In 2003, Toronto modern dance company Dancemakers moved to the Distillery Historic District and christened their new home the Dancemakers Centre for Creation. In addition to the company’s regular season, Artistic Director Serge Bennathan presents a season of independent artists in the studio theatre and has recently launched a Residency Program for choreographers. In the first program of the 2004 Dancemakers Presents season, Toronto-based artists Susie Burpee and Lesandra Dodson premiered their respective new works “The Countess of Main Events” and “In Silence” from September 30th through October 2nd. Together these works created a physically powerful evening of dance that explored the intimate matters of love, loss and madness.
The Countess of Main Events
“The Countess of Main Events”, co-created and performed by dancer/choreographer Susie Burpee and vocalist Jennifer Moore, is an intimate journey that charts the unravelling of a single mind. Burpee creates a character struggling desperately against her own psychological undoing, in an environment burdened with exaggeration. The lights illuminate the stage to reveal an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque room, created by designer Normand Vandal. Burpee cites Picasso’s cubist paintings as inspiration for the piece and, in true cubist form, a single chair, two tables and an angled wall fill the space in distorted dimensions, providing a visual introduction to the fractured world of Burpee’s Countess.
Her fingers draw the sky
draw the words from her throat
and she sings a song she does not,
can not remember.
She bends herself as if in dream
breaks the strings that hold her
and reaches for the feather bits of a winged lullaby
whose wings have long since melted.
The Countess begins tucked low against the angled wall, singing inaudibly to herself. There is hesitancy, unknowingness, to her movement and her darting eyes establish the disconnection between her mind and body. Costumed in black by Vandal, the edge of her skirt leaves trailing threads against her calvesan apt costume for a character experiencing the unravelling of self.
The edge of her skirt
is raw and it is in the almost-silence
that the threads spill like summer apologies
And when there is no more sound,
when the room is still and still skewed,
the unravelling continues to the edge of remembering,
promises and mislaid promises spilling.
The Countess’ palpable disorientation intensifies as she rises. The ground does not seem stable beneath her feet and is as skewed as the furniture – as unpredictable as her own limbs. Her hands gesture furiously and she seems amazed by the independent movement of her arms, wide and flung like wings that have been denied the grace of flight.
The Countess is met by vocalist and co-creator Jennifer Moore who emerges from behind the wall. Moore’s voice replaces The Countess’ fragmented spoken phrases with the powerfully articulated words of Gertrude Stein and offers clarity to a stage that is fraught with confusion. Moore speaks directly to the root of the Countess’ struggle as she declares that, “the silence on the other side was thick with apathy”. Her presence provides the calm ground to the Countess’ anxious figure.
There is a voice from behind the wall,
“I loved you”
but her own words trap themselves in
the soft hollow of her throat
locking themselves in the centre of her
in the space between her ribs where her breath should be.
Burpee’s movement loses its timidity as she trails Moore, and an untamed physicality fills the stage. This physical abandon traces the escalation of the Countess’ fraying self and culminates with her repeated phrase, “if I find it in time, I shall finish this rhyme”. The frantic desperation in her voice is reflected in a frenzy of mechanical movements, which are contrasted by Moore’s slow, lyrical song. The Countess then transforms herself in the narrow angle of the once-flat wall and changes into an unzipped party dress. This physical change impels an explosive flamenco-inspired performance and The Countess dances like a frantic cabaret performer, stamping to Moore’s piano accompaniment. Wilder and wilder, she performs her maniacal dance, continually demanding Moore to play faster, to sing faster, as her psychological disintegration becomes complete. Abruptly, she ends, in silence and alone; her entire body stooped with exhaustion. It is an absolute defeat, both physically and spiritually. The Countess, as Alice, concedes to the madness of Wonderland but there is no waking from this dream.
She crowns herself,
fingers circling her head,
and when her arms grow too tired,
she is no longer queen.
The first night without her crown,
she will dream of a hand, one hand
that stitches itself against the afternoon sun.
And the second night,
she dreams of arms again,
this time they will be three times as long as she,
but still there are none to hold her tight
and still there are none to hold her fast.
Lesandra Dodson’s “In Silence” is an exploration of love and loss focalized through the bodies and voices of dancers Heidi Strauss and Linnea Swan. Text from Lord Byron’s nineteenth-century romantic poem “When We Two Parted” permeates the piece and the spoken poetry is punctuated by a furious gestural vocabulary. The rawness of love and the blunt edge of loss are manifested through the performers’ fragmented offerings of Byron’s poem.
With cheekbones waiting above,
arms open like kiss
a kiss that is blown,
and lands with a violent thud against collarbone thin.
Swan and Strauss begin the piece within the borders of Hugh Conacher’s long white panels in the centre of the stage. These panes define a linear journey, locking both women within their white confines. The performers move along the set in tandem, securing parallel paths but their experiences begin to transform once they move beyond the defined panels, and they begin to extend themselves beyond the initial limits of the framed space.
Dodson also moves beyond preconceived limits in her treatment of the text. She creates a physical architecture of Byron’s words, parsing the poem to match the gestural movement sequences. Swan and Strauss are united by these words, by their voices, even when their movement carries them on divergent paths. The words are not merely spoken by Strauss and Swan, but filtered through movement. Phrases return through the bodies of the dancers, layering the sense of anxiety both physically as well as aurally. It is this dynamic marriage of words and movement that allows the entirety of the word-movement experience to be larger than the sum of its parts.
She fights the words,
the poem that swarms like bees
whose honey tastes bitter and lonely,
whose wings are fierce
and blind without a second thought.
Strauss and Swan deliver Byron’s words with a clarity and vulnerability that contrasts the long stringed harmonies of Christine Fellow’s evocative original score. Spoken fragments of the poem, percussive sounds of sharp heels against the floor and palms slapping against thighs punctuate the fluidity of Fellow’s composition. The final section of music begins with a softened piano melody and, as the choreography intensifies, new instruments are introduced, creating an intense collage of sound textures. This progressive layering of melody and instrumentation reflects the infinite complexity of love and loss explored throughout “In Silence”. The final movement sequence is fierce and uncompromisingly physical. Like in a feverish dream, the dancers fling and toss themselves against the floor as they fling and toss the final lines of Byron’s poem into the space above. In the silence that ensues, the title of the poem hangs between them: “when we two parted” and part they do — Swan stands, while Strauss remains curled against the floor.
They meet in secret,
their long winged limbs made longer
by the angle of the street lamp
and the length of the sidewalk.
And when she wakes,
her skull hangs off her grieving neck
as she concedes
to their bodies’ unwillingness to fly.