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Review

Variations on the “F” Word 

By Samantha Mehra

The Toronto Fringe Festival 

Toronto Fringe Festival

Toronto July 1-12, 2009 

I love how the word “fringe” rolls off the tongue. When I pronounce it, I fleetingly and inadvertently smile. And, it is a complex term which suggests on the one hand a thoughtful, marginal social space outside the noise of the everyday; on the other, it brings to mind those wearable, comical appliqués found on the sleeves of an Elvis jumpsuit. As a newcomer to the Toronto Fringe Festival, I wondered how this dubious term would manifest itself in the five dance events I would attend. After much day-, venue-, and theme-hopping, it turns out that the Fringe acts as a place of agency for emerging artists to explore both the marginal and the comical. This was sometimes refreshing, and sometimes disappointing. Still, the festival presented me with a series of tough questions that any writer must ask herself when engaged in the arduous process of capturing dance with the written word. 

“20 somethings” 

Choreographed by Kate Nankervis/AX-S Dance, Toronto
Dancers: Erin Merrifield, Vanessa Kimmons, Amanda Acorn and Krista Posyniak
Factory Theatre Mainspace July 4th, 2009, 12pm

Kate Nankervis’ “20 somethings” straddles the commonplace complexity of the post-teen/pre-adult twenties, the subtitle of the work being “decisions decisions decisions”. The four dancers ebb and flow between states of play, struggle and query. They begin in street garb, in a horizontal line downstage, staring past us with somewhat knowing looks; a background soundtrack of cluttered voices and bells adds an air of immediacy to the moment. As the soundtrack recedes, they walk quickly around the stage in hurried confusion, stopping repeatedly in their tracks and oscillating facings. Suddenly the atmosphere becomes joyous: the dancers reach unison with robotic elbow gestures and angular leg and arm lines, simultaneously undulating their torsos and hips in a conversational way. The performers are so invested in themselves that I feel left out. This magnifies my isolated role as spectator and I want desperately to be involved. Still, the piece forges ahead, once more adopting a sombre, inquisitive tone. The dancers look into each other’s eyes and pace in circles that act as their personal, indelible question marks. The rest of the work follows suit, shifting from playful to pondering. The parting image is a recapitulation of our first acquaintance with the four women in horizontal formation, yet this time, they retreat backward with knowing, pleased expressions.

I was unmoved by “20 somethings”, but acknowledge the emerging-artist status of both the choreographer and the dancers. The Fringe is a place to experiment, to take the plunge into performance, and test the unchartered waters of audience response. Yet, while the choreography and theme were relevant to past, present and future twenty-somethings, they were overstated to the point of being saccharine (and I say this as a twenty-something myself). I also found the dancers’ performance qualities to be lacking; perhaps they need the benefits of time and experience to solidify their voices. One exception occurred in a solo moment by dancer Amanda Acorn, who used the limited gestural movement to its end, with every moment, even stillness, charged with committed energy Her articulate performance allowed us to enter her contemplative space. She spoke to the theme of “figuring out” her twenty-something voice – its limits and its potential. I am sure with time and future choreographic and performance experience, increasingly individualized identities will manifest in these ambitious young women. After all, your twenties are for figuring things out, which was what Nankervis’ work suggested. 

“Toys” 

Created by Winston Spear
Performers: Freddie Rivas, Andrew Chapman and Winston Spear
Presented by Dancycle, Toronto
Factory Theatre Mainspace
Saturday July 4, 2009, 7:30pm

I detected a slight air of hype surrounding Winston Spear, whose performance experience includes Just For Laughs, and whose trophy case holds a Canadian Comedy Award. As “Toys” was billed as a Fringe dance show, I had prepared myself to experience a double shot of comedy and dance. Although I will not enter into the infinite circle of vapid conversation surrounding “what constitutes dance” here, I will just say that I believe this was not a dance piece, and ought not to have been billed as such. In the first section, Spear enters with a box containing a deconstructed toy plane. He pieces it together in slow wonderment, turns on its blinking lights and shuffles across the stage with it in his hands. His two-man supporting cast joins the toy parade with miniature UFOs and other novel objects. While there was most definitely an important physicality to Spear’s comedy, mimesis, facial expression and timing, these gentlemen did not seem to be participating in a dance work.

At this point, I told myself to broaden my understanding of “dance” to fit “Toys”. Spears toy-air-guitars while enthusiastically chugging and mugging across the space. In synchronicity with the sometimes-upbeat music, the performers undulate their midsections, and mock-drum with their arms and elbows. Their facial expressions, exaggerated contortions of wonderment, confusion and anger, might also be construed as dance by another observer. More moments are quite literal and gestural, incorporating finger-gun points, motorcycle-revving engine motions and so on.

Spear relies heavily on lights, illuminations and, obviously, toys of various kinds. Instantly, I was transported to the whimsical places, imaginary lands and mental states where a toy can take a child (and apparently a grown man). The air-guitaring brought about a nostalgic state of becoming a rock god in one’s own bedroom, a feeling of empowerment in an otherwise ho-hum life. At another point, the three men situate themselves behind three, white glacier structures and, making small alien creatures by placing lights on their fingertips, they transport us to an extra-terrestrial world where creatures discover their post-landing surroundings (they even simulated a UFO crash). While these moments were engaging, the performers’ bodies were sometimes hidden by props or darkness, and upstaged by the novelty of lights and toys.

Yet, in the end, “Toys” incorporated a humourous physicality and made me consider the ways a comedian can embody humour. 

“Dancing in My Unbirthday Suit” 

Directed by Jenn Doan
Choreographers/Dancers: Allison Elizabeth Burns, Vanessa Kneale and Joannie Pharand
Presented by Inertia Productions, Montréal
Robert Gill Theatre
July 5th, 2009, 1:15pm

The third stop on my Fringe tour was “Dancing in My Unbirthday Suit”, a work by and for three dancers (Allison Elizabeth Burns, Vanessa Kneale and Joannie Pharand). From the outset, the piece was geared as kitschy and fun, and the choreography, performers and loot bag programs were able to sustain those qualities. As the performance begins, the atmosphere thickens with whimsy. One of the larger gifts comes to life in sporadic shifts. It reveals its legs (the dancer’s hands and feet) and begins to transport its awkward self on all fours, bravely attempting to stand on its hind legs. Sighting a pile of gifts, the box-creature stalks and then devours a smaller present (and later, hilariously excretes it). The whole scene is so fantastical, and the dancer beneath the box so convincing, that I feel like I’m watching a cartoon. The other two dancers emerge in full birthday party regalia, which in this case means flower-printed dresses of the puffy variety, and retrieve their box-clad friend. Suddenly ABBA’s “It’s my Party” begins to sound and the women, giggling in girl-group gestural unison, take turns vying for centre stage. Jealous tempers flare (one beats another with an inflated balloon); they play tricks (a dancer releases flatulent sounds from her balloon each time her unknowing cast mate takes a step); two feuding dancers circle each other in mock showdown, sneering, and exchanging cat claw gestures to “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” theme, and eventually shake hands.

Delightful vignettes dot the rest of the work, seeming to magnify the ridiculous behaviour that some people may partake in. These include a reverse striptease, executed with awkward perfection by one dancer who gradually pulls on sweatpants, wool socks and a fleece winter jacket while clumsily journeying through comically un-sexy positions, swooning and writhing on the floor, and emphatically slapping her buttocks. A duet follows, between the strip artist and another dancer, also outfitted in a hooded winter coat with one small difference: she wears it backwards. They partake in a kind of tango, dip one another and partner. The basic choreography becomes impressive and quirky when I consider that the “backward” dancer has her vision impaired by the hood over her face. The optical illusion makes this rather intimate couples dance engaging. The direction, musical choices and commitment of these dancers to the realm of the ridiculous brought me to the edge of my seat, and some other theatre-goers to laughter-induced tears. 

“HeartSurge” 

Choreography by Elizabeth Dawn Snell
Dancers/Collaborators: Tanya Crowder, Elizabeth Dawn Snell, Sarah McQueston, Tylar Evan Webb and Jason Vanstone
Presented by Artists’ Play Dance Theatre, Toronto
George Ignatieff Theatre
July 7th, 2009, 9pm

Having undergone heart surgery ten years ago, my interest was piqued by “HeartSurge”. The choreographic “magnifying” of surgery was for me an ambitious idea worth exploring. “HeartSurge” opens with two heterosexual waltzes moving in unison to a score of minor-keyed strings, a section characterized initially by lifts with angular arms and legs, as well as pivots and locomotion. With the emerging audible pulse of a heartbeat, the tone changes and three dancers outfitted in white enter the space and return to their waltzing, but partner-less. Vanstone, now upstage, slowly walks and subtly pulses, indicating that the ever-increasing rate of the heartbeat we hear belongs to him. To an atmospheric soundtrack, the three white-clad dancers sit and sway in close proximity, reeling from a long, royal blue band in which they become entangled. Finding the tension in this band, they use it to counterbalance, twist and unravel. From the red hues of the lights, the white-blood-cell suggestion of the costumes, and the vein-like band, I get the strong sense that this is a representation of the heart at war with itself, a magnifying of Vanstone’s chest cavity.

Eventually they reach a frenzied state, circling around one another while repeating an onslaught of quick-paced jumps, quick turns on the balls of the feet, outbound lunges, random lifts and upper-body rolls. Eventually they find a still formation and succumb to their exhaustion. Vanstone emerges and manipulates the three white-clad dancers, partaking in a duet with each of them, the most engaged of which was with Tanya Crowder (a seasoned Toronto dancer), who executed the movement with sound technique and an intense emotional investment. The blue “vein” finds itself in Vanstone’s hands now, which somehow brings the whole cast into a kind of spontaneous frenzy that finds the protagonist surrounded by the dancers he was previously taming. There is a constant exchange of power in this work, which to me quite obviously symbolizes a heart, or a body even, attempting to maintain its composure.

The one moment of pure spectator joy, which I longed for Snell to further develop, was the four-person waltz between Vanstone and his white-blood-cell companions. Choreographically, it was the most innovative image in the work, and with development might have suggested less literally the struggle of a diseased or disrupted heart. Still, the ambitiousness of “HeartSurge”, and the importance of making a work about the struggling body through the medium of the body, is commendable. 

“The ascension/The Chronicles of descent” 

Choreography by Emma Kate Millar (“Birds”), Laura Bolender, Liisa Murray and Julie Grant (Excerpt from “[shift]”), and Tanya Crowder (“Charlie”)
Dancers: Alana Elmer, Julie Grant, Hannah Greyson-Gaito
Presented by Thistle Dance Works and HOWDARESHE Productions, Toronto
Robert Gill Theatre
Wednesday July 8, 2009, 2:15pm

My final destination was The ascension/The Chronicles of descent, a three-part program of largely character-based work. I was pleased that this was my last stop on the grand tour, as the final piece, Tanya Crowder’s “Charlie”, seemed to satisfy what I am looking for in a performance.

The first piece was Emma-Kate Millar’s “Birds”, a work for York students Julie Grant and Hannah Greyson-Gaito, which was an interesting character study of two dainty, somewhat confused birds attempting to take flight. With their pointed hand gestures, shoulder gyrations, wide eyes and moments of stillness in deep knee bends, the dancers projected the melancholy quirkiness of two creatures who, in confusion, constantly and agitatedly change directions, eventually returning to their seated positions on the ground.

A solo excerpt from “[shift]” followed. Because it was out-of-context, I do not feel I can comment. Evident, though, was yet another exploration of hand gestures: writing with one finger, plucking, holding and then releasing some invisible object. At other more full-bodied points in the choreography, trotting and spiralling dominated the phrasing, but were interrupted by still poses. Yet, without the benefit of the whole piece, I could not detect a throughline to guide me through the work.

“Charlie”, danced by Alana Elmer (a company member with Toronto Dance Theatre since 2005), was my favourite of the Fringe dance pieces I saw. In a successfully distilled character sketch of Charlie (a simultaneously funny and eerie character referencing both the Chaplin and Brown varieties), Elmer’s articulate rendering of playful spy-like movement, boxing and blatant acknowledging of the audience through casual waves convinced me of an imaginary but sympathetic protagonist who postures through different states of play. Much of these, to me, aligned themselves with various projects, from sparring, to play fighting, to slow-motion imaginary piloting of a plane. Yet she experiments, and commits to none, instead testing their physical aspects, and revealing their light and dark qualities. Elmer’s dancing is what lives in my memory; the ease of her leg extensions, the rubbery quality that she achieves, the way she exaggerates popular dance moves (the moonwalk, for instance; perhaps an ode to the late Michael Jackson), and even the mere twirl of her finger are unique in the way she energizes them. The fanciful score of retro music, dotted briefly with the theme from Charlie Brown, culminates in a true show-stopping ending. After parading and mugging around the stage, Elmer retreats into the downplayed “marking” of her formerly large gestural movement, all to Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. I left refreshed, as “Charlie” seemed to say something clearly, vividly and creatively. 

In my post-Fringe glow, now, I understand that the Fringe Festival is one of the city’s gems, and the rather recent inclusion of dance in the operation is an important move forward. My initial problems with some of the dances, while still present, are contextualized by several facts about the nature of the Fringe. Most of these works are by relatively emerging artists; the $10 ticket price is relatively minimal for any performance; and the festival is not curated, leaving artists to bring whatever resources they have to the table. In future, perhaps these limits will shape more articulate and choreographically sound work. Still, due in part to the ambitious strategies of this year’s contributors, dance at the Fringe at least attempted an escape from the mainstream, and provided a space for comedy, both possibilities that stem from the ‘F’ word. 

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