Wrestling with Memory 

By Bridget Cauthery
  • Gerry Trentham / from video projection by Jamie O'Neil 
  • Heidi Strauss (front) with Katherine Duncanson and Rebecca Hope Terry / photo by David Hou 

Autobiography: Chapters One through Five

Gerry Trentham

Toronto Dec. 4-6, 2003

Gerry Trentham is a creator of moments. One of my all-time favourite moments in contemporary dance came courtesy of Trenthams 1998 work “Cathedral”: Dancers swinging gloriously from ropes tied to imaginary church bells amidst waves of simulated sunlight. The effect was mesmerizing in its simplicity and effortlessness. And so I went to “Autobiography: Chapters One through Five” expecting moments. I was not disappointed.

For example there is the moment when dancer Michael Trent stands knee deep in a bathtub, sculpted arms outstretched as though cresting a wave. There is also the moment when Bonnie Kim stands over a fetal Trent like a bird of prey, legs and arms opening at spiky angles, in sharp contrast to his vulnerability. Then there is the cast of five (not including Trentham) fanned out across the apron of the stage undulating like stalks of prairie wheat.

An active member of the Toronto dance community since 1985, Trentham spent seven years with Dancemakers before moving on to carve out a niche of his own. In addition to performing and choreographing, Trentham writes and directs for film and stage and is artistic director of his own production company pounds per square inch. He divides his time between Toronto and Buffalo, New York, where he has been on faculty for the past six years in the Theatre and Dance Departments at SUNY Buffalo State. In recent years Trentham has emerged as a savvy dramaturge having created more than twenty-five original works for the stage. Many, like “Cathedral”, combine actors, singers, dancers and musicians in an attempt to find common ground between each discipline and to encourage those involved to develop their moving, singing and/or acting abilities.

“I came to words through dance and return to dance through words.” It is this sentence, projected on to a trio of long screens that opens Trentham’s latest creation. Spanning the fluid divide between dance and theatre, “Autobiography” combines movement, dramatic text, music, sound and video to relate a series of vignettes from Trentham’s life. Conceived over a five year period, “Autobiography” comprises fives sections – or chapters – performed together for the first time as one seventy-minute piece. Each chapter evokes a different stage or place in Trentham’s life: a claw foot bathtub, a city street, a lake, the coastline and a prairie field. Each chapter is envelopes a barrage of images, movements and footnotes, accompanied by both live and recorded sound. Trentham and his five collaborators (Trent, Kim, Heidi Strauss, Rebecca Hope Terry and Katherine Duncanson) negotiate the space, reflecting and extending the dramatic layers. The overall effect is like opening a family album in which all the photos have come unglued and having to sort through the heap of images to establish some sense of order and significance.

I saw Chapter One for the first time in 1998 when the bathtub was situated on the roof of a utility shed in Withrow Park for the summer festival Dusk Dances. The piece seemed out of place in the park – a dancer posturing in a bathtub while a writer composes his memoirs at the typewriter. But on stage at Premiere Dance Theatre, Chapter One finds clarity and poignancy as Kim (playing Trentham) begins to sketch her (his) life story. (A question arises in this Chapter: Why exactly would a person be wearing clothes in a bathtub? This dilemma is played out when Trent emerges from the tub and inexplicably, removes his red swim trunks – momentarily naked – only to put on a pair of white briefs and khakis. A strange sequence.)

Trentham himself is part narrator, part observer, part ghost of Christmas Past. He enters the frame via the audience, removing his coat and scarf at the edge of stage, and addresses the audience a la film noire. The staginess of his presence dissipates though, as he is absorbed into the action. In fact, he spends a good part of the piece either off stage or with his back to the audience simultaneously denying his own and the audience’s presence. His occasional input coming via his image projected on screen. 

Memory is sensate and where Trentham succeeds is in conveying the excruciating multiplicity and randomness of thought. Our mind plays tricks on us and Trentham plays with these deceptions, understanding that even the memories we invent hold a legitimate place in our stories of ourselves. To flesh out his stories, Trentham enlists the help of three muses. As Amnesia, Clairvoyance and Insomnia, Strauss, Duncanson and Terry exact their eponymous shortcomings on the telling of Trenthams tale. In one memorable tangent, the muses are quizzed by an omnipotent Trent in a game show spelling bee. As Insomnia tries her best to spell words such as joy, sorrow and anger, Duncanson’s highly attuned Clairvoyance acts them out while a graceful Amnesia interprets each word through movement.

Where Trentham also succeeds is with his use of video. New York-based video designer Jamie ONeil’s montage of clips is extremely well integrated into the body of the work. Clearly projected onto multiple screens and white, mobile set pieces, the video is like a visual diary adding another layer of meaning and artifice while shifting the mood and setting from one chapter to the next. A particularly stunning sequence shows landscapes of a body sandwiched between shots of the shoreline and ocean. Similarly the closing sequence – a bird’s eye view of Trentham’s native Alberta from an airplane – is akin to a cold, bare canvas, both familiar and entirely alien. The trade-off, unfortunately, is that in order to achieve a clear picture, the stage is frequently shadowed in semi-darkness.

“Autobiography” is an ambitious work. Initially I tried to follow the dialogue and the projected, embodied and spoken images to infer some kind of linear narrative. I listened and watched for keys that would lead me through the piece. About fifteen minutes in, I gave up and let the sound and visuals wash over me, allowing the piece to organically take shape before me.

If I could edit the work, I would tone down the vocalizations. Though I can appreciate Trentham’s intention to represent all modes of expression and his obvious desire to incorporate text and voice, their inclusion frequently disturbs the balance of the visuals. His cast demonstrates an admirable commitment to the vocal work, but it as a choreographer that Trentham’s voice is at its purest.

Autobiography is a pleasing work of Canadiana: a crazy quilt of memories and misapprehensions. At times the piece is like a geography lesson, travelling from sea to shining sea with brief interludes at the cottage (or the cabin if you’re from the West), on the prairies, and in the heart of the urban sprawl. We all laugh knowingly at anecdotes about unrequited love at Safeway, our first journey on the school bus and cold winter nights in the small towns of our youth. Trentham is a deft storyteller combining the everywhere of Stephen Leacock’s mythical Mariposa with the bittersweet here and now. 

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