By Paula Citron
  • Clarke Blair and Paris Forbes with the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre in Nowell Sing We by Carol Anderson / Photo courtesy of CCDT
  • Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre in Against the Dark by Colin Connor / Photo by David Hou
  • Nick Ruscica and Calder White in To Repel the Demons by Kevin Wynn / Photo courtesy of CCDT

Wintersong - Dances for a Sacred Season

Toronto December 12-13, 2014

The teenagers that make up Toronto’s Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre (CCDT) are consummate professionals who can dance rings around some of their adult colleagues. They are rehearsed to the precision of a military drill team, which makes their concerts so satisfying. Their enthusiasm and commitment to performance seems boundless.

CCDT’s annual WinterSong is now in its twenty-seventh year. The program was established in 1988 by co-directors Deborah Lundmark and Michael deConinck Smith as an antidote to the commercialism of the Christmas season. It was intended to evoke the age-old spirituality of the winter solstice, which is interpreted by the choreographers in a very broad way. Some repertoire pieces have religious connotations, others explore abstract contemplation, while others delve into myths and legends. What all the works share is substance and artistic integrity.

WinterSong always features a premiere and this year is special. Belinda McGuire’s Incipit Vita Nova (Enter New Life) is the first piece by a former company member. McGuire, now based in New York, has performed with José Limón Dance Company and Doug Varone and Dancers. She is also the artistic director of her own Belinda McGuire Dance Projects.

Her ravishing duet for Nicholas Ruscica and Hannah Szeptycki is a paean to modern dance. Images of two-dimensional Egyptian and Greek pictographs infuse the work along with arabesque jump turns and outspread, sweeping arms. Taken together, including diaphanous costumes of McGuire’s own design and a modernist, elegiac electronic score by Michal Jacaszek, the work has a traditional look and feel about it. The dancers undergo a challenging cycle of movement that travels from light to shadow, courtesy of lighting designer Arun Srinivasan, as they pay homage to the never-ending circle of life. The dreamy quality of the choreography suits the mood of quiet contemplation.

Three other works are revivals, and share a youthful vigour. Colin Connor’s Against the Dark (2010), Ofilio Sinbadinho’s Sknaht (2012) and Kevin Wynn’s To Repel the Demons (2013) are all large ensemble pieces, with each making its own physical demands on the dancers.

California-based Connor was inspired by Chinese and Native American mythology about how ravens put the sun into the sky. Throughout the piece, one dancer always holds a light globe representing the sun, as the other nine, costumed like nymphs in short tunics, perform a flow of synchronized, lively movement to a percolating electronic score by Matthew Setzer. The effect is one of perpetual motion, almost like capturing the inner workings of a clock with its intricate patterning. In his program notes, Connor points out that the light of our future will come from young artists.

Sinbadinho is co-artistic director of Toronto’s popular hip hop group Gadfly, which represents street dance as mainstream dance art. Sknaht (which appears to be “thanks” backwards) depicts exiles in an endless Arctic night who have no memories of their previous lives. His main choreographic exploration is the idea of human instinct. Do we robotically copy what others do, or do we reach down into ourselves to find the true meaning of rituals and traditions. The movement is a compendium of staccato hip hop phrases, almost as if a series of still pictures were flashing before our eyes. Sinbadinho’s choreography is always exciting, particularly as his ten dancers move from halting execution to finding the group rhythm. Vanessa Janiszewski’s fetching costumes are haute modern, as is Christian Fischer’s crashing electronic score.

New-York’s Kevin Wynn was inspired by Black American gospel music to show the quest for spirituality found in all religious faiths. Neil Alexander’s score is a surprise, however. Rather than have actual gospel songs to drive the beat, his soundscape is a mix of samples from the likes of Mahalia Jackson placed inside electronica. The dance, therefore, operates against a backdrop of sound. What stands out is the nine dancers, costumed in casual tops and capri pants, performing a frenzy of movement, whirlwind patterns built out of individual, angular out-thrusts of arms, legs and torsos. While each of the nine dancers executes his or her own pathway, collectively they are a tumultuous tornado of angst, restless spirits in search of peace.

The final work, Carol Anderson’s beloved Nowell Sing We (1988), was created for the very first WinterSong. The delightful score is made up of medieval carols to which Anderson has crafted joyous choreography filled with jumps, skips and hops, and arms upraised in hallelujah. A centrepiece is the tranquil Nativity scene featuring the birth of a child (Paris Forbes) and its loving mother (Clarke Blair). The constant comings and goings of the eighteen-member cast capture the ecstatic ethos of the piece.

As delightful as Nowell Sing We is, in relation to the sophistication of the other works on the program, it seems simple. The three decades of choreographic growth, with its more challenging themes and dance vocabulary, is what WinterSong now represents.~

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