Choreographer Sasha Ivanochko recently premiered two works — Modern Woman in Search of Soul and Mirror Staging the Seeing Place — presented as part of Citadel + Compagnie’s Bright Nights series. Both have been in development for four years, culminating in an evening of highly focused, personal and rigorous performance for seasoned dancers Alana Elmer and Kristy Kennedy.
To start at the end, the second work Mirror Staging the Seeing Place intelligently utilized The Citadel’s basement studio, mirror and all. Usually when an audience is invited to watch a piece in a dance studio, it’s because the work is unfinished. Mirror Staging the Seeing Place is a bona fide site-specific work that brings the viewer into an experience familiar to dancers — finding oneself alone in a studio, dancing a duet with one’s own reflection. In this case, the experience is chilling.
Kristy Kennedy is wearing a simple navy blue bodysuit, which separates her torso from her limbs and makes her appear as a young dancer in training. As I take my seat, she is cleaning the mirror. Some streaks remain as she comes to a central position in the room, facing herself. Over the course of this quiet and durational work, she moves between holding effortful dance positions and gestures to collapsing into contractions and states of relative immobility. The viewer’s attention is drawn back and forth between the reflection of the dancer and the body right in front of them. When Kennedy gets close to the mirror, the viewer’s gaze softens and their focus can include both her and the reflection. The two then appear to be equally three-dimensional, reaching out to one another.
I found myself imagining the reflected woman as the one trying to make contact with the body of the performer — because I could only see Kennedy’s eyes and face in the mirror. In this work, the dancer’s point of attention towards the image of herself reveals a disconnect from the site of that awareness (her body).
In a moment, we must choose whether to see a woman with her hands pressed up against a mirror, or two bodies meeting and touching one another. Their lips almost meet and they blow hot air into the mirror, trace a heart in it and passionately kiss. Frenching tongues leave streaks on the mirror. I wonder if it tastes like Windex. Kennedy pulses in and out of herself, as if trying to break the mirror in order to connect with her own projection. At one point, she stands with her arms wide open. In the attempt to embrace her own form, we see moments of alienation, seduction and abandon.
Claw reaches away from torso. Leg shakes. The rubbery twisting and screeching of feet give way to the floor, amplified by a contact mic. This audio effect offers an unsettling overtone to the experience of body as material. Its sounds remind me of a child playing with a Barbie doll. Kennedy writhes and fidgets, curled and splayed against the surface of the dance floor. She unfurls her distended limbs closer and closer to the audience, eventually bumping up against the shins of Peggy Baker, who is seated in the front row. Disoriented, Kennedy attempts to learn how to move again without the help of the mirror. Having abandoned her superficial strength, she is lumpy, splayed, contorted, disorganized, but finally unfolds back up to standing. Tracing the surface of her front body with her hands, she comes to balance on one leg, arms reaching to the ceiling. She brings herself to a seat in the audience, eventually scanning the gazes of each audience member beside her. The man next to her is watching in the mirror as she turns to him, less than a foot away.
In this work, Kennedy embodies a strong yet vulnerable, emotionally absorbed yet detached dancer. We never hear her speak or see her break from her almost harsh commitment to the performance. From the seats arcing along each side of the studio, the journey is challenging and dark, but also psychedelic and honest. Ivanochko bravely explores the narcissistic elements of dance without making decisions around how shame may or may not relate to those elements. The audience is allowed to be as much inside or outside of the work as they like and to connect to their own individual responses. This piece includes (and is about) a preciousness found in dance that may alienate some viewers. That preciousness is balanced and contrasted by its counterpart, Modern Woman in Search of a Soul.
This first work takes its title from June Singer’s book of the same name with the subtitle A Jungian Guide to the Visible and Invisible Worlds. In this vein, Ivanochko’s works are deeply psychological and present the problems we have to grapple with when, through thought and language, we classify and objectify living, feeling bodies. Her program note tells us that the movement vocabulary for the works was generated by miming gender stereotypes of iconic North American women.
This is spelled out loud and clear by long-time Toronto Dance Theatre dancer Alana Elmer who shines in this demanding piece that features volumes of text directed sharply towards its audience. The work asks Elmer to be herself while toying with the audience’s inevitable interpretations upon her every gesture (as crafted by Ivanochko). Elmer stays cleverly outside of the situation, even as she ventures into deep and raw territories. Interplays are engaged between choreographer and interpreter, as well as performer and spectators.
As we enter into a dingily fogged-out Citadel, there’s a looming figure (Jacob Niedzwiecki) who dons a balaclava and we see Elmer’s side-lying torso through the eyes of this figure. The pungent odour of the fog, along with the anonymity of the mask, reminded me of a sex club. Later, I noticed composer/musician Vicky Mettler onstage, also adorned in black with balaclava, playing an electric guitar and effects pedals. Her listening and musical presence softened the intensity of the effect created by the balaclavas. Mettler’s use of both colloquial and experimental music aided in the absurd, rhythmic mood of the piece.
In the hands of Niedzwiecki is a video stabilizer (like a selfie stick), holding a phone that shows close-ups of Elmer’s body. His focus remains on the screen, rather than the body beyond it. In the program Niedzwiecki is described as a “Performer/Interactive Designer,” who is creating a livestream of the show. The insistence of his technological focus on Elmer’s every move over the next hour mirrors Ivanochko’s questions surrounding “how the female body is perceived in theatrical and socio-scopic fields.”
“STOP” an audience member replies, responding to Elmer’s question “And what does this mean?” pushing her palm out into space. Moments later I am sitting in my male dance reviewer body scrawling out shorthand, and this is what it looks like:
Starts doing stereotypically sexual dance, like a stripper, rock guitar riffs.
She ties her hair in front of her face.
Gets the audience clapping again.
Fakes orgasm (peak of performativity).
Out of breath, undoes hair, removes another layer of undies.
“What does this mean?” she asks, giving the audience the finger. “Up yours,” a male voice responds, no tone in his voice.
At the beginning of the piece, Elmer introduces herself by asserting a series of “I am” statements that are completed by words or phrases starting with each letter of the alphabet sequentially.
I am Aware
I am acting
I am abstract
I am anything you want me to be
I am Alana
I am bold
I am boisterous
I am curating my own curiosities
I am defiantly dramatic
I am damned if I do, damned if I don’t
I am evolving in front of everyone’s eyes
I am gross
I am grotesque
Later, adjectives become nouns when Elmer invites the audience to finish the sentence “I AM A __________” as she displays one caricature after another. These include a nun, a belly dancer, a porn star, Kim Kardashian, being pregnant and Meryl Streep (or so said the audience). Finally, she says to us, “Bingo. I am invisible. Game over.”
Near the end of the work, this interaction comes back and what began as a fun game for the audience becomes darker and darker, more and more awkward. Their infantile regression into the early toddler “naming” phase of performance watching has grown up into a more complex, problem than they had perhaps anticipated. Something clicked as they rose to their feet at the end just after Elmer states, “I am exercising my right to exit.”
And walks off the stage.