“She’s the Tart of Hearts, Lady of the Evening, Diva, Tough Cookie, Grand Mess, Plain Jane, Beauty and Beast.” That’s how Toronto-based Sasha Ivanochko describes the character revealed in “The future memory heartbreak junction”, a mid-December Dancemakers presentation at the company’s intimate Centre for Creation studio venue.
Ivanochko’s new, hour-long, self-performed solo is a study in human frailty, despair, courage and resilience. It marks a significant shift for Ivanochko, both as a choreographer and performer. The solo is inherently theatrical and not overtly “dancey”, is finely honed to almost minimalist essentials, makes conspicuous and carefully modulated use of gesture … and requires Ivanochko to act and sing; all challenges she surmounts impressively.
Ivanochko, in a shapely, shimmering ruby-red dress with an overlay of black chiffon and multi-strapped black pumps, bookends her solo by starting and finishing in the same place. She stands pensively and resignedly, head slightly lowered, eyelids almost closed, with her back to a white-washed brick wall. It’s how we find her on entering the space and, on reflection, it might have been nice if that’s where we’d left her, except that audiences are so conditioned to applaud that such an option is likely impracticable. Instead, lighting designer Geoff Bouckley removes the character from sight in a slow fadeout so that Ivanochko can return as who she is to accept a well-earned ovation.
Anyway, what happens in between is the story of how this “Tart of Hearts” got to that lonely wall in the first place.
The story recounted is not necessarily literal or sequential. It circles and backtracks. Parts of it repeat. Repetition, or seeming repetition, is one of the principal compositional devices Ivanochko uses to create her portrait of this troubled woman – a Torch Song lounge singer, if not in reality at least in her own imagination. A large part of the work’s fascination is the uncertainty we feel about what is “real” in the character’s story and what she has made up in her own head. There are moments of surreal, metaphorical poignancy that hover in an incompletely defined emotional landscape that makes the character as much emblematic as particular and individual.
Catherine Thompson’s subtly suggestive sound score adds to this evanescent tone of uncertainty. It mostly drifts in and out unobtrusively. Often it amounts to little more than random background noise, the indistinct rumblings of some anonymous urban location, perhaps a city park with children playing, vehicles passing. Sometimes a plaintive guitar – a few doodled chords or a fragment of melancholy melody – suggests something more immediate, but the sound is not obviously contextual; more like a fleeting memory.
Slowly the woman stirs, almost as if stepping into a dream. Suddenly she’s caught in the beam of car headlights – the hood of a vehicle protrudes from behind a black masking panel, downstage right – and falls to the ground. As if to make the event more shocking, there’s no sound of honking horn or screeching brakes. She drags herself up, the first of several recoveries from life’s hard knocks, and with increasing composure steps up to a microphone, downstage left.
Standing there in her sexy dress, face pale against her short-cropped blonde hair and with lips almost matching her dress, she looks vulnerable. Her emotions could be headed in any direction. “What a lovely crowd you are,” she tells us, smiling as if in recognition of individuals in the audience. “I can feel your love shining at me.” It inspires her to sing about love, the “dark side” of love as she tells us. Clearly this is going to be a sentimental, bittersweet evening of valedictory self-indulgence for this washed-up, has-been of an emotional wreck.
Needless to say, Ivanochko’s character does not sing, not yet anyway. She translates the song’s presumably baleful lyrics into movement; not exactly a dance, more jittery little runs and hops going back and forth and around. Arms raise and hands reach. She seems anxious and lost. She barrels into the microphone. It falls. So does she, and rolls toward that whitewashed back wall.
Soon she’s crouching, deep in thought. Then she’s up again, trotting on the spot, extending a hand with thumb out as if hitching a ride. As we discover, she’s done a lot of this in her time; maybe genuinely needing a ride or as likely trying to catch the attention of a passing john. These encounters have never ended well. At one point she falls, as if rudely shoved from the front seat of car.
She returns to the microphone, removes it from its stand and carries it centre stage where she lies face down, booty angled up. And now she really does sing, quietly to herself but still rather well.
Soon she’s shuddering and breathing deeply and spasmodically. She’s on her knees. Her pelvis quivers. In unrequited heat, her finger searches to tickle the source of the inner fire and longing. It’s disturbingly, unmistakably graphic.
The catalog of misadventures, of repeated bad mistakes, of pill- or booze-induced stupor, of sexual frustration repeats. Those car headlights are a dangerously luminous magnet. She briefly returns as the fading Torch Song singer to her make-believe lounge and tells a story about Ethel Merman, who one time could not sing because she couldn’t stop laughing. “Everything is fiction,” the woman knowingly tells us.
But finally it’s “time to say goodnight; I’m getting tired.” She promises us a final song, dedicated to “the one I love.” There is no song sung. The plaintive guitar melody faintly sounds. Bathed in red, the woman makes her way slowly to the whitewashed wall. She positions one leg carefully in front of the other in the time-honored manner of a woman who wants to accentuate her figure to best advantage; a final, futile grab for love? Who knows? She’s probably long past that. Her arms open, then lower into repose. The darkness envelops her. It’s over; but the images linger far longer in memory.