Dance rarely draws big crowds, and when it does, people don’t usually sprint and scramble for front-row seats. But such was the case at the opening of the twenty-first annual Dusk Dances, where 600 people — and many fine dogs — rushed back and forth across Withrow Park in Toronto’s east end to catch the best possible view of all five performances in this year’s program.
The evening kicked off with a forty-five-minute salsa class on the grass, with a live band and enthusiastic participation by about 100 people, who lined up in loose rows to mimic the expressive gestures of teacher Miko Sobreira. Even when clumsily executed, salsa’s rollicking footwork hardly loses its playful and seductive charm, and by the time we arrived at the first makeshift stage, the sun was still shining brightly and a festive atmosphere had settled over the crowd.
Performing on a low wooden platform, celebrated flamenco artist Esmeralda Enrique premiered a new solo work titled Recuerdos (Taranto), which translates to “memories” in English. Enrique wasn’t trying to recover the past or display her history; rather, Recuerdos is about the act of remembering itself. She performed the outward signs of an inner experience, offering the visceral core of emotion, while at the same time preserving its integrity behind the veil of her glinting eyes and defiantly self-contained movements.
Flamenco is an art of conjuring. The arms construct an environment, within which the dancer summons her passions and energies, swirling the air like a glass of water or sparking up a small storm with snapping fingers and stamping feet. Enrique rouses her recollected emotions from wherever they lie, as if coaxing them up from the ground, and then snaps them into place like a sheet whipped into the wind. There’s a sudden surge of power in these rapidly sculpted moments, but the senior artist shows her control even more in how she lets go — a master clings to nothing. Enrique knows how to concentrate her force, but she doesn’t try to trap it, and just as quickly it drifts away. (As, in the end, does she.)
We travelled in a big mob to the next performance back at the other side of the park, where the five dancers in Murmure de femme (Woman’s Whisper) waited in brightly coloured dresses of orange, green, blue and white. Choreographed by Lua Shayenne, who presents works informed by traditional African and contemporary dance aesthetics, and accompanied by two percussionists on drum and rattle, the piece is described in the program notes as an “ode to femininity.” Shayenne and her four collaborators perform coordinated movements with intense energy, marching in a knock-kneed style punctuated by quick inward kicks or flinging their bodies open with ebullient fervour. Shayenne’s choreography engages every part of the body as a distinct descriptive element; the dancers use their heads as emphatically as their hands and feet. Though the dancers vibrate at the same frequency — at times, it looked like the ground itself was thrumming like the surface of a drum — their unity is not perfect. Small dramas unfold, indicating division and competition, but they don’t quite lead anywhere. The work tapers off sharply and lurches to a close. In the end, the dancers are standing stolidly, facing the audience, but after coming down so quickly from the peak of intensity, it still felt off balance.
Our third stop through the park brought us to dancers Meredith Thompson and Michael Caldwell, stretched stiffly atop a floral-painted wooden horse. They were performing Danny Grossman and Judy Jarvis’s delightful 1977 piece Bella. The work propels comically off of the melodrama of Puccini’s operas, as two lovers, clad in the courtly garb of a medieval fairy tale, clamour over each other into postures of exalted romance, wearing the dumb expressions of the thoroughly enchanted. Though sweet and innocent, the lovers are clearly more infatuated with the image of themselves in the ecstasy of courtship than they are with each other. Joyful union gives way to restless posturing, and Thompson and Caldwell are both funny and empathetic as they perform this gymnastic piece of choreography. The duet also draws inspiration from the exquisite intimacy of Chagall’s paintings of lovers, and the dancers capture beautifully both the silliness of infatuation and the tenderness of devotion.
By the time we reached Photuris Versicolor, dusk had well and truly set in. It was good timing, as the floodlights glinted beautifully off of Sylvie Bouchard’s and Marie-Josée Chartier’s spectacular, glittering costumes. Set to live “insect-o-sonics” by award-winning composer and sound designer Philip Strong, the work portrays Bouchard and Chartier as two fireflies who, separated at birth, find each other again and try to figure out how they feel about the reunion (and what to eat). It plays to the kids in the audience, but like most kid-oriented stuff, the adults love it too. (One of the benefits of an outdoor show is that you can actually see the expressions of pleasure on people’s faces, here very much in evidence.) Photuris Versicolor is a sharp and effective piece of entertainment, with a satisfying undercurrent of darkness and danger and a surprisingly wide emotional range. It’s hard to imagine it succeeding on a stage, but for Dusk Dances, it was pitch-perfect.
The final performance of the evening, Disconcertante, was the least fun and forthcoming and therefore likely the least popular. It inspired one young audience member to loudly inquire, “What’s it about?” To which an older viewer dryly replied, “We wish we knew.” But it also made the best use of the environment (i.e. the luminous pewter sky and the glorious, towering trees). Choreographed by Tedd Robinson and set to several mournful piano solos in minor keys, the five performers — Karen Kaeja, Claudia Moore, Linnea Swan, Graham McKelvie and Ron Stewart — seemed to take turns suffering existential crises or, more simply, anxiety attacks. Dressed in semi-formal black and white and illuminated by floodlights, they swooped and swooned across the cut grass in a ghostly fashion, hurrying to catch each other at the last second before tumbling down. As the pace of their paroxysms quickened, it started to become quite funny and enjoyable, which didn’t detract from the eerie gorgeousness of the whole scene. But overall, the droll self-seriousness of the work was overwhelmed by its neurotic tone and made for an uneasy finish to the evening. As the crowd dispersed out into the darkening night, the conversations drifted back to the previous performances, when things were brighter.