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When Dance Fell to Grace: a trio of solos (unsolicitied) 

By Penelope Ford
  • Tanya Crowder in Julia Sasso’s “unspeakable” (2008) / Photo by Krista Posyniak 
  • Julia Sasso in her own work “Accidental Dances” (2008) / Photo by John Lauener 
  • Julia Sasso in her own work “Accidental Dances” (2008) / Photo by Krista Posyniak 
  • Tanya Crowder in Julia Sasso’s “unspeakable” (2008) / Photo by Krista Posyniak 

Falling to Grace

HOWDARESHE productions

Toronto May 13-18, 2008 

“Unspeakable” by Julia Sasso for Tanya Crowder.

Tanya Crowder describes the austere beauty of Venus in repose: supple neck climbing out of extended collarbones, braced by curving shoulders, yet her vulnerability is plain in her crooked knees that dip apart and ankles that wilt towards the floor. The duality of the initial posture communicates the tension between the two impulses drawn upon in “Unspeakable”, one belonging to the Cartesian realm of knowledge, the other to the deep encryptions of the heart. What follows is the dance of a soul at sea in the storm caused by their clashes in the chambers of memory.

The lighting design was of considered taste throughout the Falling to Grace program, with Rebecca Picharak framing “Unspeakable” with three fluorescent tubes that emanate the clinical light of an examination room. The dancer is out to examine too; with childlike curiosity, Crowder crawls forth and then awkwardly scurries in retreat, as if approaching fond memories that frighteningly transfigure in defiance of rationality. Entanglement of memory and knowledge, heart and mind are conveyed through the alchemic bowing of the da gamba-like instrument (instrument created and originally recorded by Catherine Thompson), whose strains cover Crowder like a heavy cloud. In long, wilful strokes, the dance moves her to all edges of the floor where, at the hair’s breadth from this writer (as the intimacy of the Pia Bouman studio accommodates) the purity of her technique was unquestionable. Endowed with a youthful elasticity buoying her from floor to air, she moves from extension to oblique balances sustained with a calm concentration akin to holding a soap bubble in one’s palm. The mood of Julia Sasso’s choreography conveys something dreamlike too, subverting idols into parody. Crowder, in sanguinous 1950s bather-style costume, mimes a pin-up pose that is hijacked by a hip jutting out, body snaking into an arc and arms blithely tossed skyward. Crowder is a compelling heroine, with her Duncanesque shape bringing a distinctly feminine bearing to this interpretation. She retires in her original pose, condemned to the circular search for truth between the layers of memory. 

“Accidental Dances” by Julia Sasso

A glissade of minor notes delicately parts the darkness, in dedication to composer Ann Southam, whose minimalist pieces for piano “In Retrospect” and “Rivers” inspired “Accidental Dances” created by Julia Sasso.

A single stage light, casting its acute beam into the faces of the audience members, sculpts the austere silhouette of Sasso. Magician-like and androgenous, her hands slowly knead space, as if she is preparing to challenge the world she appears in. This dance is a dance of decay, following the spontaneous life and death of the notes, which in the diatonic perpetuations of the music, fall so gracefully into themselves. For Sasso, the minor note is her muse, and precariously she balances, teetering on the thread of light, at the edge of life, wondering whether the river of music will let her stay or pitch her over … Sasso seems to float in slow motion just as each struck note hovers for a moment before decaying slowly. Her movements echo long after the motion has expired, despite the midnightly lighting and concealing charcoal suit that weave a shadowy cloak over her. The theme of metamorphosis recurs in the three movements of the dance, with Sasso moving to the side to change into a sheer black blouse for the final phase.

The third movement, danced to “Rivers”, originally recorded by the distinguished Christina Petrowska Quilico, is even richer, as Sasso approaches transcendence – though with hesitation would I assume that the notion of afterlife is implied here, since the piece verges too close to being existential to be pierced by religious concepts of life and death. She dances in this death – as though with death – as simply as waltzing with the comet’s tail of the fading black notes of the piano. In rare passages of flight, the lissom Sasso développé-pendulums through to handsome arabesque, moments that are all the more savoured for their restrained place in the choreography.

“Accidental Dances” originated as part of Moonhorse Dance Theatre’s Older and Reckless performance series. The work turns on concepts of time, which brings the physicality of Sasso, as a woman long steeped in dance, into focus. Each movement ripples with an eternal dedication to dance that has crystallized into an unforgiving, ideal expression, and with it, the myth of the time limit on the dance-life of a dancer gracefully gives up the ghost. 

“Swallowed Hollow” by Tanya Crowder

“Swallowed Hollow” opens with a difficult section: Crowder creates imagery of a skewed reality with a tangle of legs inverted against the wall, slowly slipping down. This dance against the wall recurs in a subsequent passage but with the fearless release that characterises Crowder’s most visceral moments. Quickly, Crowder is dancing adventures in the dream-realm of “Alice in Wonderland”, far too enchanting to evoke any sense of pathos for our dancer-being and her delusional existence. Frocked in a sleeveless dove-grey shift and with reddish rambling loose curls, the image conspires to run away with the storybook tone altogether, but Crowder reels in the character mood with the strangeness of timing and unique choreographic elements.

Some choreographic weaknesses that caused “Swallowed Hollow” to hesitate in the creative shallows were very nearly outweighed by the inspired choice of collaborators and the compelling ingénue, Tanya Crowder. Picharak’s lighting was a ruling element of the dance. A glistening river stretches along the walls and beckons Crowder to engage with its dance. Dusty yellow beams sweep in sideways, evoking a desert where Crowder is a ball of forsaken tumbleweed. The music design combining Neko Case and Peter Shepard is a salty mélange that heaves like a tide, pulling a sometimes wrenchingly beautiful soundscape over the twisted and tumbling Alice.

As the piece wound to resolution, I found it refreshing that “Swallowed Hollow” meandered into the topsy-turvy world of fairytale, rather than staying true to the promised, and hackneyed, theme of psychological investigation. The intelligent spareness of the evening of solo dances is a testimony to the subtlety of these two creators. The progression from Crowder’s poetic and ever-so-slightly ambiguous line to Sasso’s articulate command of refined movement represents not only the falling to grace in the destiny of a dancer, but of an individual. 

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