagulls and it was mostly for comedic effect. 

“Dead Flag” Choreographed by Andrea Nann Danced by Johanna Bergfelt, Valerie Calam, Brendan Jensen, Sean Ling, Sahara Morimoto, Matthew Waldie and Linnea Wong

My eye is caught first by a dark grey flag high on a pole, flailing violently in a wind. On the dimly lit stage, the dancers appear in a strong diagonal thrusting forward from the flag. They are in various poses, some on the floor, some standing. They gasp for air, sucking their bodies up from the ground, breathing as though suffocating. The heaving, puffing sounds of a steam train leaving a station seem oddly out of place and yet also congruent with the images created by the dancers. The sound links us to the death camps in World War II and the audible weight of the moving train signals the presence of an unbearably ominous force.

Throughout the work, the sound score is used effectively to create a menacing atmosphere. It is a sombre dance about destruction, human death and failed attempts at rescue and survival. It is also about misguided allegiance under a flag. The gloomy opening scene ends when a dancer, kneeling behind a pile of distorted, misshapen bodies calls out in desperation: “Start over!”

We are now in the time before the destruction. There are recognizable images of pre-war patriotism and the lively carnival music signals the prescience of an impending hysteria. A colourful flag is raised on the pole. Pamphlets flutter down from the sky and as the dancers read them, their synchronized head-nods suggest a process of brainwashing. A soldier stands in the middle saluting stiffly but then topples over, no longer able to stand without support. The other dancers catch him and set him on his feet again only to have him fall in another direction. A common first-year acting class game, here it creates an image of the soldier’s vulnerable trust in the others. One hears the sound of metal being sawed and then the pieces drop apart. With continued sawing, the dancers become shackled in a twisted pose, trapped by their own bodies. Their commander orchestrates their hysterical anger, alternating it with the oppressed silence of her absolute control.

The commander steps forward to a microphone downstage left. According to the program notes, her words are taken from a post-9/11 announcement by US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and are reminiscent of Hitler’s speeches broadcast throughout Europe in the early 1940s. In the dance, the speech marks the turn in the second section to the destruction foretold in the opening scene. The movements become more frantic and the dancers seem to develop nervous disorders. A couple huddles together, both staring at the man’s shaking hand with fingers splayed as though it is a foreign object he can no longer control. It reminded me of the soldiers returned from the war in Iraq with severe and irreparable bodily injuries. The dancers’ steps grow larger, thrusting into the air. They travel aggressively across the stage. A dancer calls out, “Stop it!” Eventually they all collapse. The piece ends where it begins, but with the flag at half-mast.

The message in Nann’s work is simple, but the combination of elements makes it poignant. The abstract setting is similar to that found in the novels “1984” and “Brave New World”. It is a mythic world that is both somewhere and nowhere in particular. In the end, the people of this world can neither breathe nor survive. 

“One Trick Pony” Choreographed by Valerie Calam Danced by Johanna Bergfelt and Kristy Kennedy

A video image of writing appears on a large screen but played backwards so it unsays what is written, by chance providing continuity with the previous work. A program note quotes Marlene Dietrich commenting on her self-imposed servitude to Joseph Von Sternberg. Along with the image created by Kristy Kennedy’s long thin legs accented by the tight black shorts and black fitted waist-length jacket with mandarin collar, these elements put one in mind of Dietrich’s exotic beauty, ambivalent sexuality, ambition and hard-working austerity as a performer.

Kennedy’s movements are reminiscent of William Forsythe’s work in the 1990s; the stork-like poses, the emphasis on the angularity of the body, the classically trained and sculpted ballet legs contorted in un-classical forms and sequences of rapidly executed movement. The steps in Calam’s dance are fast, difficult and angular with sharp changes in direction. The legs turn in and out. The arms jut, stiff and straight. Bodies revolve backwards, running, seemingly thrown counter to a vertical axis. Calam makes the most of the dancers’ lean-bodied angularity, stretching and bending them to extreme limits in reverse twists, off-balance and off-kilter circles and swirls. In her solo, Johanna Bergfelt shows herself to be an amazingly versatile dancer with fluid movements that can be lyrical and then sharply angular.

At various times throughout the dance, video images of a forest are projected on the back screen. Video sequences of the two dancers sometimes appear superimposed on trees and underbrush. The virtual dancers execute a movement phrase or pose in stillness. At one point, Bergfeld’s virtual hand reaches to touch the still image of Kennedy on the screen as though she is a rare defenceless creature, unresisting and wild. The two dancers might be lovers or alter egos. They often mirror each other’s movements, but a struggle exists between them, a kind of contest. The virtual images on the screen punctuate the live dancers on the stage in curious ways, creating a layered, multidimensional reality, both surreal and complex. The uncanny combination of animal-like electronic sounds, the forest images, the racehorse blinders Kennedy wears and the leather leash attached to her wrist together suggest the taming of a wild animal.

The dance is constructed around a master-slave relationship made more complex by the skilful use of video and audio sequencing. Between the two dancers is a struggle for freedom, dominance and control, as well as moments of reconciliation, vulnerability and dependency. Calam’s visually textured dance is exciting to watch. 

“The Carnival of the Animals” Choreographed by Louis Laberge-Côté Danced by Paul-Anthony Chambers, Alana Elmer, Luke Garwood, Brendan Jensen, Sean Ling, Sahara Morimoto, Bradley Powell, Jessica Runge, Matthew Waldie and Linnea Wong

It came as a surprise to hear a voice-over by Serge Bennathan, artistic director of Dancemakers, especially since his departure from the company was announced in the newspaper only a few days earlier. His spoken words provide a lively and often humorous commentary on Camille Saint-Saëns’ musical composition “Carnival of the Animals”. Most of the comedy is to be found, however, in the dancer’s movements. One of the more amusing images is in the aquarium section of the music, with fish danced by, among others, two pale young men in dark blue Speedo bathing suits. The episode suggests a parody of homophobia, with the other fish in the school rejecting, and then finally, with a pistol, shooting dead the offending gay fish-boy.

There is an odd section in the middle of the dance that seems to deconstruct the work as a whole. I’m sure I saw a movement quote from the previous work by Calam. A rehearsal scene follows, in which the choreographer parodies his own process in a way that mirrors Bennathan’s commentary on Saint-Saëns. On the other hand, I wasn’t really quite sure what was going on here. It was quirky and unclear, but also funny in a dry way. The work was lively, entertaining and just long enough to close the evening on a happy note. 

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