One of the biggest mantras for business strategists and other motivational types is the idea that it’s better to initiate change than to have change thrust upon you. For most of his career, Ottawa-based performer Tedd Robinson has been an initiator of change. But as middle age encroaches, Robinson (who’s fifty-four) finds himself confronting the slow decline of his physical capabilities.
A generation ago, Robinson would have already retired from dance by now. But these days, dancers are much less willing to surrender to the ravages of time. Still, there comes a time when all dancers must acknowledge that their diminishing skills make it impossible for them to perform as they have in the past. For Robinson, that time has apparently come. He has announced that “REDD”, the third installment of a trilogy that spans ten years, will be his final full-length solo work. But unlike some performers (and athletes) who hang on past their prime, Robinson is going out while he’s still “got game”, as the saying goes.
Robinson, who first made his mark as artistic director of Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers from 1984-90, debuted the first part of the trilogy in 1996. “Rokudo: six destinies in three steps” won him the Chalmers Award for choreography that year. He followed that up with “Rigmarole” in 2000. In an interview prior to performing “REDD” (so named because it consists of three sections “REading”, “Dreaming” and “Dying”), Robinson described it as “a homage to myself, without being self-indulgent”. As such, it contains many references, both subtle and overt, to the previous two works. In “Rokudo”, for example, Robinson danced on a black square laid out on a white floor while here the squares were white and the floor black. Using props like umbrellas and kimonos (nods to his dual Scottish and Japanese heritage), balancing objects at various points on his body, and draping cloth on his body — all have long been part of his vocabulary when choreographing for himself.
With “REDD”, however, Robinson employs spoken text much more than he has in the past. And perhaps even more props. During our talk, he joked that as the amount of movement in his pieces had decreased, the number of props had increased to give him “tasks” to perform. In addition to being affected by age, Robinson’s mobility is hindered, for the moment at least, by the fact that after quitting smoking he put on thirty pounds, only ten of which he’s managed to shed.
At this point, I feel compelled to note that this review is not intended to function as an elegy to Robinson’s career as a dancer. He still intends to perform short solo works, plus he is scheduled to perform “REDD” several more times in different cities across Canada, culminating with a stop at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in May 2008. Still, as I watched “REDD” in the company of a young woman of my acquaintance, I was very nearly overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy and — not dread — just resignation at the inevitable decline that occurs in people’s physical (and later, mental) capabilities as they age.
Again, I must emphasize that the event I attended was a performance and not a funeral. Humour (grounded largely in Robinson’s recent move to a lakeside acreage in the Gatineau region outside Ottawa) was present throughout. Hunched somewhat at the outset and walking with the aid of a gnarled staff, Robinson makes his way upstage between six cloth squares laid out in a vertical two-by-three rectangle — pausing to balance the staff on his head and forehead. Reaching the last square, he begins reading a text written on the cloth about a survival tip that wilderness-savvy neighbours had given him after he’d moved to the country: Don’t go into the woods during certain times of the year when bears are hungry. After finishing the text, Robinson grabs the cloth, crumples it up and proceeds to the next panel where, after draping the cloth around his body like a Buddhist monk (which he was for six years in the nineties), he recounts how presumptuous his neighbours had proven to be in terms of imposing on his good nature. Six times Robinson reads from the square panels (including a third dryly humourous anecdote about how he’d smoked out a nest of seventeen bats from a small crevice in his roof by burning incense). Six times he picks the panels up, ultimately piling them at the back of the stage.
Also playing for laughs, Robinson performs a manic highland dance during one segment that explores his Scottish heritage — in which he lampoons the Scottish propensity for indulging in nostalgic schmaltz. His Japanese persona, in contrast, is much more solemn and meditative. The exception to this is the moment when he emerges from the wings dressed in a kimono covered in hundreds of miniature prisms, which glitter spectacularly under lights by Jean Philippe Trépanier. No less visually intriguing, in “REDD’s” final segment Robinson circles the stage with a long, narrow tree branch balanced on his head. Reminiscent of a Buddhist monk’s hat, but on a much more elongated scale, the forward two-thirds of the branch sways like a menacing snake as Robinson walks.
Reverting periodically to the aged persona he portrays at the start, Robinson concludes “REDD” by half-balancing, half-carrying a bolt of cloth on his shoulders which, at one point, he drops. Whether deliberately — as means of demonstrating metaphorically his physical decline — or accidentally, I don’t know. I strongly suspect the former — but maybe not. The final moment arrives with Robinson lying prone on the pile of cloth near the back of the stage. As a person who is on the cusp of middle age myself (chronologically, if not socially and culturally) I found this final vignette very poignant.
Robinson presented “REDD” a few days after two much-hyped, much-anticipated, much-appreciated concerts by the Rolling Stones before sold-out crowds of 45,000 at Taylor Field. Despite being in their sixties, the Stones delivered two dynamite shows that will resonate in Regina for decades to come. For the last fifteen months, in addition, I have been a supplementary caregiver to an elderly aunt who suffers from dementia and lives in a nursing home where I confront frailty, infirmity and death. So, with aging on my mind, you’ll forgive me if my reading of REDD appears somewhat dark. But judging from the vigour and elegance of the show, Robinson, I’m happy to report, intends to follow Dylan Thomas’ sage advice and “not go gentle into that good night”.