“Housework won’t kill you, but why take the risk?” writes humourist Erma Bombeck, giving some rise to the notion that domestic chores are repetitive and boring drudgery, if not a grubby business. Some people just aren’t wired for housework, right? The gender imbalance in many Western households, with women shouldering the enormous burden of household activities, is rife with stereotypes. These include the idea that men are supposed to work outside the home while women sustain themselves as homemakers; that a woman’s primary calling is to be a wife and mother, while men are less inclined toward domesticity. This is not to say that we all can’t enjoy everything that has to do with home and family, or that raising children might not bring joy, but it’s important to recognize there’s a lot of resentment that may accompany the stay-at-home role. A happy home, it turns out, is not just about having a full fridge.
Choreographer Deborah Dunn has taken some of these perspectives to heart in the ironically titled Le délire domestique, an often absurd piece that is a response to a culture of division and the politics of domestic labour. As Dunn has recounted in interviews, for the last number of years she has largely stayed home to care for her young son, so she knows the territory. The myriad reflective and almost hallucinatory perspectives she experienced over that time surface in this show of solos.
Dunn builds the ninety-minute work around her seven dancers — Audrée Juteau, Dean Makarenko, Delia Brett, Elise Vanderborght, Louise Lecavalier, Sara Hanley — and she performs one solo created for herself. Each of the solos is a stylish domain unto itself, with loosely tethered interactions among the soloists. Though Makarenko is the only male in the cast, the piece is not a diatribe against male shortcomings or his perceived dominion. The piece seems to ask “what does productivity mean?” Dunn is more in line with pioneering political economist Adam Smith who wondered, “How can you respect work that, once it’s done, instantly needs doing again?” As he put it, “menial tasks and services … generally perish in the instant of their performance and seldom leave any trace or value behind them.”
She moves from sequence to sequence, allowing her characters to reclaim the space they inhabit, interweaving the dances with intervals bridging the solos. Dunn, dressed in a smart black dress, makes a cameo, drawing a big black curtain closed downstage, and offering, during one of those sequences, sound clips of an intimate exchange with her son about driving trucks, gender equality and the like. But those clever interludes are sadly abandoned early on.
Throughout, there are actions on display that we’re familiar with, and Dunn indulges the audience with pantomimes of washing, cutting, stirring and baking. The evening isn’t about whining or whinging, but Vanderborght’s straightforward Cake, with the dancer in full “feminine” mode and puffy slippers, revels in dissonance and provoked indignation, and rings with rueful necessity. As she beats the batter and fluffs the egg whites of the recipe, the insistence of the actions suggests an internal rebellion against the diligence of life at home. Meanwhile, Lecavalier’s solo, The Dishes, shows the dancer in full command of her body. But the repetition of her actions never ignites, and the costume, by Yso, with its long fringes, seems to overly define and limit the movement possibilities.
Juteau and Makarenko’s performances, though, are first rate. Both are long-time collaborators of Dunn’s and the choreographer creates slightly madcap visions for each, building on their inherent strengths as vivid performers. Juteau commands the space in Strawberries. Petite and with a seemingly impish presence, she has a dazzling range — she often gooses sweet then switches to shrewd in a beat. Dressed in red, she leans over three strawberries and plucks their ripe fruit into her mouth, and then places the stem-caps over her eyes. Soon after, boosted by James Proudfoot’s wonderful lighting, she spins in an ever-increasing pool of red, as if bloodlines are expanding. There’s almost a folkloric edge to the dancing, as she kicks her feet back, her arms rhythmically extend out, her hands flapping gently. The wonderful, bliss-filled music, with a lyrical loop of a harp, composed by the French musician Colleen, adds to the fanciful nature of the solo. Dreamy elements of her songs, highlighted by instruments, including glockenspiel, cello and music box, are woven into many of the production’s solos.
Makarenko has the work’s deepest and most intriguing role in Jambalaya. Dunn creates a coltish, bounding dance for him, his stalk-like frame and long, loose legs serve him well. He delivers a large monologue that’s theatrically delicious, with an improvisatory vibe, one that he infuses with madness and wild abandon. There are incongruities with the logic of the story as it progresses — he’s making a meal and the combined ingredients he suggests would make anyone sick. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the monologue is really about poisoning someone or having a nervous breakdown in the process or, playing on the stereotypes again, that men can’t cook. A more egregious hiccup occurred during the premiere, when the live electric bass solo by Lukas Pearse (he also does the sound design for the piece) lost its punch and the musician seemed to lose sight of Makarenko. It might seem ironic that Makarenko’s flawed male, falling apart as he does, stands out as an unforgettable character in this evening where female performance is centre stage. But I’d suggest that their experience of working together, a hallmark of Dunn’s larger oeuvre, has brought about a collaboration that can’t be compartmentalized and continues to have an impact on her creative mind.
All the performers play out their roles with absolute commitment, but Le délire domestique could benefit from a series of judicious cuts throughout. Dunn’s grasp on the shifting tempo and mood of the solos wanes. Not all of the individual solos enthrall, and the work, rather than vibrate with the choreographer’s imagination, loses its centre.~