Can we simultaneously look to the past and to the future? Can dance grant us access to both? The theme of Simon Fraser University’s November contemporary dance repertory production, Nostos, is nostalgia. However, these dancers clearly have their eyes on the future.
For these men and women just beginning their artistic careers, looking back to the past might not be foremost on their minds. As an SFU dance student not involved in this production, I was interested in how dancers might tackle this theme. For Shion Carter (2nd year) and Eowynn Penny Huguet (3rd year) nostalgia is connected to the present. Carter says nostalgia is both “a vast and intimate idea” that is accessed through connecting the past with the present. Huguet finds that “if I’m in the present moment it will always be what I was and who I am (and who I’ll be in the future)”. If nostalgia is at once deeply personal, it is also a shared human experience, explored in this program through the works of four Vancouver-based choreographers: Peter Bingham, Leslie Telford, Shauna Elton and Rob Kitsos.
A band steps into the welcoming circle of a spotlight. Casually, as if busking on the street, the group begins to play. First a cello, then an accordion, a violin, a drum. Slowly they move back behind a sheer black mesh curtain, except the cellist who remains for this work. During the rest of the performance he joins the band upstage. The addition of live music, one of the most evocative triggers of memory, complements the theme.
Bingham’s piece seems as much about presence as it is about movement. The slowest of the four works, it has a surprising power in its understated beauty. At one point the dancers are scattered facing stage left. They all lean together to the diagonal then back to centre, then back to another diagonal. I can almost feel the invisible axis they are carving in space with their bodies, rotating around their spinal columns. They become one body, like a galaxy combined of its individual parts.
With thirty-five dancers, the challenge of working with such a large cast seems daunting. The question arises: when do numbers add to a dance and when do they detract? “You don’t have to do anything big,” says Kitsos, “even thirty people standing in a line, looking to the left can be powerful. Sometimes it’s the subtle things.”
The transition between works is smooth and effortless. A new group of dancers walks backward onto the stage as the former group exits and the mood takes a sudden shift. If stillness and reflection characterize Bingham’s nostalgia, Telford’s arises through frantic and frenetic movement. Dancers repeat gestures as if compulsively trying to embody something they once knew. The physical repetition mimics that of memory: an annoying song stuck in your head, the face of an old lover you cannot forget. Not surprisingly, text is introduced in this section. Barbara Adler, (an MFA student at SFU, musician and poet) reads poetry that purposefully repeats and stumbles, giving voice to the images of the dance. This kind of nostalgia keeps you up at night.
A solo transitions into Shauna Elton’s piece. Her nostalgia feels light, ephemeral, like the sun on your skin at the beach in summertime. She uses tableaux to explore scenes perhaps plucked from photographs: blowing out the candles at a birthday party, the family portrait. Her work changes tone, however, becoming more sentimental. In a striking moment, a couple repeats the gestures of a relationship, travelling in a square around the stage: the embrace, the lift, the separation and return. The sequence repeats three or four times. The couple never finds what they seek, and I wonder: is nostalgia a longing for the past or actually a longing for longing itself? For Huguet, even the performance became nostalgic: “I felt the performance itself was creating nostalgia. I can remember stepping on stage and the lights were flashing … you are (already) watching it go by.”
A golden wash and strobe lights permeate the space for Kitsos’ piece, creating the most definitive change of mood. Dancers perform jerky movements and gestures. The effect mimics an old film reel, or the movement equivalent of a needle stuck on a record. The piece transitions into a diagonal canon of a family scene. The roles of husband, wife and children play themselves out. Staggered in time and space, five different versions of the family use the same movement to shadow each other. In most cases the group furthest upstage, or the most in the past, completes the final reiteration, except sometimes when the ‘past’ appears to influence the family in ‘real-time’; a metaphor perhaps, for how the past can continually influence the present.
Huguet mentioned that Kitsos had the dancers create the story line of the characters: “He really gave us full rein.” For Carter, the collaborative nature of the work stimulated her most as an artist: “Collaboration and working with so many people was actually a lot more comfortable for me than I thought it would be. It kept things exciting. It was an ever-evolving piece.” The only one with a video element, Kitsos’ work included black and white stills and video of the same dancers in minimal movement projected upstage behind the band.
For the finale, the whole cast of thirty-five dancers returns – a truly overwhelming sight. Kitsos appreciated the chance to work with such a large cast: “You just don’t get to do that very often. Artists can’t afford to pay that many people. It’s usually in academic situations that you get that opportunity.” Moments of unison help the audience see this mass as a cohesive whole. Here, rather than developing intimate moments or introducing new themes, the choreography focuses on inherently pleasing forms and shapes: the circle, the spiral, the diagonal line.
The effect, like a good concluding paragraph, satisfies. The piece ends with dancers walking off stage one by one, in time to the beat of a drum. The shift from thirty-five bodies to none shocks me. I find myself wondering, were they really there at all? If only I could see it again, just one more time …
Like Barbara Adler says, “this nostalgia, it’s contagious”.