Desperate lives often speak volumes. Winnipeg choreographer Gaile Petursson-Hiley gave voice to Victorian-era Brontë sisters Emily, Charlotte and Anne whose passionate poetry and windswept novels such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” inspired her newest full-length dance creation, “Brontë”.
The abstract contemporary work opened at Winnipeg’s Rachel Browne Theatre for a three-show run, September 18th through 20th performed by a strong company of dancers: Kristin Haight, James Phillips, Brock Adams, Kathleen Price Hiley and Darby Gibbs. The production also included an evocative lighting design by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Robert Mravnik as well as the choreographer’s own ruffled, high-necked costumes and set design consisting of stacks of antiquated books that rose out of the stage like tombstones. A flowing collage of eclectic music heavily laced with cello underscored the work with brooding intensity.
Of the many gifted dance artists Winnipeg’s vibrant dance community has produced over the years, Petursson-Hiley may be one of its greatest unsung heroes. Her catalogue of creative works — both shorter pieces and full-scale productions created over a span of nearly thirty years — has largely been unseen outside her Prairie hometown. Her roots run deep both as a choreographer and a former dancer with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Stephanie Ballard and Dancers, as well as Vancouver’s Pacific Ballet Theatre. In addition to being a founding artistic director of Mouvement/Winnipeg Dance Projects with Stephanie Ballard, Petursson-Hiley was also a co-founder and co-director of the Winnipeg company Dance Collective from 1989 through 1994 and currently serves as an artistic associate of The School of Contemporary Dancers Professional Program where she mentors new generations of rising dance artists as a highly respected master teacher.
“Brontë” marks Petursson-Hiley’s first major production since her imaginative “Faeries” (2006) premiered by Mouvement/Winnipeg Dance Projects, with an earlier independent show “Cherry Blossom Pink” (2002) celebrating her twentieth anniversary of dance making. Like a flip side to these gossamer light dance confections, Petursson-Hiley’s latest work takes her viewers on a darker, more intense journey right into the heart of Victoriana, with unbridled passion always lurking just below the surface.
The sixty-two-minute show is structured mostly as a seamless flow of smaller duets, trios and quartets with the entire company first emerging like ghosts out of the gloomy darkness. As the five dancers pace in unison, they clutch and slam their texts together, punctuating their angular movement with exclamation marks. Their gnarled hands and beating fists become a leitmotiv that resounds repeatedly throughout the work, with the dancers twisting their bodies into expansive backbends and contorted isolations that are a hallmark of Petursson-Hiley’s choreographic style. Immediately, I could sense the anguish and isolation of the three literary siblings living in repressive Victorian society, forced to adopt male pseudonyms to see their work published. As the piece progresses, the dancers’ rhythmic movement becomes juxtaposed with a growing lyricism straight from the choreographer’s heart that heightens the drama further.
A riveting duet between Phillips and Adams crackles with the intensity of a duel; I was never sure if their relationship was one of sparring rivals or simpatico partners. They charge like bulls; they stare each other down while circling the stage. The two men’s tumbling rolls and exploding lifts are enthralling just as their lacey cuffs and ascots underscore their rugged physicality with gentrified civility. When Adams cradles Phillips like a Pietà figure near the end, it cuts the testosterone-fueled tension with a knife of tenderness. Petursson-Hiley does not shy away from gritty emotion, but embraces it in all its colours and endless complexities.
The dynamics of relationship are explored further during a duet performed by the choreographer’s own twenty-four-year-old daughter, Price Hiley, and Gibbs, both graduates of The School of Contemporary Dancers Senior Professional Program in 2007. It’s a unique pleasure to see Price Hiley perform her mother’s choreography, which seems to be in her very bones and infuses the entire show with organic authenticity. As she and Gibbs weave about the stage, wringing their hands while leaning and melting into each other’s bodies, their connection — physical and emotional — creates a palpable bond only fully appreciated by real-life blood sisters. While they embrace near the end, Phillips carries Haight across the stage like a ghostly totem as Adams places texts on the stage to become steppingstones: literal paths of escape that offer potential respite and release. The theatre’s exposed brick wall becomes another visual reminder of the Brontës’ claustrophobic world, as the dancers repeatedly attempt to scale its heights as if fleeing turbulent lives.
A captivating solo performed by Phillips demonstrates why he was recently chosen from over 130 applicants to win a coveted position with Montréal’s O Vertigo Danse. A former graduate of both the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Division and The School of Contemporary Dancers Senior Professional Program, Phillips’ solid technique is matched equally by a yearning emotional vulnerability, with his solo conveying the poetry and eloquence of a soliloquy. A simple gesture like his final headshake at the end makes it seem as if he is waking from a dream or distant memory.
One of Petursson-Hiley’s greatest strengths is her artful attention to subtle detail that creates multiple layers of meaning and poses new possibilities for interpretation. When Gibbs gently rests her head on a stack of books during Haight and Phillips’ stormy finale, the focus suddenly shifts and challenges whether you are witnessing emotional truths or merely hazy characters born from the Brontës’ — or choreographer’s — imagination. Seeing the wonderfully strong Haight (also a company member of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers) smoothly gliding on books like ice skates evokes nostalgia and also underscores the notion of literature as (literal) escape.
Despite these fascinating intricacies, I still found it impossible to stray long from watching Phillips and Haight, whose closing duet becomes a mesmerizing capstone to the entire work. As they metamorphose into a modern day Catherine and Heathcliff, they roll and drag each other across the stage, reaching into the darkness and towards each other in an emotionally raw duet that could easily stand alone. As the work ends, Haight clenches her fists while Phillips wraps around her waist, ultimately conveying strength, resilience, defiance.
It takes a while for this decidedly introspective show to really kick in, with its brooding ethos, at times, feeling too much of a good thing. The women’s percussive trio that follows the men’s duet brings relief by adding texture and dynamic contrast, allowing the work to speak in a more forceful, extroverted way. A repetitive motif of pairs of dancers spinning each other also energizes the production by creating visual counterpoint. More light only makes shadows look deeper by comparison, and I felt incorporating greater variety both in movement and music would have strengthened the show’s overall thrust.
Perhaps the most potent image in “Brontë” involves the dancers inscribing lines in thin air like cryptic messages in a bottle. It’s as if the medium becomes the message itself. Our task is not to interpret the literal meaning of the words, Petursson-Hiley seems to suggest, but rather to wonder at the power of creativity that allowed three Victorian women to ultimately endure — and transcend — their all too bleak lives. Such is the beauty of this haunting work, with Petursson-Hiley’s mature artistry creating compassionate bonds that blur across generations of time and space.