“Necessary Velocity”, a new choreographic work by Michelle Silagy, performed by Megan Andrews, Andrea Nann and William Yong, premiered at the Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto in late June. The work features a live score by Brian Barlow, costumes by Annie Thompson, set by Kai Chan and lighting design by Roelof Peter Snippe.
Questions rose, watching “Necessary Velocity”. Questions came from the work itself, and from the act of observation — questions related to details of looking and the ethics of response. At one time, audiences believed they responded to dance in a way qualified only by considerations of aesthetic preference. In retrospect, it seems true that perception was tinged with cultural perspective — i.e. the acts of seeing and responding were part of a widespread agreement about culture, homogeneity and excellence.
Well now. Worlds overlap: language and choices, aesthetics and seeing, visual immediacy and memory, all ebb and flow. How can we separate what we bring to performance from what we see there? In some ways, watching Silagy’s work both provoked and addressed this question, for the dancing flowed between formality and improvisation, personal input from the dancers, and memories and text from other sources.
Silagy’s work is like watered silk, abstraction resting on a ground of blue sky and water. Meanings, associations and images abut and blur, imparting a sense of her fascination with watching possibilities emerge, mesh, recombine and dissolve. Her choreography seems shaped by respectfulness, a watching spirit. Her dance is numinous and loving, as full of motion and unexpected twists as the mountain source of a river, trickling, twisting, falling through the silence of woods toward a broad, sounding sweep. Curiosity about the nature of things, beings, relationships, bodies, dancing, imbues “Necessary Velocity” with inner drive and light.
At one point in the work, Yong speaks about finding gestures of balance. In one, his arms are outstretched, palms turned up; in two, his hands are cupped, close to his body, one above the other — he likes this one, for if one hand does not hold, the other is always there below for backup; in three, one cupped hand holds his chin while he speaks of how his mother told him to always keep his head up. Much later in the choreography, as he and Nann slow-dance a turning duet, he sings, in Chinese, a melody remembered from childhood. As they revolve, the audience sees Nann’s hands on his back, creating his cupped shape of support — and the images move in memory.
“You have no idea what I’m carrying, or where I find the strength to carry it,” says Nann, dancing alone.
“I would not think to touch the sky with two arms,” Andrews humbly offers.
Yong recounts a story of sleeping under the stars as a child lashed onto the balcony of a Hong Kong apartment, high above a busy street. He tells another story of watching a smaller boy drop ducklings from a ninth-floor balcony, just to see them fall.
These moments gleam like stars in the canvas of the work, real, radiant, suspended. We see and hear these three dancers, and in that moment, they are the dance. How can you tell the dancer from the dance?
Perhaps it is possible to see, at some pure and abstract level of immaculate perception. Many layers of understanding are active and immanent in a work of dance. Should one’s acquaintance with the human beings who make the art be evoked to provide a satisfying and provocative viewing? Maybe not. But surely knowledge of artists’ lives and work can’t be denied by the viewer who holds it.
As creators and interpreters, what do we think we are doing? We work from what lives in our bodies and psyches, from times and places we mine and seek to bring up to the light, to be known and seen. Choreographic structure relates to the choreographer’s DNA, to inherent ways of seeing, being in, revealing the world. Silagy’s way is subtle, a tissue of nuance, light of dawn and evening, times of translucence, transparency. She hints, in all her work, at layers of existence and being. There’s a mysterious, enigmatic fluency in her choreographic script — time is elastic and glowing. Memory ignites a fast mercurial solo by Nann; journalistic talk spikes a hoppy, bird-like solo by Andrews. Though not united by a specific narrative line, the three performers are joined within the vessel of the work by text and memory.
Annie Thompson’s beautiful white costumes appear in various shapes and circumstances. At first they resemble creatures with strange and specific adaptations, like snails with huge shells or birds of extravagant plumage. Nann starts out with a bare back, and pants with feathery, bushy decorations down the thigh; Andrews’ long skirt has holes in the knees, like an odd, restrictive apron, while a square tapestry is built into Yong’s costume.
All of these organic shapes morph and change, becoming more simple and pared-down. Yong appears in little but a pair of briefs for his energetic solo. Nann is a cool shaft of moving silk. Andrews’ apron turns inside out, upside down, becoming a shaped, shimmering jacket. Her long, expressive arms are always visible, her slender middle, when Yong picks her up and shakes her, strong. We watch her walk steadily away, despite the vigorously disequilibrizing shaking. This is one of many images in the work, spoken and danced, of balance and support, independence and need. Nann sings: “Smile though your heart is breaking…” to Yong, as she covers his eyes with her hands. Her head tucked down into his belly, she drives him, carefully, through space. The two women, exchanging supports, guide him across the space in an extended balancing sequence.
Like a pair of narcoleptic lovers, Nann and Yong flop heavily, bodies draped trustingly over one another, patting one another on the cheek or shoulder, tenderly encouraging wakefulness, but failing. In another section of the dance, while Andrews dances in front of them, the two stand on their heads — a counterpoint to her activated, questing presence. Throughout “Necessary Velocity” Nann and Yong are paired, often shaking or challenging one another, but very close. Andrews, by contrast, is often alone, or in a questioning encounter with one other. Her gestures are exploratory, carving and incising the space around her.
Andrews’ solo dancing is staccato, precise, placed, quick beating jumps, a fluttering hovering hopping quality, a quick searching intelligence. She is a hummingbird. Nann swoops and torques, her dancing flickers with turns and fluid extensions, a liquid, pure flow. She also bounces, for a long, long time, after speaking a theory of tension as a play of forces between two fixed points. She delivers information about birds needing a certain amount of takeoff distance in order to achieve the necessary velocity for flight. In his solo moments, Yong is strong and off-centre. All of the solos refer, seemingly, to the play of balance and imbalance, and to dynamic interstices between these states. Often, one or two of the dancers quietly witnesses the other’s dancing.
Brian Barlow’s music — scored for percussion, cello, saxophone and bass clarinet — is sonorous, poignant and rhythmic. Not intrusive, it supports the dance’s moods and shifts, from lyrical to whimsical, from strong to delicate, from dark to light, from memory to immediacy.
A decade ago, Silagy was my daughter’s first dance teacher; I have admired her work’s whimsy, natural inspirations and poetic non-linearity for a long time. Andrews and I recently taught a writing course together; she has edited articles for “The Dance Current” that I have written (including this one), over a stretch of years. I more often read her or talk with her than see her dance, but cherish a resonant memory of her poignant solo in Silagy’s “Watermark: visible when held against light” (2003). Yong I have watched many times over his five years with Toronto Dance Theatre, and Nann countless times during her tenure at the Danny Grossman Dance Company, and also in her own work. Recently, I have been remembering her in Susan McKenzie’s “Sleeping Dogs Lie” at the Great Hall in 1989. Resonant memories of these individuals increases my respect for the generosity that shines through their artistry.
I’m a veteran of the years when dance was younger in Canada. There were fewer people, and many occasions for evaluation, discretionary knowledge and diplomatic input; you might be recommending awards one day and rehearsing with a recipient the next. Distressingly, situations came up sometimes where artists with advocates got funding, and others did not. Human nature, I’m afraid: there is no perfect objectivity. Declaration and transparency are the right way. More money would help too, in chilling the fear of not having the means to make art.
In the bigger picture, knowing is part of creating a reservoir of intelligence, memory and discussion about the art of dance. Many wonderful works are seen only in one short run — I hope this won’t be true for Silagy’s “Necessary Velocity”. Knowledge invites deeper viewing and understanding. It’s my long experience — as a performer and choreographer myself, and as a writer, educator and advocate for dance — that finding connections to dance artists provides a gateway for viewers to see into the work, and evokes that sense — though maybe this is incredibly old-fashioned and idealistic, but so be it — that the choreographer and the interpreter are vessels for the art. It’s not about ego, but it is about the person, in their fullest, most deeply engaged revelation. We need more knowledge, never less, through looking, talking, hating, loving, provoking, wondering. Finding ways, in discussing dance, to acknowledge longevity, memory, interconnectedness and resonance, enriches us all. An essential gift of art is to shine light into our ordinary solitudes, and the embrace of ambiguity and complexity is a potent potential of dance. Communicating transparency — as “Necessary Velocity” exquisitely achieved, in conception and performance — is an artistic aspiration and responsibility; and the more we know, the more we can see into the liminal poetry of dance.