Choreographed by Davida Monk for her Calgary-based dance company M-Body, “the Weathering Suite” arrived in Regina at a curious moment. The UN was in the process of releasing a long-awaited report on climate change; Al Gore and Inuit environmentalist Sheila Watt-Cloutier had just been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize; and in Canada, the environment, and climate change in particular, had become the hot-button political issue. Yet concurrent with all that, Reginans were suffering through the worst cold snap in recent memory with temperatures hovering near minus thirty degrees Celsius, and wicked, bordering on inhuman, wind chills.
Ah yes, the weather — every prairie-dweller’s favourite topic of conversation. Indicative of a certain lack of imagination, perhaps. But understandable, given its relative volatility, its heavy impact on the region’s agricultural sector, and the potentially deadly consequences of extreme weather events like blizzards and tornadoes.
Since moving west from Ottawa in 1988, Monk has made the prairie landscape, and the expansive prairie environment in general, an integral component of her choreography. “The Weathering Suite” had its genesis in a two-month outdoor dance project she undertook with nine dancers near Pincher Creek in southern Alberta in 2005. Four Canadian composers contributed music to “the Weathering Suite”: R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers, Allan Gordon Bell and Claude Vivier. Further inspiration, for Monk, derived from the poetry of Mary Oliver (USA) and Tim Lilburn (Canada). The “Suite” itself, in which Monk is joined by dancers Erin Cowan, Christina Medina, Melissa Monteros and Johanna Riley, debuted at Calgary’s Playhouse Theatre in October.
Following that engagement, Monk revealed during a pre-show visit in Regina, she totally reworked the final six-minute segment. Never was it her intention to offer a literal evocation of our experience with weather in the manner of an animate weather report. Still, I did detect the odd movement or gesture that was suggestive of different weather phenomena, and our response to them. Several times the dancers move diagonally from the back left to the front right corner of the stage where they stand with one, or both, arms outstretched toward a bright yellow light, as if welcoming the re-emergence of the sun from behind the clouds after a thunderstorm. Often, the dancers pause to stare upward, as if in awe of the immense power of weather systems.
Repetition figures prominently in “the Weathering Suite”. Occasionally, the dancers move forward in tight arcs, then retrace their steps, like a video being rewound. The rhythm of nature and the cycle of the seasons are obvious associations. In countries closer to the equator, the changes in season don’t result in dramatic shifts in weather patterns. In Canada, of course, the seasons are marked by significant differences in terms of temperature, amount and type of precipitation and the amount of daylight we receive. Even today, despite our technological adeptness at modifying our living and work environments, the weather continues to impact us deeply. Even during the two-day run in Regina, audiences (and dancers) were reminded of the perverse nature of the prairie climate. On February 14th, over two weeks into a cold snap, the temperature at 11am was minus thirty-three degrees Celsius. On February 15th, it reached a high of minus three.
At no time during the sixty-five-minute performance does a dancer leave the stage. But Monk does experiment with various permutations from solos and duets to the full quintet. When all five dancers are in motion on the stage, collisions, while not inevitable, do loom as a distinct possibility. Apparently chaotic from a distance, the choreography possesses an inner order, similar to a swirling vortex. When not involved in the main action, dancers withdraw to the sides of the stage where they perform subtle movements that reinforce those of the principle dancers.
From the outset, I was struck by the difference in the height of the dancers (while Medina and Monteros are both relatively short, Riley and Cowan are tall, with Monk herself being somewhere in the middle). During a post-show chat, Monk said the height of the dancers hadn’t factored into her decision to use them, but the tall/short duality certainly opened up a host of choreographic possibilities. While floor work is evident, there is, overall, a strong vertical sensibility to the choreography. While not as flat as a stage, the prairies are undeniably flat, which makes the odd vertical form that does loom up on the horizon—a tree, a telephone pole, a grain elevator—especially striking. Through her choreography, Monk effectively evokes this aspect of the prairie landscape.
I found it somewhat troubling that Monk chose to work with an all-female troupe. When questioned about her decision post-show, she attributed it to simple familiarity between her and the other four dancers, their mutual interest in outdoor performance, and the lack of contemporary male dancers in Calgary. All that certainly may be true, but the gender imbalance did reinforce what many regard as an outmoded stereotype linking women to the natural and feral in our world, while simultaneously excluding from consideration the ability of men to respond viscerally to weather phenomena. Under this duality, had a male dancer been included, he stereotypically would have been tasked with collecting and analyzing weather data as a meteorologist does. Instead, the barefoot women — outfitted as they were in sensuous, earth-toned dresses, all but one with their long hair tied behind them — evoked thoughts of some ancient pagan ceremony. All that was missing was a grove of trees, or perhaps a columned temple. Not having seen the Calgary performance in October, I don’t know what revisions Monk made to the concluding segment of her piece. In Regina, Weathering Suite ended with a burst of frenetic movement from the dancers that evoked thoughts of them experiencing a violent storm. Again, this reminded the audience of nature’s awe-inspiring strength, while also perhaps serving as a cautionary warning from Monk about the increased likelihood of extreme weather events due to the onset of global warming. Which is something that promises to make our weather anything but “sweet”.