Toronto dance lovers were recently treated to an evening of exceptional contemporary dance. Comprised of three individual works from three gifted choreographers – one emerging, one mid-career and one senior – the pieces could not have been more different. Together, however, with a trace – produced by firstthingsfirst productions and presented by DanceWorks as part of Habourfront’s NextSteps season at the Enwave Theatre – amounted to a rewarding and extraordinary program in which the pieces seemed to feed and build off one another. Co-founders and directors Kate Holden and Kate Franklin and their collaborators created a buzz in the theatre that was hard to shake even after the evening had come to an end.
First on the program was veteran Canadian dancemaker Peggy Baker’s Brahms Waltzes. In 2002 Baker bequeathed Brahms Waltzes – one of her timeless signature pieces – to dancer Kate Holden as part of The Choreographer’s Trust initiative. The intention of The Choreographer’s Trust project was to ensure that Baker’s work is carried on in the bodies of a younger generation of dancers, creating a living archive for when Baker is unable to perform them herself. In the program notes Holden describes Brahms Waltzes as a “physical exploration of memory,” and that learning the work “seemed like a journey, a coming of age” that “sparked … research into [her] own physical resonances.” In this way Holden’s performance of Brahms Waltzes is both true to the original but also contains her own interpretation, her own signature.
Having seen Brahms Waltzes performed by Baker, I was pleased to see how Holden shares her mentor’s famous wingspan with arms that stretch outward like the limbs of a tree. Holden holds the audience’s attention with a simultaneous command of the stage and a gentle hesitation. From the opening phrases of a slightly tinny and echoing Brahms recording – played on piano by Andrew Burashko – Holden sways back and forth, unsure as to whether to move forward or retreat, as though seeing someone from another lifetime across a room or across the street and not knowing whether or not to approach them.
Holden’s timing, her quickness of foot and litheness of body, her way of moving through the music and finding the sweet spots while at the same time conveying her longing was extremely moving. This is a subtle work with darker undertones, and the combination of Holden’s performance and the soundscape that abstracts into a murky, watery sonic landscape each time she descends into memory is very effective. There is a sense that Holden is learning herself or composing herself through the music – emerging and then re-emerging each time she is drawn into the past. Several times in the piece Holden lets the music drift and swell in her body before her spine lengthens and she performs a series of steps – deep lunges and expansive port au bras that alternate with mercurial jumps and jetés that follow Brahms’ melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes mournful. The choreography repeats and laps itself creating pleasing patterns and a sense of needing to return to something that is unfinished.
The second work, Gotta Go Church, presented another kind of yearning. Choreographed by Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) veteran and indie maven Valerie Calam, the work is the culmination of her MFA research into “physical states of the body.” Calam has managed to transfer her signature idiosyncratic style onto performer Kate Franklin. Having watched Calam perform for more than a decade with TDT, I found it nothing short of eerie to see her movements, her corporeality, her facial expressions, her quirkiness, apparent in another body. At times it was like Calam had taken over Franklin’s body and it demonstrates how effectively Franklin has absorbed and transmitted Calam’s intention for the choreography.
The piece begins with Franklin moving diagonally across the stage towards a bright light downstage right. Sometimes drawn forward, sometimes repelled, Franklin performs a series of movements that appear to have been turned inside out and performed in reverse. Each step is awkward, twitchy and angular with Franklin’s facial expressions morphing from coy to wonder to ghoulish. The sound design by Paul Shepherd features loud distorted electric guitar that is as jarring and disjointed as Franklin’s broken-doll advance across the stage.
The piece is broken up into several sections that play on themes of centring and grounding the body. At one point Franklin enters the audience and encourages individual members to take deep, cleansing breaths with her. Another section sees Franklin sitting cross-legged in a pool of light alternately touching her head, her heart, her belly as though trying to connect with her chakras.
A particularly interesting section has Franklin up against one of the brick pillars at the rear of the stage, dancing beneath a red light. Franklin lies on the floor trying to push her body vertically up the wall, all the while smiling with the embarrassed effort of her task. (The scene reminded me of documentary I saw once about autism where a young women gets a sexual thrill from rubbing up against the side of a skyscraper … but I digress.) Here, Franklin is strangely sensual but also very vulnerable and the audience wants her to succeed. Overall, in this and every scene, it is a more mature and grown-up Franklin that emerges revealing a tremendous range of emotion and physicality.
The final piece on the program was Would by Montréal-base choreographer Mélanie Demers. The ordering of the pieces in the program was clever in that Would offered a cathartic conclusion. Created for dancers Kate Holden and Marc Boivin, Would is like a hyper-frenetic infomercial, a sales pitch that blends dance and theatre. In the program notes Demers thanks Holden and Boivin for the generosity and “rigour” with which they approached the work and rigour is clearly the right word. Boivin in particular is so emphatic and charged in his monologue about what “it” would be like that at one point he has to spit into his own hand and lick it up to quench the dryness in his mouth, the result not only of his fevered speech but also from the dry ice that starts to envelop the dancers. While Boivin, in his existential struggle, desperately tries to convey the essence of what “it” is, Holden meanwhile is trying to take notes on a flip chart to further document “it.”
It is a powerful work and there is no question that Holden and Boivin deliver definitive performances. Yet Would is nonetheless troubling, both thematically and dramaturgically. Holden starts the program dressed in business attire – flattering trousers, waistcoat and heels –with her hair done up in a bun. As the piece shifts into its second phase where the focus is less evangelical rant and more post-apocalyptic slow-motion breakdown, Holden gradually removes articles of clothing and lets her hair down until she is wearing nothing but a long camisole and trunks. Boivin, meanwhile, stays dressed. When Holden changes from taking notes to speaking and voicing her beliefs about what “it” will be like, Boivin has already peaked and it is impossible for her to match his fervour. Holden’s and Boivin’s words eventually get drowned out by a sound design that gets increasingly louder and then Boivin is seen to be crushing Holden, stopping her from speaking, pressing her down. Is this Boivin’s character taking his frustration with the system out on Holden?
A later section shows the two warmly moving together, mirroring and shadowing each other with a degree of care for one another – but it does little to diminish the almost misogynistic overtones of earlier scenes. Throughout the work Boivin takes up more space and is larger than life in comparison to Holden, who he appears to physically but also figuratively dominate. Demers has crafted an interesting work, but there is something unbalanced in its pacing and implications that may not have been intended.
firstthingsfirst and DanceWorks are to be commended for bringing together this exceptional evening of new and revisited dance. Holden, Franklin and their adept collaborators produced a memorable program full of important firsts. Would that all contemporary dance programs were so blessed with such talent and originality.