Nicole Mion’s latest work, “I was looking at the ceiling and THEN I SAW THE SKY”, is at once a musing on flight, performance, fear and exhilaration. It is a production packed with elements as diverse as industrial fluorescent lighting strapped on the dancers’ backs to spoken descriptions of the mechanics of flight. It is a multi-disciplinary smorgasbord, whose title comes from a survivor of 1994’s Northridge, California, earthquake, which injured more than 9,000 and killed fifty-one.
“I see performance as a kind of flight. The performer enters the stage, takes off, goes on a journey, and is bound to completion &Sometimes flights go well, sometimes there is turbulence &” So says Nicole Mion in a description of this project. Performer Lori Duncan repeats the sentiment onstage during the performance. It is a fitting metaphor. It reveals both the fear and exhilaration of performance, the otherworldly quality of leaving the earth behind.
The work begins informally with the two dancers, Calgarian Natalie Poissant and Toronto-born Lori Duncan, warming up and chatting with the audience. They relay facts and trivia about flying, ask if there are any WestJet employees in the audience, laugh and wave to friends and family in the seats. Then, the stage manager comes out to collect their warm-up clothes and the women are slowly enclosed in a spotlight onstage, surrounded by darkness. They take off into performance while the sound of a helicopter gets louder and louder.
Amir Amiri’s original composition is a wonderfully layered and complex sonic backdrop for the performers’ journeys. Shrill and mounting sounds of airplane engines blend with cello and violin, and are mellowed by the earthy, organic sounds of tabla and Amiri’s specialty, the hammer dulcimer.
The metaphor of flight is explored in a non-linear way, from various angles through spoken text, soundscape, industrial lighting and movement. The piece naturally falls into sections, which are defined by certain thematic or lighting parameters. We learn about the anatomy of insects, about a woman’s childhood. The element of fear comes through clearly. Mion presents a continuum, where flight can become falling (or worse, crashing) and the thrill sickens to fear. She explores the thin boundary where control unravels, and we as viewers watch two women grapple with the experience in distinct ways. Lighting carves the space to indicate a change in movement quality or thematic approach.
The work relies heavily on text to communicate its themes and conflicts. Factual sermons on the mechanics of take-off and insect anatomy are blended with personal anecdotes and stories revealing emotion and memory, an effective human counterpoint to the mechanized soundscape and harsh lighting. Poetry by Rawi Hages is layered into the sound, a repeating whispered personal meditation. And there is an improvised take on a story from a Peter Greenaway film. “The Cassowary” is an ultra-short story about a plane approaching its landing. In the story, the sound of the plane transforms those who hear it into birds. The plane finally crashes into the airstrip, and “a cassowary with a purple beak steps from the wreckage and checks himself into the VIP lounge”. Mion’s take on the story included the dancers creating shadow puppets on the back wall of the stage space and revelling in the story’s silly (but apropos) convergence of bugs, birds and aircraft.
The bulk of the speaking performance falls on Lori Duncan’s shoulders, and she labours through it well. These women are clearly trained and practiced dancers, and their voices stand in stark contrast to the subtlety of their bodies. For example, panic and hysteria can be played in several ways, and one of the delicious joys of theatre is playing opposites against each other. This dynamic is alive and well in the movement, as the performers resist the urge to thrash out, even while writhing on the floor. The tension between the emotion and its expression, while sophisticated in the choreography, lacked control in the vocal sections.
The dancing, however, is wonderful. Mion has found brilliant movers in Duncan and Poissant, whose versatility and supple expression are indeed highlights of the work. The movement blends subtle gesture with big, luscious extensions and rhythmic breadth. It ranges from well-crafted, clean extensions and geometric forms to the internally conflicted floor sections. The geometry, almost balletic, shows off the dancers’ technique in huge balances and gives a sense of suspension, while often settling into stillness with understated rebounding. Both Poissant and Duncan are strong technicians and natural performers, having both performed for years with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks and other independent choreographers. Natalie Poissant is one of this country’s best-kept secrets. Her presence is magnetic throughout the piece, from her electrifying dancing to her natural comic timing within some of the improvised speech sections.
Light factors prominently in Mion’s concept. She implicates light in the carving and segmenting of the performance space, with varying degrees of success. Florescent tubes line the horizontal aspects of both up and downstage, flashing in sequence like runways or creepy, abandoned basement hallways. Incandescent floodlights descend over the performers, pinning them to the stage like butterflies under microscope lenses. Swinging overhead lamps toss the dancers into chaos using only light and shadow. One of the most remembered moments of the piece includes the two dancers strapping fluorescent tubes to their backs. While an intriguing image, attaching technology to the body, the section never moves past its own novelty.
Indeed this is the major shortcoming of the work: it is not fully realized. The end result of rich imagery and wonderful staging conventions is a series of underdeveloped sections, never gelling into a whole. Moments of brilliant insight and lucid performance are mired in overlong improvisations and obvious metaphors. “I was looking at the ceiling and THEN I SAW THE SKY” soars at times, but we never quite reach our destination.