Ever since founding Gearshifting Performance Works (formerly Cuppa Jo) in 2000, artistic director/choreographer/performer Jolene Bailie has pushed the boundaries of her own florid imagination with such visually arresting works as Sensory Life, Infinite World (2010) and Switchback (2006). In her latest offering, the cryptically titled Eat All You Want/The Top?, she invites her viewers to step into a cake-fuelled world straddling both theatre and dance. The five-member company comprised of Claire Marshall, Hélène Le Moullec Mancini, Krista Nicholson, Janelle Hacault and Jillian Groening performed the three-show run at the University of Winnipeg’s The Asper Centre for Theatre and Film from May 2 to 4.
The hour-long production unfolds primarily as a series of episodic vignettes lit by the choreographer’s longtime collaborator Hugh Conacher. Bailie immediately establishes a society of women dressed in her own design of simple black trousers and sleeveless tops. A sense of playful suspense is created as individual dancers take turns tossing large plastic cups onto an ever-growing pile. Metaphors are laced throughout the entire show: the cups suggest lives to be filled (or not), while oozing chocolate tortes placed visibly at the side of the white box stage evoke Eden’s forbidden fruit. Bailie’s strong visual sense and effective use of props always produce striking tableaux and this latest show proved no exception.
One of the show’s constant themes (and certainly an idea Bailie has explored extensively in earlier productions such as Hybrid Human from 2010) is the perils of modern life — exploring, at its core, what it means to be “human.” Her latest quest is heightened by Winnipeg-based sound designer Susan Chafe’s — another longtime creative partner — droning litany of newscasts telling of global war and political strife, subsumed with a rumbling techno-score juxtaposed with sweet choruses of birdsong.
The dichotomy of the natural and the man-made world, inner dreamscape and external, cold reality is reinforced as dancer Le Moullec Mancini strides onstage while balancing a saddle brush on her forehead. She recounts an imagined encounter with late Canadian painter Alex Colville, who urged her to “keep galloping.” The idea of freedom becomes a recurring leitmotif; however this underlying element is unevenly addressed. There were many times I scratched my head, puzzled over what it all meant despite the show’s billing as “off-radar” and “bold.”
Take, for example, an absurdist, Elizabethan-collared unicorn, (performed by Nicholson wearing a large coned horn), flanked by dancers holding cue cards. The cards including a range of sentiments such as: “You have no idea the trouble I go through for you.” During one section, “Panties for Peace,” the company dashes full-tilt onstage, flinging a heap of colourful underwear onto the floor to recreate the real-life, non-violent campaign launched against the military in Burma (officially Myanmar) in 2007. A glittering mirror ball unexpectedly drops from the ceiling to illuminate Marshall and Nicholson as they nibble cake at a tiny picnic table covered with a red-checkered tablecloth. Nicholson is buried alive in the plastic cups by Marshall, Hacault and Groening before Le Moullec Mancini abruptly holds up a fire-engine-red stop sign that halts their actions. There were so many of these surrealistic images — commendable in their imaginativeness — that I began to fear there would be little dance offered. This is surprising because Bailie graduated from the Professional Program at The School of Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg in 2000 before establishing a vibrant, solo performing career.
Admittedly, she does provide several short solos and smaller ensemble sections that punctuate the more theatrically inclined scenes. A quartet of dancers appears onstage, heads bent and shoulders hunched as they stride through the strewn cups. In another section, Groening gazes upwards, one arm held out poker straight before breaking into percussive kicks and leaps. Still, I would have liked to have seen much more actual physical movement and a greater presence of Bailie’s choreography, which would have added balance and cohesion to her fleeting, dreamscape-like world.
The end comes as the five women bounce on small circular, orange-rimmed trampolines, finally consuming their tortes while voicing questions such as “What does it mean to be a human being?” and “What are we doing?” — with this last observation particularly resonant, I suspect, for audience members. But it is Le Moullec Mancini who gets the last word. She brings the piece full circle as she avows “I hope we keep galloping,” in this collection of theatrical — if enigmatic — imagery, borne of Bailie’s always intriguing creative world.
In August, Gearshifting will be on tour at the Xi’an Art Museum in Xi’an, China in conjunction with the major visual art exhibition, “Transformation of Canadian Landscape Art: Inside and Outside of Being.”