As the lights rise on Kathleen Hiley’s inaugural solo production, her expressive face peers out at the audience through an antique windowpane.
It’s an apt image. The Winnipeg-based dance artist’s entire show seems driven as a bold act of self-revelation: four portraits of a young woman as told through the lens of contemporary dance.
The eclectic program presented at the Gas Station Arts Centre (GSAC) notably featured three commissioned world premieres by Montréal soloist Margie Gillis, Winnipeg-based choreographers Peter Quanz and Hiley’s mother, Gaile Petursson-Hiley, as well as a signature work by acclaimed dance artist Stephanie Ballard.
Hiley, thirty-one, has garnered critical acclaim for her riveting performances infused with her innate dramatic sensibility. As though proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, she was last seen performing in Petursson-Hiley’s fantastical Eclipse held at the GSAC in September 2015. Hiley is a graduate of the School of Contemporary Dancers Professional Program and a company member of popular local troupe Drive Dance, co-founded in 2010 with Arlo Reva and Robyn Thomson Kacki.
She also stretched her wings as a solo artist at Brooklyn, New York’s CoolNY Festival (2014) and Dumbo Dance Festival (2013), as well as during last April’s Núna (now) presentation for the Iceland Canada Art Convergence Festival. Hiley describes this solo show as a “dream project” three years in the making that represents the logical next step of her artistic journey.
One of the show’s highlights quickly proved to be Gillis’ August is Dangerous, set to American singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche’s A Quiet Line and Call Your Girlfriend, depicting the complexities of a love triangle.
During the first section of this solo created for her, Hiley radiates pure joy as she spins and hops, fluidly sweeping across the stage with abandon while animating Gillis’ gestural movement vocabulary with detailed precision. With Hiley’s long tresses flowing and her wearing Gillis’ own costume design — a dress created out of fabric left over from one that the soloist wore while once performing in Paul Taylor’s Duet with her late brother Christopher Gillis — I could not help but feel that we were seeing a younger Margie Gillis at the beginning of her illustrious career.
However, Hiley is wisely neither imitating nor emulating the renowned Canadian dance icon. What immediately became apparent is that, through their creative combustion, Gillis has discovered a lingua franca between the two dance artists — based on their mutual ability to express an entire world of emotion through conveying achingly, all-too-human stories.
In the second, more dramatic section, clouds descend with Hiley’s heartbreaking portrayal propelled by her character’s narrative of loss. Her looming shadow cast on the upstage wall, created by Gillis’ long-time lighting designer Pierre Lavoie, suddenly evokes another ephemeral presence as she shakes her fists, stamps her feet and clasps her hands over her mouth. The searing piece ends as Hiley slowly walks upstage into darkness; its open, ambiguous ending leaving more questions behind than answers in a compelling solo so well-suited to this gifted artist.
Quanz’s equally compelling sans titre proved that the Winnipeg-based choreographer acclaimed for his contemporary ballets could well have another potent career choreographing for modern dance. It is notable how effectively Quanz is able to translate his ballet lexicon to contemporary movement, with Hiley serving as an ideal muse.
The dancer first appears caught in blue light, as hazy stage smoke (albeit too much, at times, obscuring Hiley’s performance) filled the stage. The intensely physical solo features Hiley, dressed in simple black shorts and a long-sleeved shirt, rolling across the stage, hurtling through space with slicing windmill arms or slamming her body against the floor. Set to Tan Dun’s Symphonic Poem of 3 Notes, there with only a few fleeting moments such as her executing molasses-slow deep knee bends that provided relief from Quanz’s otherwise percussive, unrelenting choreography.
As Hiley finally comes to rest, shuddering in lighting designer Robert Mravnik’s shards of decaying light, a final gunshot rings out, punctuating the visceral solo while capping the entire evening not with a whimper, but a forceful bang.
The program’s most dated work, Ballard’s Lithium for Medea choreographed in 1984 for Gillis, demonstrated Hiley’s convictions in performing a solo so closely associated with the legendary dance artist — especially with Gillis in the audience for both weekend shows. I recalled seeing Hiley perform this powerhouse solo set to a score by Japanese avant-garde artists Kitaro and Phew during NAfro’s Moving Inspirations Festival (reviewed by The Dance Current) in November 2012. Her interpretation has only grown sharper and more taut with tension over the past three and a half years with Hiley bursting like a coiled spring in one of the solo’s earliest moments. Wearing a long, black sheath dress, with her hair in a top-knot, the dancer shakes and rolls, crawls and staggers about the stage before finally grasping for a single white flower held like an amulet in this compelling Canadian classic she has now made her own
The program opened with Petursson-Hiley’s evocative Keyhole, a work that unfolds as a private soliloquy with Hiley dressed in a white slip drenched in Mravnik’s moon-soaked lighting. As the evening’s longest work — running approximately eighteen minutes — the piece features Hiley’s cousin Derek Hiley’s evocative set of aged wooden doors and whitewashed windows, and could be whittled. Several of its sections felt overly cryptic; however, particular images resonated powerfully, such as Hiley’s pulling a gauzy chemise over her head that suddenly suggests a bride, pious nun or simple veiling of her true identity. Still, there is something incredibly special in seeing a dancer perform her own mother’s choreography, with its organic movement vocabulary so clearly in her blood and bones, while also speaking to the continuity of generations.
It is no easy feat to perform your own full-length show, and Hiley is to be applauded for tackling its inherent challenges. Her maiden voyage not only showcased her artistry, vision and chameleonic versatility but also proved her requisite grit and drive in becoming one of this country’s newest solo dance artists.