It’s always unexpected: as the lights dim on a performance, I have a moment of dislocation as a reviewer. Without fail, the darkness brings with it a sense of lingual amnesia, and instead of seeing the words as I write them on the page, I forget how to write altogether. It takes a few seconds until I’m able to recall the shape of the word I’m searching for. It’s an alternate way of relating to language that’s refreshing in its hieroglyphic demand. In this state, the pattern of language itself becomes choreography, augmenting what I see on the stage.
This impression of relearning the habitual is also resonant in DA Hoskins’ Jackie Burroughs is Dead, which premiered April 7 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre as part of DanceWorks’ mainstage season. On an empty stage, three dancers — Danielle Baskerville, Luke Garwood and Robert Kingsbury — wear unremarkable street clothes that seem practical instead of personal and offer little in the way of characterization. With inward gaze the dancers move tentatively around the space, as if arriving into their bodies after prolonged respite. But in finding themselves back to their bodies they are now lost within them. With this diffuse, internal gaze, they reach but never grasp. If they ever look outward, their gaze is myopic, as if they cannot see beyond the limited reach of their own arms. At the same time, this doesn’t seem to hinder their patience or inquisitiveness in moving. As the dancers discover the shape of their own bodies through movement, we watch them fail, become disjointed and experience what it is to be in a body and within their own body.
Heavy-hearted, but not without curiosity, Hoskins’ choreography in this work is captive to gravity, and the dancers (purposefully) crumple under its inertia. In the program notes Hoskins is candid about his personal struggles during the creation of this work, four years in the making, sharing with us the diagnosis of his mother’s cancer, which would later become terminal. Meanwhile, in the first weeks of rehearsal Canadian actress Jackie Burroughs, a beloved presence in Canadian dance circles, died of cancer, and the impact of her death dwells in the bones of this work. The movement seems born of grief but not inhabiting it. Hoskins describes it as a “retreat from emotionally based” work, and this description seems reflected in the lack of expression and theatricality, contrary to much of his previous work. Even so, there remains a palpable sense of loss that is difficult to describe. At times the dancers appear constricted with uneasiness and they succumb un-emotively to gravity, falling over and over. Perhaps they’re a metaphor for inevitable death. Just as the dancers have learned to stand upright, they lose their bearings — on the tip of the corporeal tongue.
Choreographically, there are only rare touchstones that stand out in the staging of this work. In one moment two dancers touch for the first time; in another, all three pause to face the back of the space; sometimes, one dancer is watching the others move. Instead of monumental moments this piece provides the viewer with a layer of consciousness and dares us to enter it. It forces us to confront presentness similarly to experiencing the death of a loved one, in accepting the gradual wonder of the moment at hand. In Jackie Burroughs is Dead the air seems thick with this oneiric texture and only entered with the soft gaze of a sleepwalker. Hoskins describes it as “a way of engaging the senses,” continuing that he was “creating an energy that … began to emerge as the major player in the work.”
The music, too, is fragile without being emotional — a difficult equilibrium to achieve and sustain. Composed and performed live by Christopher Willes, the score offered a ghostly and imperceptibly changing element of the work. Willes, sitting on the floor in the back corner of the space, used instruments unfamiliar to me; although, being in the opposite corner of the theatre it was difficult to see him. At times it felt like I was inside the belly of a living, breathing machine. To call it a landscape of sound is an accurate platitude. It is often without beat or faith. At one moment the sounds, I realized, changed imperceptibly into a soft of rainforest-like atmosphere to which Baskerville and Garwood perform a subtle and intuitive duet. It’s hard to imagine a more captivating dancer than Baskerville, who moves with small yet precise isolations. Elsewhere, Garwood performs fast, writhing and frenzied solo movement with his arms held tight to his sides. Other than these moments of individuality, the dancers gradually, through persistence and repetition, begin to inhabit their bodies by learning how to move and, finally, how to trust. Throughout the dance, they evolve from being captives of their bodies to movers of them, allowing communication to occur between them. They emerge from isolation via the corporeal. Recovering from trauma is much the same; after a retreat into ourselves we can, hopefully, slowly emerge to participate in a community once again.
It is often while watching abstract (and even existential) works such as this one that I end up internally debating what contemporary dance is and should be in our current context. Adding to this sense of dislocation, the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, with its varied vantage points, offers the audience assorted angles and levels from which to view the performance that, I can only guess, alter the experience of this work in personal ways. I found myself wondering what it means when a discipline’s very title (modern, contemporary, postmodern) connotes innovation, in a world obsessed with progress for the sake of progress. How does contemporary dance participate in or resist this dogma? Although it’s not clear that these questions were at the heart of the creation of this work, they seem somehow relevant to it. The texture it offers, which doesn’t deliver a defined statement, seems to belong to the current moment in which we are navigating political, environmental and cultural instability. And so I’m left wondering, is there a texture of art or of movement of the 2010s? Can we identify choreography by decade in the same manner as film or video, in which the colour, sound and quality of the medium immediately hearkens to the technological aesthetics of a decade? Is it still relevant or possible to try and achieve the goal of newness in contemporary dance? In my estimation, these questions are at the core of this work’s heart.