Under the artistic direction of Yvonne Ng, tiger princess dance projects presented SoloDuet, an evening of new and revisited works at the The Theatre Centre in Toronto. The evening comprised one solo and one duet, choreographed by Ng and showcasing the talents of three independent contemporary dancers from the local scene.
In her letter from the artistic director, Ng explains the genesis of Metamorphosis of a Solitary female Phoenix and Magnetic Fields, the two pieces on the program. Metamorphosis first debuted as part of Christopher House’s 12 Solos commissioning project for Toronto Dance Theatre in 2007. Ng agreed to work with then-company member Linnea Wong to create a five-minute solo. Magnetic Fields, on the other hand, is a new work for dancers Mairéad Filgate and Luke Garwood.
Of Peranakan Chinese descent — people originally from China who migrated to and settled in Malaysia between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries — Ng grew up in Singapore under British colonial rule. She explains that she grew up wanting to be part of the white elite and that this experience left her with a conflicted love/hate relationship with her childhood.
I think it is important to note that Wong is of Chinese-Canadian parentage. My first memory of her was when Wong was a promising student in the three-year pre-professional training program at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. I have a vivid memory of Wong performing a piece by Toronto choreographer Peter Chin as part of an end-of-the-year student show. Wong was memorable in this work for her commitment to and complete embodiment of Chin’s style — elements that she also brings to Ng’s choreography. Chin is of mixed Chinese, Jamaican and Irish heritage and, like Ng, his background has a strong influence on his work. Wong is a fierce technician in any piece by any choreographer but there is something very right about her performing works by Chin and Ng because of a strong investment in Asian cultural aesthetics.
My recollection of Wong’s first performance of Metamorphosis back in 2007 bears this out. She executed the piece with an exactness and bearing that made Metamorphosis a signature work for both Ng and Wong. Since 2007 Wong has performed Metamorphosis on more than one occasion and, as Ng explains in her program note, many audience members have wanted to see the five-minute work extended. In 2013 Ng contacted Wong and the two of them went back into the studio to see where further exploration would take them.
The result is a twenty-minute work where Wong inhabits different worlds and guises in a quest to understand and portray the many facets of her being. The phoenix is a metaphor for transformation, rebirth and reinvention and Ng explains that she wanted to “dig deeply into the core, the resilient nature of this woman.” Her objective is played out by Wong in a series of dance and physical-theatre-inspired scenes that take place in various parts of the stage. Ng invited composer Nick Storring to be the sound designer for the piece, asking him to create a collage of music and sounds drawn from his imaginings for the piece and from Ng’s eclectic music collection. Samples were drawn from classical Chinese repertoire, including opera, and also from popular instrumental recordings from the 1960s.
Wong first appears hunkered down on all fours mid-stage. She is dressed in a voluminous paper robe that makes a rich crinkling sound whenever she moves. Wong gradually “metamorphosizes,” emerging from her cocoon of paper, flicking and trembling. Once unfurled, she hisses, keens and roars as she makes a series of strong warrior poses, taking bold steps downstage away from her paper nest. Wong emerges in a backless top of iridescent embroidered silk paired with a short pleated skirt with open seams that show off Wong’s athletic frame.
Other scenes follow where the young phoenix tries on different personas. For an extended period, Wong is an Asian-styled Nancy Sinatra in white go-go boots and white bobbed wig. Wong frugs (a 1960s dance craze) behind a transparent screen that is lowered from the ceiling to give a lurid peep show or red-light district quality to the performance. Wong sways and poses seductively, her sultry movements becoming increasingly provocative. Hip-thrusts eventually giving way to an all-out, full-bodied, head-banging catharsis that seems to leave Wong wounded and disillusioned.
Another vignette has Wong downstage centre dancing on a small raised dais wearing a pair of bright yellow plastic platform slides and a large ornate metal necklace that tinkles when she moves. The dais is not much bigger than the ones you find in department store fitting rooms where you stand to have your skirt or trousers hemmed. The scene conjures images of dressing up and acting older than you are by wearing your mother’s or your sister’s shoes. Wong totters uneasily in the shoes, sucking in her cheeks and placing her hands on her waist. She revisits some of the warrior poses from the beginning of the piece that make sense with the oversized necklace as an armoured breastplate. Yet, since she is no longer barefoot and firmly grounded, the stances appear incongruous. The section reads as a commentary on society’s expectations for women to conform, to be demure, and to not overstep.
In the final scene Wong puts on a blue housedress with fluted sleeves, and the mood changes dramatically. There is freedom in her long sweeping lunges, twirls and glides. The soundscape is of gently falling rain and the scene reminded me of the 1993 Vietnamese film The Scent of Green Papaya for its tranquility and sweetness. Has the phoenix found peace within herself? The journey has clearly left her wiser.
In the second piece on the program, Magnetic Fields, Ng revisits the metaphor of the phoenix, this time paired with its Asian counterpart, the dragon. Ng invited stalwart dancers Mairéad Filgate and Luke Garwood to explore these complementary, but also diametrically opposed, mythological creatures in the context of a relationship. Ng was struck on the first day of rehearsal that the two dancers she had chosen were white, not Asian, and she wondered whether they would be able to do justice to the themes she was proposing to work with. In the end, the phoenix/dragon theme was a catalyst that transcended notions of either race or colonialism and allowed the two dancers to work with ideas of attraction and repulsion. The three were particularly inspired by the force that keeps magnets apart when turned against each other.
The stage was set with a wide roll of white fabric hung from the ceiling like a photographer’s backdrop to the apron of the stage. This anonymous white surface defined a key or even sacred space where the focus of the dancers’ interactions took place. The dancers enter and exit the space making the action of the work appear timeless.
The movement vocabulary relied on the dancers circling each other in an almost predatory way. When Filgate and Garwood did make contact the resulting spark sent each into paroxysms of shaking and vibrating. Their interaction seemed to be predicated on the relationship between cause and effect — the two dancers moving in each other’s orbit then coming closer together, resisting each other for as long as possible before contact sent one or the other into spasms.
Halfway through the piece the action changed to a game of physical charades. It began with Garwood standing on the periphery of the white space watching Filgate intently, trying to interpret her movements. Each time she moved or touched a particular part of her body Garwood suggested a corresponding word or phrase. As he tried to guess the meaning of her movements Filgate silently corrected or encouraged him, allowing a story to unfold. After a number of stops, starts and miscues, Garwood eventually cracks the code and can re-enter the space with Filgate, no longer on the sidelines. Garwood’s attentiveness to the task of decoding Filgate is both enthralling and endearing. His voice and intention are focused and when he finally comprehends her meaning his relief unlocks a stream of consciousness that draws him closer to Filgate and re-establishes physical contact with her. Garwood’s presence and in-the-moment-ness in this scene were magical. Throughout the piece Garwood shows such empathy and caring toward Filgate that despite Ng’s efforts to disregard gender in the work, he implicates himself in his gendered desire to protect her. The sequence, which only lasts a few minutes, was well conceived and directed.
Ng brings a sensibility and intelligence to both pieces that create moments that are visually and dramaturgically arresting. She and her team of collaborators — including lighting designer Simon Rossiter, set and costume designer Cheryl Lalonde and outside eye Marie-Josée Chartier — worked diligently to craft a cohesive voice and look that supported and extended Ng’s vision. Never one to keep a tight hold on the reins, Ng’s generous spirit allowed SoloDuet to evolve and coalesce in interesting and evocative ways.