Sometimes, dance is very good at capturing the zeitgeist. It's sad news then when two shows inspired by the death of loved ones to cancer open in Toronto within a week of each other. O Vertigo's "Passare" was created during and, at least partially, in response to the recent death of choreographer Ginette Laurin's partner. A more different treatment could not be imagined than Eryn Dace Trudell's "Grace", a memorial to her aunt Grace McDace Barker, who passed away from breast cancer in 2002. While Laurin injected a sense of grief and loss into the very bones of her full-length dance work, never addressing the personal specifics, Trudell has created a more overt yet much more intimate treatment of the subject.
As a kind of overture to the full-length evening of dance, the show begins with Trudell herself dancing a solo that she created and performed for her aunt's wake. Danced with a kind of willful joy to the music of Loreena McKennitt, "for Grace" is full of swirling movement and uplifted arms. Although at times it feels a bit like "dancing around", we also get a preview of some of the idiosyncrasies of Trudell's vocabulary — sensual and playful movements of the shoulders and hips. The steps are quicksilver, the mood hopeful if not exactly light-hearted. On Trudell — a loose-limbed and intensely focussed performer — it all looks just right. The cast of five who perform the longer work "Grace" that follows strive for the same nuances and commitment with mixed results.
The dance begins with several symbolic items — a clock, bare tree branches — being slowly manipulated by five performers — Megan Andrews, Danielle Baskerville, Tanya Crowder, Jennifer Helland and Barbara Pallomina. In her program notes, Trudell talks about her interest in "the unconscious narrative provoked by images". Any expectation of having things spelled out for you can thus be checked at the door. Like any unconscious narrative worth its salt, this one can feel random, ill explained and disjointed. Linearity doesn't have a lot of currency in this kind of work. Yet everyone is familiar with the arc of life that's headed towards death — we are born, we grow up, we are loved or not, we grow old or fall ill, we die, we are (if we're lucky) remembered by those we leave behind. "Grace", in its attempts to summon the unconscious, is still anchored by the cold hard facts.
As the movement intensifies, the dancers remain disconnected — they all seem to be doing their own thing even when it's the same thing. It's unclear whether they are different women (perhaps from Grace's life) or different facets of the same woman. Maybe it's just me, but missing out on making this particular distinction remained vaguely troubling for the rest of the evening. It felt a bit like watching a party you haven't been invited to.
That said, there are many beautiful and satisfying moments in "Grace". Each of the cast gets their moment in the spotlight and some seize it as if to the manor born. Danielle Baskerville in particular has a radiant confidence — along with the technique to back it up. Dressed all in red she seems to revel in the movement that makes up her solo — interesting shrugging and stretching of the hips and shoulders and connecting steps that eat up the stage. In other sections, her confidence goes a long way to smoothing the edges that sometimes arise in a structured improvisation — sections of "Grace" are clearly just that. Sometimes the little hesitations that precede unplanned movement can be charming but mostly I find them distracting. Baskerville just goes for it — almost at the expense of subtlety.
As riveting but with a completely different performance style is one of my long-time favourite Toronto indie artists, Barbara Pallomina. When she moves, it's all about understatement, almost to the point of reticence. Yet, in her own quirky way, Pallomina is every bit as assured as Baskerville. Her restrained elegance makes her mysterious and fun to watch because you're never quite sure how she's going to deal with a particular moment.
Personal qualities — Baskerville's confidence, Pallomina's elegance, the good-natured energy of Jennifer Helland, Megan Andrews' serene beauty and the quiet strength of Tanya Crowder — enhance several sections of "Grace". At one point, the women tell stories — a different one each night — about moments in their own lives. Though not particularly polished (some of the performers could project more) the anecdotes serve the purpose of implying the depth and strata of an individual's history, the layers and layers of small moments that go into making up a life. In another, they re-create a party scene of increasing tipsiness that suggests a gathering of close friends or family where the prevailing sentiment is one of warmth. "Here's to Grace!," we hear over the recorded soundscape, as glasses clink and the women laugh uproariously.
Slowly, the incidentals accumulate and the dance begins to mysteriously cohere. Although marred for me by moments of emotion that slip into sentimentality (the group scenes sometimes have a Big Chill energy to them, a maudlin quality that might make some people squirm), "Grace" is a strangely seductive work. Like a cleansing ritual, this imperfect memorial to a life lived well, left me feeling scrubbed clean. It's not what I go to see dance for but it's probably not coincidental that after spending an hour or so with Grace and company, I enjoyed a walk home in perfect peace showered by a glittering snowfall.
A Response from the Choreographer
I want to thank both Kathleen and The Dance Current for this review. It is the most thorough, considered and generous review I have ever received. It's rare when I read a review of my own work and agree with every point — both compliments and criticisms. This show happened on a very busy weekend and, although other critics were interested in the work, they were unable to review it, [their time] being dictated by other agendas. So, although I tried not to be disappointed, I had resigned myself to thinking there would be no review published at all. I am so happy that that was not the case, after four years of persistence in getting this work to stage.
I want also to respond to Kathleen's comment about "dancing around" in the solo. In our very conceptual development of new, modern and contemporary dance, I believe we have lost touch with the simple joy of "dancing around". I made this solo for a completely non-dance audience — my family. It really is amazing how much they understood and loved it. And after the show, I performed the solo for the dance experience course at York [University]. Here, again, the response was very empathetic. I almost felt a relief for the simplicity of "dancing around".
Our dance world has been losing ground. It's really hard to get people to come and see shows and even harder to get people to connect with what they see. I think it has to do with the resistance within our field to appreciate and allow the simplicity of simply dancing: i.e., moving aesthetically through space to music. There is no doubt in my choreographer's mind that the solo could be clearer and more developed, but the dancer in me doesn't want the restraint.
This touches partly on the most major challenge of this chapter of my work, which questions how much of the dance should be improvised and how much set. Danielle's solo was set and Barb's solo was improvised. When I tried to set all the movements in my own solo I became frustrated. Setting choreography requires the luxury of time that we rarely have these days if we are paying dancers fees according to rates established by CADA [Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists]. It takes twice as long to set choreography and rehearse it to the point where it looks and feels completely spontaneous. Although it takes many years of practice to become a good improviser, there is always going to be that moment or performance that was rambling, or unclear. For me, having tolerance and sensitivity to the moments that are lost and wandering increases my appreciation for the gems of brilliance that can happen.
I also want to respond to the comment about feeling uninvited to a "the private party". I have heard this criticism before about a piece that I made in 1993 to music by [the band] Jane's Addiction. Interestingly, the similarity between these two pieces was the amount of time we spent in the studio getting to know each other and doing related practices such as bodywork and contact improvisation. My goal for the public presentation was to include the audience in the feeling of connection between the dancers, that I think we successfully created. I would love to know how to avoid this feeling of exclusion that arises. What is it exactly? I have that same feeling very often when I see work by established companies such as Toronto Dance Theatre and Dancemakers. I wonder, what are the ingredients that make up this feeling of exclusion? Is it perhaps inherent and unavoidable when you are watching [the interactions of] a group who has a history and is connected in a way that you, as an audience member, will never be privy to? How do we surpass this barrier?
Eryn Dace Trudell
Toronto, ON/Montreal, QC