What are the possibilities when performance is offered outside the black box theatre? Through their original work, burn, burned, Rodney Diverlus and Syrus Marcus Ware present a fictitious futuristic setting following a band of revolutionaries looking to salvage what is left after decades of race-driven war and destruction. They play with the notion of performance space as a crucial element in the delivery of the performing arts.
Experimenting with outdoor performance space, Diverlus and Ware staged burn, burned at the Massey Harris Park in Toronto: audiences were welcome to sit on pillows facing a drapery of red, yellow and orange fabrics, mimicking the typical setup of the familiar audience-stage relationship. But the performers strayed from this setup — hurdling over benches and drinking from public water fountains throughout the thirty-minute performance. And while the jazz chords that struck the official start of the performance caused audiences to perk up and prepare for the “curtain to be drawn” moment, the barriers of the typical performance space were broken down, the art becoming a part of the surrounding reality.
The trumpets and drums of the musical score tangled with Toronto’s natural soundscape — screeching streetcars, passers-by whispering loudly, all blending together ultimately to provide the experience of the performance as a whole. Diverlus and Ware’s piece challenges norms, with audiences both observing and actively participating in the performance space (one onlooker even joined the performers midway for a short period of time). And the performance space was not the only experimental choice. The creative team wove contemporary movement with jazz technique, showcasing grounded yet freeing choreography — movement that was rooted in the ground through bent knees and a strong stance but still incorporated an appealing airiness, perfectly matching the powerful yet catchy musical score. Aligning with the heaviness of the subject matter, the equality-driven revolutionaries attempt to salvage what’s left of the world. The personalized choreography highlights the strengths and capabilities of each dancer as they offer a glimmer of hope for a future separated from a tragic past.
At the root of this individualistic movement are the jazzy music and jazz-based choreography, drawing a parallel between this fictitious setting and the very emergence of jazz culture. A presentness shadowed by a troubled past of racial oppression is all too familiar in the world of jazz. The ongoing battle to reclaim the African-American roots of traditional jazz from the performative, commercialized industry that jazz has become, for me, was difficult to separate from Diverlus and Ware’s creation. It was evident through moments such as the dancers’ demeanours transitioning from an initial state of calm to an increasingly aggravated frustration as the piece progressed, swelling more with every repeated phrase or music crescendo.
Praise must go to the five dancers who committed to their performance from start to finish. Dedra McDermott, Ravyn Wngz, Brayden Cairns, Julia Cosentino and Chenise Mitchell had my undivided attention, dancing strong and poised through the work’s entire energetic and demanding repertoire. Whether through a simple gyrating hip roll or a dramatic cackle, each dancer was mesmerizing, offering entertainment and shock to those who chose to participate in this viewing. It is through this performance excerpt that Diverlus and Ware’s willingness to experiment with concepts surrounding the “letting loose” associated with jazz sheds light on the common conception that jazz parallels freedom. Audiences feel as much a part of the work as they are onlookers; I wanted to get up and dance myself at multiple times throughout the piece.
Overall, burn, burned is a performance involving many moving parts, literally and figuratively. The busyness of the performance progressively escalates as the golden sun sets on the park, capturing the contradictory nature of the storyline. With the intentionally forced smiles of the two dancers that conclude this complex work, the subtle suggestion is that something is being concealed or, rather, caricatured. Perhaps it’s a caution to avoid being burned in the very near future — because the future always repeats the past.