I’m a big fan of a mixed program, for the same reason I enjoy a short story collection or sharing dishes at a meal. It’s something Fall for Dance North (FFDN) has made its reputation on – an array of dance at an incredibly accessible price point – and their 2022 Signature Programme collects works under the apropos theme of reunion. It’s a satisfying evening with some real treats because, well, this is FFDN doing what they do best.
The night starts with the charming Softly Losing, Softly Gaining, a FFDN-commissioned world premiere by tap choreographer Dianne Montgomery.Inspired by psychology research on the foundational need for social connection, the piece organizes its cast of six in scenes enacting varying degrees of togetherness and apartness. The group work is raucous, delightful: I loved a jazzy section with loose, full-bodied movement, plenty of slides and spins, or the show-stopping dance-off where two tappers trade intricate footwork in playful competition. These are offset by less obviously buoyant sections, as when two dancers are back to back, snapping their ankles furiously and impressively, heads down and so absorbed they are unaware of each other. If only they could turn around, they might notice.
The choreography is varied, creative, and there is a clever moment performed in round, with three pairs of dancers echoing the same movement in a delayed loop: a nice metaphor for the familiar tug between (often simultaneous) connection and disconnection. The soundscapes, complemented by live trumpet and violin, are an excellent canvas for the dancing, and while scene transitions sometimes feel abrupt (now we are joyful, now distant), that’s a small complaint given the outstanding tapping.
Kaleo Trinidad’s Kau Hea A Hiiaka – another standout – is direct in its environmental concerns. The hula dancers enter with branches held aloft (seemingly native flora; I spotted cattails and autumnal maple leaves), and photo projections show the arc of pristine nature, human industry, climate devastation and attempted restoration. The piece isn’t didactic though, or naively hopeful, but quietly determined. Committed – through the mele (songs) and dancing – to reach forward and backward across generations in this moment of crisis.
Accompanied by voice and simple percussion, the dancers hold both conviction and gentleness in the same breath, incorporating firm arms and upright postures with smooth swaying and rolling hips that ripple beautifully through the costumes. Each section has an unhurried tempo, steady and persistent, and the symmetry of the staging lends to a sense of collective purpose. The dancers’ movements and poses are alight with a clarity of intent both mesmerizing and inspiring.
With Ensemble Soundstreams playing Claude Vivier’s Zipangu live, Michael Greyeyes’ dancefilm of the same name sidesteps a post-colonial interpretation to explore the earthly and spiritual. Though a sleeping goddess embodying gold (“Zipangu” refers to Marco Polo’s term for Japan, the so-called “Land of Gold”), Ceinwen Gobert evokes something more human in her masterful movement, verging on traumatic, as she unpicks herself from a shroud of gauze. At first her body is lifeless, or conflicted, but her dancing becomes powerful. Despite the transformation, I couldn’t pinpoint why her confident movement felt dispassionate. Because it’s film, not live? Then I remember: this is no human but the animation of the land itself, something fiercely elemental. “A goddess remembering her purpose,” as Greyeyes puts it, “of stone and sand and gold coming inexorably to life.”
The evening’s final piece, Jera Wolfe’s Arise, features a remarkable 146 dancers from Canada’s National Ballet School. Wolfe’s compositions are gorgeous and arresting, skillfully arranging the dancers into co-ordinated, sinuous shapes more impressive than their individual parts – appropriately so since the piece examines the role of collaboration in facing life’s challenges. The staging is quite literal, a bricked wall facade upstage and a single bare light bulb hanging above it that dancers grasp for. Arise lingers mainly in one emotional register, something akin to longing (perhaps a consequence of the song selection: plaintive piano and strings from Ólafur Arnalds). It leaves you eager for a sense of stakes, the urgency in sharing and supporting and building community – to say nothing of addressing how fragile or fraught this may be to achieve.
It’s wonderful to see so many young dancers shining, with much praise to the leads. And it’s in the multi-age casting that Arise’s themes are most resonant: you can’t not consider the student’s’ own trajectories, the aspirations and relationships that evolve during their training.
FFDN’s Signature Programme is a reminder of the pleasure not just in gathering but exploring the many expressions of being together. If variety is what you’re after, there is no better ticket in town.
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