The following was written as a response to the work and also as an hommage.
Space, silence, absence. Moments of suspended emptiness punctuate the robust joy, delicate care and aching grief in “Absences”, Serge Bennathan’s last work as artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers. Performed to a charged score by Bertrand Chénier, played live by Eve Egoyan on piano and laptop, the work progresses in ever-intensifying cycles. Raw and refined expression by the company’s dancers repeatedly resolves to a dry silence, like well-paced sips of vermouth. The space opens into sharp relief and the sense of void lasts just long enough to make us wonder if anyone will return.
Danced by Susie Burpee, Dan Wild, Linnea Swan, Steeve Paquet, Simi Rowen and Sebastian Mena and long-time Dancemakers Julia Aplin and Shannon Cooney, the work also featured guest artist and former company member Carolyn Woods. A quintessential interpreter of Bennathan’s choreography, and his former life partner, Woods’ presence in the work brought a poignant edge to the performance, harking back to an earlier period in the company’s history and emphasizing themes of parting and separation.
The appearance and disappearance of human silhouettes projected on an expansive paper-like screen, sweeping from downstage left up and across the back wall, visually supports the emotional tone of the work. Designed by another former company member, set designer Jay Gower Taylor, the screen decreases in size as it travels up and around the space, echoing the form of the grand piano downstage right and creating a coherent three-dimensional shape for the dancing.
A trio begins in silence, two men and one woman, swivelling, tip-toeing, springing. We hear their breath. The men make their way downstage centre to embrace, caress and kiss – a greeting? a parting? It is a naked moment, and an emotional high point from which the rest of the piece cascades, pooling here and there to fall and tumble again toward the final goodbye.
Throughout the work, the dancers move through a series of ensembles, solos, duets and trios, spilling freely from one to the next, though often suspended in silence as if, knowing their destination, they are trying to dam the inevitable flow. Force builds, and we wait at the crest of a breath until, finally the movement breaks through. Familiar Bennathan vocabulary carries the work forward: deep, open attitudes; arms flung in over-wide seconds that expose sternums just barely shielding hearts; rapid stepping on tip-toe, reaching upward in ecstatic verticality; ripped open running, diving and tumbling wildly across the floor; long tipping balances and turning jumps with one leg extended to the side in abandon; pauses that seem to come by surprise, catching the dancers at the height of a moment and arresting them there, again on demi-pointe, limbs spread wide.
The piece feels like the moment before an embrace — or after — when you open yourself to make space for someone — or release them, letting them go. Negative space, an arrested moment of emptiness.
In a duet between Wild and Burpee, she becomes the ballerina for a moment, arms curved overhead framing her face. Bourrées become bent over skips and she moves upstage to meet Wild, only to be lifted and carried forward again. Ballet references arise in the work subtly, reminding me of the fact that Bennathan danced for Roland Petit’s Ballet de Marseille before coming to Canada to work as a choreographer. A fifth of the arms here, a grand plié there, more bourrées: I experience them as moments of grace amid the turbulent tension. The company joins Burpee by the piano, pausing together in preparation. A breath, and then a suspension with sternums lifted and arms open, palms upward. Mena falls away into a solo while the group exits.
He bounds quickly and frantically about the stage, softening only in rare moments. In another Bennathan classic (perhaps a reference to Le Groupe Artistic Director Peter Boneham’s work), Mena spins in a low arabesque by hopping rapidly on the spot. Stepping widely, almost waltzing, with fluid arms, he momentarily sheds his performance persona and smiles candidly at Egoyan. Swan joins them bringing a fragile and angular quality to the space. Another pause.
Swan runs upstage and stops facing the screen, arrested on demi-pointe with her right arm raised as if in salutation. Mena witnesses her in stillness. Using the laptop, Egoyan switches between natural piano and John Cage-like prepared sound, transforming the instrument back and forth throughout the work. At times it sounds like bells or gongs, at others like a band of steel drums. Swan becomes moth-like, almost frail in her long clinging ivory dress. She hops and flits, desperate in the light. Mena approaches, taking her weight as she arches, awkward and angular. The piano sounds like chimes and he takes her over his back and spins her wildly. She’s dizzy — I’m dizzy.
Another figure appears on the screen. Swan and Mena rejoin and dance together. Now she’s the ballerina for a moment. She looks blankly across the space. Big reaches, low arabesques, rolling, jumping, and then she crumples to the floor; he follows. They rise and spin again as the ensemble enters.
A change in music and a change in tone. Against big ringing, trilling chords on the piano, the dancers strut, cheekily almost, circling the stage and acknowledging the audience as they pass. They clump together and move through a loose unison sequence, shuffling, reaching, running and falling away. A soft vibration emanates from the still-prepared-sounding piano. Couples come together to touch and then part, and finally the group reforms, their hands flickering in the light. It’s a motif we’ve seen before. A wavering in movement and sound that seems to echo in the emptiness of the space. The dancers contort, break and crumple to the floor.
Again, the music shifts the mood as Egoyan plays rolling chords that are tonally bound in diminished harmonies. Burpee rises to stand awkwardly, her torso shuddering, as though she is laughing, or crying. She dances alone in silence and concludes with a silent sob that seems to wrack her body. The group crosses the stage toward Egoyan in very slow motion, as though a force is holding them back. They travel forward, advancing unwillingly into the unknown. The score never seems to resolve harmonically, keeping us ever-suspended in an aural forcefield.
Another solo, this time by Rowen, is more passionate, accompanied by a series of arpeggios on the piano. Though Rowen moves with more fluidity, she still seems constrained inside the repetitive soundscape. Eventually the group lifts and carries her, pushing her to the floor downstage centre and then standing on her. I am reminded of an image from an earlier piece by Bennathan, “Sable/Sand” (1995), in which one dancer is lying on the floor with arms outstretched and another dancer walks along his arms, from fingertip to fingertip. The group steps off Rowen and she seems to float on her belly. Wild steps forward, kisses her head and she softens into the floor before rising to slowly exit.
Solid chords now, this time augmented. There’s lots of space in the score and Paquet moves into an athletic sequence of jumps and flying dives. He begins with a gentle twisting at the waist, allowing his arms to fling out from his sides. This flinging motif returns in ways throughout his solo and seems to function as a sort of transition, clearing the performing space of the previous tension.
Woods enters and the aural field changes again to prepared sounds, this time treated with reverb to create a pronounced echo effect. She carries the flinging motif into waving as chimes ring and ring around her. She swivels, jumps, hops, skips and gallops with the freedom and abandon of a wild horse across the prairie. At one moment she indulges in a little disco-dancing groove at centre stage, à la Elaine from “Seinfeld”. The moment stands out because she is completely real inside it, self-conscious in a beautifully open way. A little grin appears on her face, the audience connects and we laugh with her. Soon after, Burpee joins her in a giggling run that becomes a voracious chassé, and then all the women are dancing together, doing classic Bennathan phrases full of exuberance, humour and freedom. The piano/chimes echo, escalating wildly.
Aplin stays while the others exit. She begins by measuring the distance from the floor with her hand, as if indicating the height of a child, perhaps her growing one-year-old daughter. She repeats this gesture in different locations and gradually builds into a signature solo, one moment crawling on hands and knees and the next exploding into flung arabesques. Flying jumps with one leg extended to the side, whipping kicks and a little tap dance moment tumble forth. If Woods dances with the grace and power of a wild horse, Aplin has the loose agility and easy elegance of a thoroughbred. There’s something about those legs. She actually played a horse once — in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Venus and Adonis” (2001), choreographed by Bennathan — and she was perfect in the part. It’s at this moment that I get the distinct feeling I’m witnessing an hommage, these dances a parting gift from Bennathan to his dancers, their passionate interpretation a parting gift to him.
A transitional trio evolves as Burpee and Swan join Aplin. They jump, facing the upstage screen with their hands above their heads, almost as though they’re waving at the shadow-figures on the screen. They run gently to touch each other’s ribcages. Silence.
Cooney enters with Paquet and the trio looks up. She jumps up into ballet fifth and Paquette catches her and carries her forward. The trio exits. Cooney and Paquet repeat the lift. And now, it’s Cooney’s solo. Egoyan’s piano is gentle, the prepared soundscape a blend of steel drums and almost-human voice. Cooney bounds through the space, flying wildly through the air in oblique turning leaps. It’s classic Cooney and I can feel her compressing her energy into the floor to propel herself upward, releasing at the height of the jump in a kind of shrug, weightless for a moment before returning to the earth. At one point, she turns and gestures toward the figures on the screen like an orchestra conductor. I recall another image from an earlier Bennathan work, perhaps “The Satie Project” (2002).
The damming of energy that I felt earlier in the evening — the thick silences and the resistance to the forward flow of time and motion — all are relinquished. Liberated from the constricted and distended harmonies in the score, Egoyan is free to play broad, robust chord progressions that cycle repeatedly and resolve to the tonic. If I had been trying to hold back my emotions, now I let them pour forth.
Gradually, however, a sense of calm develops. The group returns, swaying in a tight clump and, once again, silence. Wild moves downstage and the group members leave one-by-one. Egoyan plays and the sound transforms into a natural piano again. Wild raises his hand and begins to trace loops in the air with his finger, writing in space. Then he softens and, bourréeing low, moves directly upstage. The shadow-figure on screen has a bright spot where its heart would be. Wild moves through a series of long slow openings of his body in arabesque allongée. Silence again. He continues: a whipping turn and an abrupt stop, melting open and then suspending before flinging himself in the air, diving into the floor and rolling back up.
Paquet and Mena appear, bourréeing, with their hands behind their backs. The movement looks like the sound of rain, but it’s almost silent again. There’s only a slight ringing vibration fading from the space. Then the women enter, walking into relevé. The piano sound returns, as if coming back around the corner so we can hear it, and the momentum builds again. The women begin to move in unison: catch, drop, suspend … a backward run interrupted by a hip swivel. Their bird-like shifts in suspended arabesque are interwoven by the men strutting on demi-pointe; then a phrase of long, low flying with limbs spread expansively.
The music begins to escalate, rising as the women skim through the space. The men stand strong while the women run as though along the surface of water, flirting with the inevitable force that eventually draws them down into a heap, lying one on top of the other. A sense of weight, a realization?, transforms the atmosphere and the men then move to the side to wave, gesturing for the women to join them. A group of individuals, they travel across the stage from the wings on our right to the piano on our left, waving their right arms frantically to the side. As they arrive at the piano, the sound becomes a trickling. Swan walks back across to the downstage corner and the rest follow slowly, forming a line along the foot of the stage. They look at us, simply, openly. Then they drop their heads and roll slowly forward and I realize this is their bow. And yet Egoyan’s playing lingers just a little longer, unwilling to end.
I feel myself tremble at this unexpected ending. It’s over: this work, an era. We’re saying goodbye to Serge Bennathan as he leaves his position as artistic director of Dancemakers. We’re saying goodbye to this particular grouping of dance artists, some of whom have been with Bennathan since nearly the beginning of his fifteen-year tenure with the company.
With this work, I feel that Bennathan has fully revealed himself. He makes a personal statement and yet the topic transcends. It is a courageous work in many ways. The space, the stillness, the honesty of choice. Though he employs his characteristic movement vocabulary and we see familiar compositional forms and recurrent phrasing structures, he speaks clearly and directly through them, from the heart. In various past works, I felt that the choreography, and sometimes the narrative construct, obscured the intent to greater or lesser degrees. Here, the work is pared down to only what is necessary, nothing more. It is not spare; rather, it is precise and uncluttered, each element in just the right proportion such that even the live music seems truly equal in a way that I find rare in contemporary dance.
It’s a significant moment, a culmination of years of expression by a chorus of artistic voices — dancers, musicians, designers — who joined with Bennathan to bring a vision of humanity to the stage: vulnerable, humourous, passionate, free and desperately alive. Though not all equally powerful or as clear in their intent as this last one, Bennathan’s works and the way the dancers embodied them always conveyed a sense of hope and faith in the human spirit, a confirmation of the power of human connection and of the essential importance of art and artists in keeping that connection alive in today’s world.
So to Serge, (and Mr. Figlio), and all the Dancemakers’ artists who brought his works to life, good luck in your next adventures and thank you. Merci.