Andrea Nann’s collaborative relationship with Tragically Hip front man Gord Downey goes back at least a decade. They’ve known and admired each other’s work much longer. Nann’s artistic partnership with Dora Award-winning dancer Brendan Wyatt is more recent but, given its very evident success on stage, has good reason to endure.
In December they co-choreographed and danced “Beside Each Other”, a thematically linked series of duets set to selections from Downey’s early albums – “Coke Machine Glow” (2001) and “Battle of the Nudes” (2003). The fifty-five-minute work revealed the miraculous, in this case symbiotic, relationship that can ignite a performance. Nann and Wyatt, both well-seasoned artists, are not what you’d immediately identify as “natural” partners, yet their differences of age, temperament and physicality turn out to be ideally complementary.
Their collaboration takes its title from a Downey “Coke Machine Glow” lyric: “Here we are in the bed. Here we are beside each other after everything we’ve said.” And, clearly, the couple Nann and Wyatt portrays – at certain moments with such vérité that it’s disconcertingly immediate and real – has said a great deal, nice and nasty.
While there is perhaps too obvious a circularity to the work’s structure – let’s just say a melon and a recurrently appearing moon make symbolic bookends – the series of incidents “Beside Each Other” comprises is non-linear. The contrasting snapshots are of a deeply bonded yet not always comfortable relationship of the “can’t live with you/can’t live without you” kind.
The work’s dynamic shifts aptly mirror these contrasts – languorously erotic, combatively pugilistic verging on abusive, alienated, flirtatious, fun-filled, tender and tough; but ultimately very loving. They also reflect the range of Downey’s music, from country/folkish to hard rock.
Sometimes the action involves little more than a telling glance or a gentle meeting of hands. Other times it’s as if they’re intent on writing – in abstracted form, of course – an addendum to the “Kama Sutra”. Their inventively intertwining, tumbling, upending, nuzzling, cradling encounters speak of powerful passions, but gravitational as their attraction is, they remain independent souls, sometimes observing each other from a distance.
In one notably poetic moment, Wyatt stands mid-stage, gesturally self-conversant and absorbed. It’s not a peaceful reverie. Wyatt might be reliving battles with inner demons and ready to crack at any moment. Nann moves to the lip of the stage where she places a transparent tray of water on visual designer Elysha Poirier’s makeshift, low-tech overhead projector. As Nann pours coloured ink onto the water’s surface, Wyatt is engulfed by an eerie swirl not unlike that created by dissipating drops of blood. That Nann, rather than Poirier, who at other times takes control of the projector, activates this effect suggests that even in their moments of solitude the two characters remain empathetically connected.
Individually, Nann and Wyatt present varying facets of their characters’ past and present lives. A lot of history is only hinted at: Nann as a possible junkie/streetwalker, Wyatt as preening, crotch-grabbing macho man. There are the quiet almost contemplative moments of mature reflection and others of youthful boisterousness. Choreographically “Beside Each Other” is like an extended conversation in movement with no apparent attempt on either’s part to impose a unifying vocabulary. Nann and Wyatt each dance to their own particular strengths: she with a natural extended lyricism, he with a coiled intensity that even in its quietest moments holds explosive potential.
Although Nann and Wyatt’s responses to the selected Downey songs sometimes verge on the overly illustrative – “Trick Rider, Yer Possessed” – more often they’re imaginatively personal riffs. This works to the audience’s advantage since, it may be assumed, not everyone will be familiar with Downey’s music or able to comprehend his often drawlingly delivered enigmatic and elliptical lyrics.
Theatrically, “Beside Each Other” is engineered to break the imaginary fourth wall to create an intimate bond between audience and performers. The Michael Young Theatre stage was built out for the occasion and unmasked. Costume changes occur in gloomy corners yet in full view of the audience. Nann and Wyatt sometimes address the audience directly and at one point Nann runs into the crowd and scampers through a row of seats. At the end they carve up the melon to share with their audience.
The general air of informality, of not attending a routine dance concert, makes good sense, however, within the co-presenting Young Centre’s objective to program dance that is accessible in content and designed to draw a broad audience. While the centre was built as a home for Toronto’s enormously successful Soulpepper Theatre company and George Brown College’s theatre program, it also functions independently of both, programming cross-disciplinary festivals and stand-alone events.
“Beside Each Other”, which had already toured before its Toronto run, also testifies to the centre’s commitment to nurturing new work. Nann was among the first of twelve Young Centre resident artists named two years ago in a specially funded initiative. It has given Nann the supportive infrastructure within which to present and develop new work. A year ago her Dreamwalker company presented “Tumbling Dice: Uncollected Dances by Andrea Nann and Friends”. It included “Reveries” from 2001, a Downey word-fuelled duet, which Nann performed with Wyatt in its “Tumbling Dice” revival.
Meanwhile, “Beside Each Other” was already in process, enjoying a two-year gestation that began on a small scale as “Divination Duet” in a June 2009 Young Centre “New Waves” festival, gradually assuming its final form via other Young Centre creative development offerings – “Discovery Labs” and “Open Studio” sessions.
For all this, “Beside Each Other” is hardly innovative in approach or execution, nor is it conclusive in its exploration of a fraught but tender relationship. Its appeal rests in the wonderful synergy of its collaborators.