It was closing night of Ballet Creole’s Sankofa, fifteen minutes until curtain time, and still a cavalcade of theatregoers were vying for tickets. Being a Ballet Creole newbie, I was unsure what the hubbub was about. Still, I clutched my ticket and charged into the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre. Two hours later, I understood the high demand for this staple in Toronto’s dance season: its sense of cool.
To celebrate the company’s twentieth anniversary, founder/artistic director Patrick Parson presented a mixed program of three works: Parson’s “Dancing Spirits” (2004) and “Drum MasQ/TRANS-formation” (2009) and associate choreographer Gabby Kamino’s “Requiem for My Parents” (2010). The evening represented the diversity and artistry of Black dance in Toronto, quoting the contemporary and the traditional in a theatrical setting. Parson draws upon training in the Caribbean and the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, while Kamino draws from contemporary/postmodern dance, having studied with Judy Jarvis and Lawrence Gradus. As such, Sankofa represented several choreographic influences, making for an evening of diverse dancing bodies that, while demonstrating jaw-dropping stamina and energy, maintain a sense of calm.
Yet what could be calm and cool about fast-paced drumming, pumping shoulders and sternums, barrel turns, and gazelle leaps for two-and-a-half hours? The answer lies in the faces and bodily intention of the performers. Dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild, in her article “Stripping the Emperor: The Africanist Presence in American Concert Dance” (in Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader) identified what she termed Africanist principles of movement, one being “The Aesthetic of Cool”, identifiable when a dancer moves in a ‘hot’, fast-paced, or virtuosic manner, while his/her face remains aloof and detached. For both of Parson’s works, I found this to be the seductive ingredient.
In Parson’s “Dancing Spirits”, a work for seven dancers, drumming group Creole Drummatix are seated upstage left, and the stoic dancers enter in silence. The action is incited by a kind of shamanistic woman in white (singer Consuelo Herrera), whose quivering voice and slow, abrupt walks encourage the dancers to stir, transitioning through upward reaches, sporadic jumps, rolls to the ground, and then stillness. Gradually, the actions build in intensity as the drums are struck, and we are drawn into a choreography that offers constant surprises: formations shift from diagonal lines to circles to partnering, solo moments explode into celebratory group unison, or the dancers and musicians banter with call and response. Torsos undulate, lower bodies become sporadically animated with quick, low-down steps, and arms percussively scoop the air around the body while the eyes and faces are nonchalant and self-assured. Even the hands are a surprise, sometimes pushing the space with the palm or held above the head like gnarled branches. At all times, the limbs are alive and effervescent, and as the piece continues for what seems like ages and the movement repeats, our attention is held by abrupt changes in dynamics. At one point, intense capoeira-like lunges and flips suddenly halt and a slow section begins, signalled by a trio of women who broadly roll their shoulders, hands on bellies, faces to the sky, while the men elongate their bodies with extended balances and leans. Here, the space is respected, cosied, stroked, inhaled, and felt.
Another memorable moment comes with the reappearance of the singer, who once again incites physical responses in the dancers; this time, their reaction is more frenzied. While the singer’s eyes widen and intensify and her singing voice crescendos into a near cackle, the dancers begin to rapidly quickstep; they become decentred, as if the space is moving them into flails, spins, and frenetic two-steps. Yet even after this brief exodus from the otherwise controlled movements, ”Dancing Spirits” ends as it begins, with a sense of mastery and cool, and a female figure in high release.
Parson’s other work, “MasQ/TRANS-formation”, displayed similar physical tenacity, though this time the occasional wearing of small, bright masks and the dancers’ voices punctuated the work. The same seven dancers take turns addressing the audience about their relationships with drums: comments such as “When I hear the drum play, it’s like blood in my veins” and “The drum drives my passion and makes me move” draw attention to the symbiotic relationship between the dancing and drumming. When the full-throttle movement begins, we are treated to a marathon of elastic upper bodies, swivelling and rotating hips, and arms that curve and cross one another; the footwork is so quick and alternating that at times it resembles gum-booting. Ultimately, the choreographic vocabulary was so overwhelmingly busy that I became paralysed by it, and eventually just sat back to drink in the tireless work of the dancers who, while speaking from multiple parts of the body at the same time, look as if the marathon of movement is nothing at all.
Kamino’s “Requiem for My Parents”, sandwiched in the middle of the program, was a departure from the Caribbean/contemporary cool of the other works. The use of an unidentified Arvo Pärt string score, coupled with sombre faces and gut-wrenching movements, suggested an atmosphere of purgatory. The stage is smoky, with incidental shafts of light illuminating a clump of five unitard-clad dancers intertwined in a human mass, eventually unfurling into a series of backward rolls and deep lunges. All the while, spastic gestures and audible grunts accompany gnarled hands, and a general sense of despair overtakes them. One image that lingers is of the dancers seated facing downstage left, violently beating their chests, the sound overwhelmingly audible. While the dancers maintain their sense of anguish throughout, the actual vocabulary borders on ornamental; sustained arabesques and tricky partnering lifts and balances detract from the raw emotional pathos of the piece. The most startling moments are when the dancers converge into a writhing sea of androgynous bodies; the power of the ensemble grounds the work. In the end, as the dancers exit at a slow pace, one gets a sense that their purgatory has passed.
What gave Parson’s work an advantage over Kamino’s in Sankofa’s tripartite program was the incredible dexterity of movement and the dancers’ overall ability to not look laboured when executing it. While the repetitive and quick-paced aspects of his pieces were no doubt tiring to perform, those men and women were comfortable in their dancing skins, cool as cucumbers. Interestingly, while the entire company of nine dancers mastered the fine art of cool, the sweltering heat of the theatre at the evening’s end was an accurate indication of the masterful marathon of dexterity that Ballet Creole gave us that evening, and judging by the sold-out house, for the last twenty years.
Edited by Kaija Pepper