There hasn’t been a Toronto show in recent memory to spawn as many heated and diverse opinions as the recent Danceworks show featuring commissioned work for a new collective called Platform 33. Labeled “a flat failure” by one mainstream journalist, the three-part show summoned up gushes along the lines of “unpredictable, child-like good fun” from another. Audience members on the evening I attended seemed to position themselves all along the spectrum between those two poles. I love when that happens, because it usually means a chord of some kind has been struck.
Platform 33 is a collective of hotshot dancers — Shannon Cooney and Julia Aplin from Toronto’s Dancemakers and Vancouver-based Susan Elliott. Replacing a pregnant Aplin for this debut outing was Dancemakers’ Linnea Swan. The new work presented at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre was created over a long period of working with three choreographers — Damian Muñoz from Barcelona, Montréal’s Louise Bedard and Kim Itoh from Japan — both in Toronto and abroad. Dancer-driven creation is a rarity but Platform 33 was created to address just that.
Opening the program was L’avenir, choreographed by Muñoz with a score by John Gzowski. The piece begins with the three women writhing along the ground in rustling taffeta gowns. The score — church bells and seagulls crying and then the strings of the Madawaska String Quartet — evoke a sense of place, perhaps a street in Barcelona. The movement has obviously been created, at least partially, through improvisation and some of it is fresh and weird indeed. Each woman has poignant solo moments (I particularly loved Swan’s barrel rolls ending on all fours) but the dance is punctuated by a series of alternately threatening and supporting duets. In one, Cooney circles part of the stage holding the dead weight of Swan in her arms, Swan’s hands clamped to Cooney’s shoulders. All kinds of relationships are implied by this kind of partnering — other/daughter, sisters, friend — but none are fully described. Impression and suggestion are the delicate supports for this work about memory. In one section the women list things they have lost — time, photographs, weight, hair. In another, they measure — “the size of my mother’s head”, “how much room I like to have between me and another person”. The piece ends with the women writing words in the air with their bare feet; they cover their mouths as the lights go out on them one by one.
In Shelf Life by Itoh, the methods of characterization are very different. Each woman brings a persona on stage with her. Swan is first with a manic standup comic bit, Elliott enters stuttering and hesitant, and Cooney arrives noisily whining and dragging one foot. Exposition gives way to mime in a long section where the three enact domestic banalities — opening a bottle of wine and pouring a glass etc. But over time, the women’s movements slowly become synchronized, slowly becoming dance, and the movement gets larger, less intimately mundane and uses up more space. It’s hard to say exactly what this dramatic arc describes, but there is a progression of sorts. And there are lovely moments, as when spotlights are used to isolate the women’s hands or in the final call and response section where words — accelerate, sheep, response, admire — seem to trigger movement. Overall, Shelf Life is a mysterious but watchable work.
Even more mysterious but much more difficult (some might say agonizing) to watch was the thirty-five-minute work Seven Ways To Tell Time by Bédard. This world premiere featured surreal absurdities married to a fairly ordinary contemporary dance vocabulary. What movement there was seemed mitigated by physical elements — a chair, wood and hammer, a deck of cards. Buried under the flurry of images and recurring motifs (I won’t soon forget the pantyhose over the heads of the dancers rendering them faceless, nor the beauty of a chunk of wood being sawed and hammered with musical determination), there probably was a literal depiction of what’s suggested in the title but I certainly couldn’t figure it out. This dance was a lexicon of symbols I just could not access, even with the aid of spoken/sung word-guides: “fragilement, forcement, franchement, furieusement.
Bedard’s work, though well described by a colleague as “impenetrable”, raised for me the whole issue of audience expectations of contemporary dance. One thing I almost never expect these days is for it to be difficult in a fundamental way.
Coddled as we are by a culture of eye candy, the trend in contemporary dance these days seems to be to provide an aesthetic wash in which the viewer is immersed, a pleasant assault where music and movement phrases accumulate to reel you in, more physically than intellectually. Personally, I’m a sucker for these pretty pictures, the excitement of synchronized physicality and soothing formal melodies, though it’s a somewhat guilty pleasure. And it is my malaise, constructed over decades of watching dance of all kinds but particularly contemporary dance. I do think there is a place and a need for more challenging, aesthetically jarring work. I may not have enjoyed watching Seven Ways To Tell Time, but I admire the artistic mind behind it and the optimism with which the members of Platform 33 presented it to the public. Hopefully they willed not be deterred by the lack of critical consensus surrounding their debut outing.