Compare and contrast. The recent Toronto Dance Theatre double bill of premieres by Toronto choreographers Peter Chin and Matjash Mrozewski provided a rare opportunity to get analytical about two very different approaches to dance.
Peter Chin is the ultimate multidisciplinarian, trained in a myriad of dance, theatre and music forms, including those in the classical Indonesian tradition. Converse is built from fragments and snippets of taped and live words and phrases, movements and sonic riffs for voice, percussion and instruments. The movement, which ebbs and flows as the ensemble breaks into smaller groupings and then reconvenes, features occasional flourishes that might reference Javanese court dances — or hip hop — or the slapstick shenanigans of young boys. It’s hard to keep up. The company wears the eclectic style well and there are stand-out performances including one by TDT artist director and choreographer Christopher House, who also has special gifts as a dancer.
In an artist’s note, Chin mentions the dual nature of the word ‘converse’. It can refer to communication or the flip-side of something. Suitably the mostly mysterious text consists largely of the banal murmurings of everyday life, though sometimes the dancers seem to be simply commenting on their fellows in real time. Other times, their words have the feeling of having been lifted from literature. Chin may have been cutting and pasting to a grand design but it’s just as likely that he has put his faith in resonances being likely to occur. And they do, if too infrequently to make the forty-five-minute work entirely coherent or satisfying. And even those rare charged moments, such as one in which Robin McPhail insists repeatedly, “My name is Rose” only to be told by Sean Ling, “You are mistaken,” are permitted to dissolve before their time. Some viewers might find this frustrating though others, especially those who have followed Chin’s experiments in cultural mix-mastering over the years, might find the work’s ephemeral structure and witty word-and-dance-play exhilarating. There’s lots of charm in Chin’s light touch and even when it feels like an exercise that has been left deliberately unpolished, Converse never feels unfinished.
Virgin Queen, on the other hand looks polished yet feels quite incomplete. Matjash Mrozewski, who not so long ago left the National Ballet of Canada to concentrate on his career as an independent choreographer, is the nearest thing Toronto has to a hot property in terms of dance. And the buzz is justified, as the thrilling opening moments of this work attest. With the help of a striking lighting design by Bonnie Beecher and costumes by Caroline O’Brien, Mrozewski sets his virgin queens (a red-haired Kristy Kennedy playing Elizabeth 1 and Brendan Jensen playing a young gay man) in a court of fleshly intrigue. Rather than fragmenting and reaching out, this dance spirals in on itself with the ensemble cohering to a circle of snaking bodies and white light. There’s a subdued menace in these opening moments that hints at real riches to come. But that promise remains largely unfulfilled as a banal sexual politic takes over and our virgins embark on separate journeys of erotic self-discovery.
To Mrozewski and company’s credit, the visual lushness of his tableaux makes the sagging middle of this work bearable and there are great moments for Kennedy as she portrays a queen alternately victimized or filled with longing by the couplings all around her. Furthermore, in the closing scene, the inventive stagecraft and refinement that drive the very beginning of Virgin Queen kick back in as courtiers scurry to create a walkway of chairs for a royal lady’s solitary promenade. But ultimately the work feels intellectually and erotically shallow, an unsatisfying group grope that leaves the audience wanting so much more.