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Review

When Representation (Almost) Becomes the Norm

Contemporaneity 2.0 at Progress Festival By Molly Johnson
  • Leary in Gitanjali Kolanad's Ghandari / Photo courtesy of presenter

Toronto

From February 14 at 8pm to February 18 just before the clock struck ten at night, Toronto’s stages were alive with an abundance of offerings by dancemakers – the majority of whom were women of colour. Why mention this? Because it was sadly significant, sadly unprecedented, sadly worth noting. And like Black Panther, a film that was simultaneously making history over this mid-winter weekend, it was AWESOME. Lilia Leon and Aria Evans brought herstories together in Parkdale; Esie Mensah and Diana Lopez shared multitudes in The Village; Nova Bhattacharya deconstructed bharatanatyam in Regent Park; and Aisha Sasha John offered herself three storeys above the selfie-takers in The Distillery District.

Meanwhile on Queen West, Progress Festival was back after a two-year hiatus, offering an exceptional range of distinct works wickedly curated by a series of Toronto-based companies and produced in conjunction with SummerWorks and The Theatre Centre. While movement made its way into all the stage works on offer, dance took centre stage via two programs curated by local dance scene instigators: the Toronto Dance Community Love-In with Ligia Lewis’s Bessie Award-winning masterpiece, minor matter, and Anandam Dancetheatre with Contemporaneity 2.0.

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Contemporaneity 2.0 is a curating and presenting series with an aim of “unsettling the widespread use of ‘contemporary’ as describing European and white American theatrical dance.” In this second installation of the series, three works-in-development were presented on rotating programs alongside a host of ancillary activities including post-show conversations and commissioned written responses to accompany each work.

The series opened with Gitanjali Kolanad’s Gandhari. Using Gandhari, a mythological character from the Mahabharata and the martial art form of kalaripayatuu as dual channels of influence and expression, the work is an examination of loss and its effects on the body.

Beneath a striking set of hanging bells, dancer Brandy Leary (Anandam Dancetheatre’s artistic director) sits in quiet strength and solitude – her only accomplice, musician and composer Parmela Attariwala. The two are separated by panes of light. Embodying Gandhari, Leary performs an exacting ritual of blindfolding herself. She remains this way for much of the work, calmly navigating the unsteady terrain of brass bowls that surround her. Her movements are both elongated and measured, performative in their gestural language and reservedly functional. The work exists in suspended time, with Leary giving assured care to the exactitude of the movement.

As the pace of the work changes, there are moments where she loses her grounding, and the vulnerability of her human body becomes wholly apparent. Inside the quiet landscape, the effect is surprisingly jarring and I think about how dance is so often this wrestling between vulnerability and strength, with the choreographic frame deciding how we receive either quality. In this case, I was uneasy with failure because I had been set up to see omnipotence, and it was curious to reflect on the implications inside of this feeling. As a whole Gandhari was quietly mesmerizing, precise and patient in its rendering – a kind of meditation inside of which I could sit with grief and its many colours. I was held, funnily enough, until it ended somewhat abruptly, leaving me confused and caught off guard by an unexpected conclusion in such a painstaking work. Here’s hoping future versions give time and space to fully realize the journey the work has brought us along for.

It was perhaps a tall order to position this work and those shown on the alternate program alongside those like minor matter that have been in development and in some cases touring for years. It’s not a slight on the artists but rather a confirmation of that which we know: that work takes time to come into itself. At the same time, there is importance in offering a significant platform like Progress to artists as an opportunity to try.

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An important aspect of each of the Contemporaneity 2.0 programs I have seen is the attention given to land acknowledgement. At the beginning of the performance, invited artists, in this case Ashley Bomberry, a Mohawk woman from Six Nations, and Gein Wong, who is of First Nations and Asian descent, each offered individual takes on talking about the land we are on and what that means right here, right now. Each time I have experienced this offering, it has felt as much a part of the evening as the works, serving not just as the sometimes empty and inactive “acknowledgement” but as a deeply generous invitation from the artists towards recognizing – really recognizing – where we are and the historical and present-day implications of that.

Wong and Bomberry are doing the work here, but Anandam and Progress in turn are also creating the space for this to happen. And this was my other takeaway from this week in which representation almost seemed the norm – that if you’re paying attention it should be fairly obvious there is no lack of work being made by black, Indigenous and artists of colour but that for too many presenters and programmers, “diversity” is still about token offerings and empty gestures. Representation is not handing over your loose change. It is an equal distribution of wealth and reparations for centuries of theft and erasure. True representation requires a paradigm shift, and we are each responsible for building the conditions that can create one.

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