“invisible borders”, presented by the empty collective and Danceworks, ran November 4th through 6th at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre (formerly duMaurier Theatre Centre). The show was envisioned by dancer/choreographer Michael Trent as an exploration of a “multiplicity of viewpoints” and manifested as a mixed repertory program by choreographers with three contrasting aesthetics and from three different cities: Louise Bédard from Montréal, Doug Varone from New York, and Trent from Toronto – who was also the show’s producer and featured performer. The theme of “multiplicity of viewpoints” was further enhanced by the theatre’s seating arrangements, with two opposing sections of the audience facing each other across the performing space, giving two distinct perspectives on the dancing.
Friday evening’s performance began with the disappointing announcement that the second piece on the program, Doug Varone’s “The thing of the world” – to be performed by Trent and Varone himself – would not be presented due to an injury sustained by Varone.
The show opened with “Vivement dimanche”, Louise Bédard’s dynamic and spirited duet for Trent and Dominique Porte, two seasoned performers with distinct dance backgrounds. The work at first appears to be a simple rendition of an encounter between a man and woman on a lively Sunday escapade, but expands and contracts with tension, joy, release and resistance, evoking the satisfyingly complex dynamics of relationships in general. A collection of paper party hats provides the only prop and adds a party-like air to the piece, yet as the hats are moved around the space, their fragility becomes distressingly apparent, and I wondered if they would survive the performance. Dressed for the day in a version of street clothes – boy in blue, girl in pink – the couple portray a child-like roughhousing pleasure in their play. The sometimes dissonant, chromatic, almost circus-like music textures the space like polka dots, highlighting the playful, yet not completely comfortable, atmosphere.
Tightly crafted, dynamic choreography carries the two characters through various aggressive antics and interactions, spanning a range from amorous to decidedly antagonistic. As the piece unfolded, I became interested in the two performers’ different ways of moving. Porte has developed her career in Montréal, and her movement style reflects that city’s experimental, more theatrical tradition of contemporary dance with its sometimes casual, pedestrian stage presence. Trent’s dancing, by contrast, is coloured by his Toronto roots, smoothed and rounded out by physical precision, fluidity, formality. Porte’s character and dancing seemed to release into rough edges and naughty explosions, while Trent carried his physical refinement to the end, lending his character a somewhat more polite form. In the character-play of this particular work, the contrast worked well but also raises a question.
Theatre and dance are a natural yet difficult mix onstage. While characters can emerge through movement and interaction, a choreographer must choose how to direct the theatricality that arises, in effect, deciding how naturalistic’ or heightened’ the dancers are onstage. To my perception, the performers’ differences were exacerbated in this work. Trent is a satisfyingly tidy and exacting performer with exceptional technical abilities. Paired with Porte, however, a performer who interweaves masterful precision and strength with abandon and messy explosions of play, Trent appeared contained. Against her dynamically spirited character, his emerged as the more pathetic (in the classical sense) of the two, a flavour perfectly appropriate in the realm of clown-esque stage character. Nevertheless, I wonder what could happen if he ventured further into the dangerous realms of pure abandon?
Overall, I found “Vivement dimanche” refreshing and effervescent, and doubly satisfying because the performers’ pleasure was supported by excellent pacing, rhythm and craft of choreography by Bédard – a real master of dance crafts(wo)manship.
Trent’s inclination toward a tidier stage space and presence was evident in his work entitled “things in between”, performed by Kate Holden, Sasha Ivanochko, Kirsten Pollard, Brad Sykes and Darryl C. Tracy. A more abstract piece, it’s overtly intellectual roots are indicated in the press kit, where Trent writes that he was questioning traditional theatre’s use of the proscenium arch, pondering its propensity to “create an adversarial relationship between performers and audience.” For “things in between”, Trent takes advantage of the divided audience groups and their two irreconcilable perspectives, placing five dancers in an abstract and functional space that he manipulates and alters using various material devices.
Three white lines (of tape) delineate equal spaces on the floor. Two white film screens descend intermittently from the ceiling to obscure views of the other half of the performance space and action, and to reflect projections of the dancers dancing. With these constructs in place, the feeling of “things in between” is in decided contrast to the previous dance’s simple playful air. In the opening few minutes of “things in between” a recorded voice recites a sort of incantation of singular descriptions of the space: “spare space & dense space & public space …” This self-conscious “creating” of the space is eventually suffused with Robert Poizner’s rather ominous, synthesized music, its thunder-rolling swells and retreats creating a foreboding atmosphere. The dancers enter in dim light, walking swiftly and pedantically across the space. The dancing begins sparely, with some linear, unison floor patterns. Cool at first, the dancers seem intent on this abstract, almost algebraic world. They warm up some as the work progresses, but something remains aloof: I struggled to get to the heart of the piece.
Some arresting imagery appears on the screens, in the form of live-feed video footage of the dancers dancing, and they move in front of and behind the obstruction, providing alternative perspectives on their activity. However, I often find filmed images onstage to be a difficult device, as the power of technologically enhanced visuals can overpower the delicacy and poignancy of the live presence of the performers, and I felt this to be the case on a few occasions.
Group unison sections, interspersed with some fiery solos – especially by the women – carry the piece to some more theatrical moments. Several of the dancers roll along the three white strips, pulling up the ends and wrapping themselves in the floor tape to then lie tied and immobilized on the stage. (This was a frightening moment too evocative for me of terrorist/war images.) Later the performers invite several audience members to change sections or sit onstage for a different perspective.
Unfortunately, the piece had too many ideas, or sections, and needed editing for clarity and for length. On more than one occasion, the dancers left the space, for what I thought was the conclusion of the piece, and returned yet again to continue another section. By the end of the work, I felt the piece had lost its momentum and form.
While Trent did extend visual perspectives on the dancing and dancers with some devices, I felt the work, as an exploration of space, did not go far enough to glean new commentary or derive significant meaning. He’s chosen an interesting theme, certainly worthy of exploration, but I felt the choreography and stagecraft fell short of its potential. Choreographers since the sixties have broken the fourth wall, and there’s been plenty of dance presented in the round, overhead, with filmic elements, in lofts, parks, bars, parking lots, empty lots, etc. I was ultimately disappointed by the tame nature of Trent’s exploration. Some excellent and exciting performances did not do enough to warrant the length of the work.
Attn: Sara Porter
Just dropping you a line re: your review of Michael Trent’s Invisible Borders show at Harbourfront, a ways back. You are certainly entitled to not have liked my original score … but “ominous synthesized music” ??? Pehaps you missed the 30-voice choral group, whom I recorded live in a church, used in both the opening and closing . Or the section featuring a lengthy and beautifully played trumpet solo by local jazz horn Tim Hamel , or … etc. Maybe you assumed they were all just samples or a plundered “Sound Collage”. Well,some of us are still whipping things up from scratch. Anyhoo , free to not have liked it … sure. But synthesized music ? … Nuh -uh !!! Thanks for listnin’.