Danceworks at 40

Danceworks 40th anniversary show opened at Harbourfront last night.  Now contemporary dance isn’t really my thing but I was invited in part on the assumption I’d write about the music.  Fair enough but I thought we could do better than that so I asked my partner Katja, who has at least some dance in her background to guest review.  She has done this in rather more detail than I might have expected so what follows is basically her work.  I have added a few comments, mostly about the music, and I have made it clear where it’s me talking.  It would be obvious anyway as I am, as the good lady points out, a “grumpy old bastard”.  Over to Katja…

Joanna de Souza & Esmeralda Enrique-Amalgam-photo 03 by Hervé Lelbay_preview

Photo: Hervé Lelbay

In celebration of its 40th year of bringing a diverse array of contemporary dance artists to Toronto audiences,  Danceworks has put together a program that spans nearly four decades from the early 80s right up to the present moment with works from dancer-choreographers who have been key figures In Toronto contemporary dance since the time of Danceworks’ formation.

I’m feeling 40 years late to the party , having only a limited experience of live dance performance, with a strong bias towards my own background in North Indian Classical dance and music but, while I partially missed out on the familiarity and nostalgia some audience members experienced, it gave me the opportunity of experiencing this entire time machine ride in one intriguing evening.

Starting from the present the program begins with the premiere of a new work choreographed and performed by Learie McNicolls who has been a fixture in contemporary dance since the 80s but, is a new discovery for me.
Night Journey opens with a grainy black-and-white image of a sunset, as the dancer enters dress in what could be simultaneously a warrior monk’s robe and sweat band, or a woman’s full tiered skirt and headwrap. Consistent with the first inference, the dancer bows in two directions and begins performing movements in a deep bent-kneed posture reminiscent of a martial artist’s kata.

This is accompanied at times by shadowy projections of the performer himself, going through the same movements, but seen only in shadowy fragmented dreamlike glimpses.
Along with this is a soundscape created by McNicolls based on six solo double-bass recordings of virtuoso bassist Wilbert de Joode that were the inspiration for this work.
I was really struck by the incredible range of sounds de Joode produced from his instrument. I’m not sure to what extent this was electronically altered for the dance work but the range of bowing, plucking scraping and percussing techniques was hauntingly beautiful and fascinating, evoking everything from a silk-stringed koto or a breathy bamboo flute to submerging in water to the creaks and scrapes of heavy machinery.

McNicolls’ movements are similarly varied and evocative, changing throughout the piece, and employing the androgynous skirts of the costume to suggest all manner of characters and encounters. The shadowy projections suggest landscapes , a night sky, the dancer viewed in murky memory. For me, the feeling was of both a dream and a nocturnal landscape seen with half-closed eyes through the weathered window of a train.

John: I was intrigued by the musical remix.  This seems like a legit use for recorded music as accompaniment to performance.  Something I’m really ambivalent about.  The use of the video recording/projection technology was neat too and looked pretty low budget.  There are lessons here for other, richer, institutions in how the now relatively cheap digital video technologies can be worked into performances.

Learie McNicholls-The Night Journey-ph 2 by Tanis Sydney MacArthur_preview

Photo: Tanis Sydney MacArthur

The second piece, Dancing with the Ghost, choreographed by McNicolls and performed by dancers Robert Glumbek and Jennifer Dahl is a remount of a 1995 work, and re-worked from a quartet to a duet. The mood of the black and white costumes is of social or ballroom dance and this time, McNicolls sound landscape is reminiscent of Latin dance music but varied and fragmented throughout. The dancers appear together but quickly separate and perform a solo in turn. When they do come together , they go through movements of a couples dance but seem never to make actual contact, every embrace is just missed every touch hovering or repelled. Sometimes the choreography became more fight-like and the sense of emotional distance within physical nearness was enhanced. For me it suggested conventional attempts to connect and form intimacy that are somehow misguided, just falling short as if they were trying to dance with the idea of their partners while the actual person eluded them.

John: I liked the dance here.  It was the most athletic performance of the evening and much more like the sort of material I’m familiar with from ballet.  I’m really not sure about using recorded music though.  It definitely drops the immediacy factor.  I feel rather like I might if I showed up at the Four Seasons Centre for an opera and instead of an orchestra there were a bunch of speakers.

Dancing With the Ghost by Learie McNicolls-dancers Jennifer Dahl, Robert Glumbek_ph by John Lauener_preview

Photo: John Lauener

For the final piece in the first half of the program, the time machine heads back 36 years, nearly to the beginning of Danceworks history with a remount of Cheap Sunglasses, a collaboration between choreographer Holly Smalls and composer Robert Stevenson.
Here, I think, lack of familiarity with the artists and the climate of contemporary dance at the time of the piece’s inception means I’m missing part of the experience. It’s also the piece that, while jumping off from a casual and familiar point, a line of text from a well-known ZZ Top song, takes the greatest leap of the evening into total abstraction.

Both the composer and the choreographer used numerical sequences as an organising principle and the result gives us a solo dancer (Evan Winther), surrounded at four corners by vocalists (Jocelyn Barth, Minjia Chen, Bea Labikova, and Laura Swankey) reciting words, or syllables of the words ‘those cheap sunglasses’ and, once or twice, including entire line “what really knocked me out was….” .

The dancers movements feel like familiar modern and popular dance territory but, the sequence and rhythm of execution is as fragmented and unexpected as the words. I can appreciate the appeal of the experiment and, the skill of the performers holding together a very complex piece. I’ve enjoyed singing comparably complex and experimental pieces with a group in the past, but, I’m reminded that this kind of piece is so often more engaging for the creators and performers than it ultimately is for much of the audience. On the outside, looking in , I wasn’t able to catch any pattern in the vocals or rhythmic interplay between the vocalists or dancer so, while the choices may have been rooted in a Fibonacci sequence or other mathematical principles, I fail to hear or feel any pattern. The dancer’s movements, to my eye might as well have been random so, I’m not really sure what the original concept really gave to the piece in the end.

Also worth noting was that , in this remount the genders of the performers were opposite of the original. I was expecting, from the program notes , that this would have more interesting implications than it ultimately did. Nothing about the performers movements or the fragment of text seemed gendered in one way or another so. I don’t have any sense of a change in perspective or new implications from the original. Of course,my perception of it is also coloured by a 36 year gap in time so,  more experienced audience members may well have got more from it.

John: The “music” might have worked better with classically trained vocalists.  It would have had more “attack” which I felt was missing.  It;s absence softened the effect of a piece that could quite easily be much edgier.

Evan Winther in Holly Small's Cheap Sunglasses-ph by David Hou-56_preview

Photo: David Hou

In complete contrast for me, the first piece after the interval, Amalgam, was rooted in very familiar territory musically and choreographically and, involved the re-visiting of a piece that, while I didn’t see the premiere 20 years ago, I’ve seen it in excerpt on video and know about it for over a decade. The original work was collaboration between Joanna De Souza a dancer of North Indian Kathak and, Esmeralda Enrique , an exponent of  Kathak’s close relative, Flamenco. This conversation between two forms came at time when such explorations in dance were relatively rare and, even now, when multicultural explorations are much more common, I don’t think many people realise how closely Kathak traditions which travelled with the Roma people from Rajasthan to Spain were seeded and along with other influences, transformed into Flamenco as we know it today. Once you see it the common ancestry and continuing similarity is obvious and striking, more so, for example, than between Kathak and Classical dance from other parts of India. Far from a forced fusion experiment , they intertwine as naturally as branches of the same tree. Everything from the lyrical expressive hand gestures to the complex footwork in otherwise rare rhythmic patterns, come together in these dances with very distinct character but, the mutually intelligibility of a common language.

In the original incarnation the performers were costumed in the colours of a blazing campfire or the ring of flame surrounding the god Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) but this new leg of the journey isn’t merely nostalgic . This time, in keeping with the continuing evolution of these veteran performers and their classically rooted but vibrantly alive art forms , they pick up the conversation dressed the dark velvets of a night sky and the shadows between the flames. They are joined this time by another fellow traveller with a long intertwining history. The piece begins with an Arabic song (beautifully sung by Maryem Tollar) with music that would have been a familiar sound in Moorish Spain and, a text that could belong to the Mughal era where Kathak gained another layer of influences and intricacy as a court entertainment.

Moving through a series of both solo and ensemble dances , the performers show both the individually character and integrity of their chosen forms but, also how seamlessly and naturally they can merge. The original  duo of Flamenco guitar and North Indian tabla (by Caroline Planté and Santosh Naidu) are joined by Arabic quanun (again the multi-talented Tollar) and electric bass, by  Ian de Souza who, along with guitarist Planté, composed new music for the dancer’s reunion.

The rapport between this group of talented performers is brilliant and infectious and the collaboration well worth continuing.

John: My favourite of the night.  Terrific dancing.  I think, too, that there is strength in rooting art in classical tradition.  In this case in three different classical traditions.  Of course there’s loads of room (and indeed absolute need) for experiment and development.  Maryem was sensational and the combined music making of the quartet was fusion at its best.  It reminded me of some of Alice Ping Yee Ho’s work combining classical Western and Chinese music on the opera stage though, of course, this piece sounded nothing like Alice’s music.

Joanna de Souza & Esmeralda Enrique-Amalgam-photo 05 by Hervé Lelbay_preview

Photo: Hervé Lelbay

Finally in this extremely diverse and interesting program is a set of new works, Moving Parts, choreographed by Denise Fujiwara, who again has a long history on the Danceworks stage, and is known for a very diverse and inventive body of work. This new offering is yet another shift in the range of moods and styles brought together in this program, this time bringing the audience in close for something very immediate and personal. The music for each of four segments are arrangements of popular songs from the 80s to the present presented by upwards of thirty singers, instrumentalists and dancers.

In the first piece, the audience is given a single pitch to sing on “ooo” which is then joined by an arrangement of Roland Orzabal’s Mad World that includes the unexpected combination of double bass and accordian along with two choirs and a vocal soloist.
An ensemble of of dancers in blacks and greys combining moments resembling traditional jazz dance ensembles or the formations of a Broadway chorus line, with a dispersed grouping of  dancers moving through individual narratives, seeming to live out a range of often violent and traumatic experiences. When , returning to the bridge of the song, they regroup into conventional formations and even clichéd movements, the effect feels more and more sinister and ironic.

Next the audience is given two pitches with a rhythm to sustain and to which another is added as we are progressively split into sections. This did seem to create more than a little confusion and I think most of us found it a challenge to maintain for long but, it had the effect of further drawing us in as participants and dissolving any barrier. Some of the audience who knew the songs well were barely repressing humming and singing along and, there was the feeling that it would have been fine to do so. The dancers showed pairs of people trying to interact or cooperate in one way or another but failing to make or only awkwardly making that connection, awkwardly just  avoiding touching or struggling to dress each other in two halves of a garment. The song is Michael Franti’s Hey World and the feeling is of awkward everyday human life going on as best it can against a voice that questions survivability and meaning in increasingly troubled times, but persists in reaching out.

The third setting, Quiet (Milck), has the choirs singing a capella with just the rhythmic accompaniment of a hand on the body of a guitar.  The dance here feels primarily individually improvised and is concluded with quotes spoken (and perhaps selected by?) the dancers.

The evening concludes on an exhuberant  happy note, and the unrepressed optimism, of Parachute Club’s  Rise Up. The dance is casual and joyful, sometimes incorporating sign language for further inclusivity. Some of the audience spontaneously claps along and most seem able to go along with the light mood. For me it was harder to transition out of the many moods of the night into such unbridled hippy-skippy togetherness. On another night maybe I would have let go but, in the moment it felt a bit saccharine and contrived and I couldn’t really get there. It was at this point that the somewhat grumpy opera-lover to my right muttered something ill-tempered about audience participation and Coca Cola commercials so, while it was a journey of highly enjoyable and thought provoking dance for me, from that eerie sunset onwards, dancing into the sun ‘Rise,up , Rise up’, was not to be.

John: Yes this was my “grumpy old bastard” moment.  This produced the same effect on me as going to an Anglican service and finding it’s all tambourines and banjos and people who think they are pop singers.  Give me back my Evensong!  I think I muttered something at one point about “the evil of banality”.  It reminded me of that scene in Les Invasions Barbares where Rémy and Pierre are discussing the music they have to put up with to pick up girls in discos.  With not much effort one could turn it into a Superbowl half time commercial for Coca-Cola.  Hippy skippy indeed.

Denise Fujiwara's Moving Parts-photo 2 by John Launer_preview

Photo: John Lauener

And someone probably wants their blog back….

John: Well yes but I’m glad we did this and I hope you are too!  Thanks Katja!

This program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at Harbourfront Centre.

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