Human Measure was presented by Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto from Oct. 27-29.
When the first flash comes – a hot white light that fills the theatre, rebounding from a massive light box upstage – I involuntarily clench my eyes and recoil in my seat. After a few moments of adjustment, I can just start to make out what is happening on the stage, illuminated by the dim red of a darkroom. Over the span of Human Measure, each time the flash is deployed, my response is the same: disorientation, then struggling to see what has changed and what remains.
Human Measure, the debut dance piece by Cassils, multi-hyphenate artist, exists at the intersection of movement and photography. With a cast of six trans and non-binary dancers (including Cassils), the piece interrogates – by turns defiantly, tenderly, pleadingly – how trans people are meant to live, fully, in a society intent on denying their existence. Cassils cleverly uses visual media identifiers to access ideas that have long stood in relation to photography. How does representation reflect and distort reality? What does it mean to be visible? Whose story is being told, and by whom?
The show’s intertexts also include Yves Klein’s Anthropometries painting series. While Klein used paint-coated nude women as human paintbrushes to create his works, Cassils is aiming for something less passive: what they describe as a “collective process of empowered labour.” The dancers in Human Measure are likewise nude, save for knee pads, a costume choice that conveys an unsettling blend of vulnerability and scrappy, insufficient protection.
Laborious is an accurate descriptor for Jasmine Albuquerque’s choreography. The piece, 45-minutes long, almost feels like one of endurance; so many actions express an exhausting effort. In one scene, the dancers are bent at the waist, slowly rolling their shoulders as if trying to generate their own momentum. Gradually, they pull themselves upright, punching the air, before collapsing and folding back down. The dancers repeat this cycle, increasing their speed until, frenzied, it seems impossible to sustain. At their feet, Cassils rolls violently. Then comes the blinding flash to startle us and relieve them.
At times, the choreography enacts dramatizations of marginalized experiences: the cast encircles one member on the floor, tormenting the outcast; elsewhere, a brisk, dominating line of dancers crosses the stage back and forth while an odd dancer out is jostled, silenced. Though honest depictions, these moments are less compelling than those that communicate more suggestively through a quality of movement. In one, the group is huddled together, frantically rubbing their hands over each other while a dancer paces around them – a moment of care and comfort shot through with desperation. Their motions soften, evolving into a more sensual nuzzling until dancers start to peel away, leaving two embracing, and then just one. It invokes, with emotional immediacy, that stalwart feminist slogan: the personal is political. The structural forces that act upon a collective, that shape how people understand and respond to themselves and others, are never independent of individual experience.
Eventually, the droning soundscape (trans and non-binary vocalists holding single notes, composed by Kadet Kuhne) recedes to silence, mirroring the structure of Klein’s Anthropometry live performances. Movement winds down too. Peeling from the floor a sheet of canvas they had been dancing on, the dancers methodically soak it in a trough of water. The only sounds are deep breathing and the gentle sloshing of liquid. During the still, protracted scene, their heads are bowed. It is clear they are focused on an important task, handling some precious object.
And precious it is. They hoist the giant canvas and unveil a beautiful cyanotype portrait, an indigo background with purplish-white traces of bodies in varying poses. (While the images were imprinted under the California sun this past summer, by 20 trans and non-binary artists, the cyanotype feels like it directly captures the dancers’ onstage movement.) It is a work of art in its own right, for what it is and what it represents: a generous offering, an emphatic rejoinder, a collective creation. Backlit behind the canvas, the dancers step forward, mingling their outsized shadows with the images to end the show in a powerful, soundless gesture.
Cassils has long centred the physical body – often their own – in their art. Dance, it seems, is a natural fit. They enter a new discipline with a similar aptitude for adapting its techniques to affirm and explore, in intelligent and expansive ways, the realities of Queer bodies and relations.
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