Gearshifting Performance Works wrapped up its 2017/18 season with Phase Wash, a full-length production choreographed by its founding artistic director, Jolene Bailie, and performed April 20 through 22 at the University of Winnipeg’s Asper Centre for Theatre and Film.
Bailie’s annual offerings have ranged from surrealistic romps through imaginative landscapes, as seen during her 2014 production Eat All You Want/The Top? to kinetic combustions of pure abstracted movement as in her mesmerizing 2010 show Hybrid Human, created in conjunction with the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s exhibition Wanda Koop… On the Edge of Experience. In the latter show, masked dancers appear in black body stockings, flanked by the acclaimed Canadian artist’s large-scale paintings. This work has always been a personal favourite for its graphic sensibility fuelled by clearly delineated line, shape and form.
In her latest creation, Bailie once again turns to the abstract world, with her all-local eight dancer ensemble comprising Carol-Ann Bohrn, Jillian Groening, Helene Le Moullec Mancini, Shawn Maclaine, Aaron Paul, Sam Penner, Camila Schujman and Ilse Torres Orozco. Adding to the abstraction, the cast often seems caught in private moments of self-revelation.
Several sections particularly stood out. One of the show’s strongest images featured Le Moullec Mancini performing a gently undulating solo, her hips rocking back and forth while being showered by cascading rose petals. This gorgeously poetic moment is mirrored by Paul strewing petals over Bohrn’s head — their own duet creating an effective visual counterpoint to Le Moullec Mancini’s sensual solo that rises in fever pitch to become an ecstatic soliloquy propelled by her own fluidly waving limbs.
Bailie also relies on a wide use of gestural movement vocabulary that adds further detail, nuance and visual layering. Several fleeting images evoke earlier Bailie works, such as her visually arresting signature solo from 2006, Switchback. In her latest show, the performers’ fingers once again curl into gnarled knuckles creating the bestial — and always startling — effect of dancers with paws. Her wholly committed performers also execute copious body isolations with ease, their bare arms and legs clearly articulated thanks to Bailie’s simple costume design of black shorts and shirts.
The fiercely athletic show includes nail-biting lifts and leaps, dancers slamming into each other’s chests like rutting bucks, executing perfectly controlled full back bends or sliding to the floor in pliable front splits punctuated by percussive claps and slaps against their own bodies and skin. Larger ensembles dissolve into smaller units: a quartet becomes a trio; a duet pares down to a single dancer with the show’s overall pacing underscored by energy that ebbs and flows creating a seamless kaleidoscope of movement.
Certain sections recur like physical leitmotifs: dancers either running on the spot or in circles with their gaze fixed straight ahead, thus infusing the entire show with a postmodern sensibility. I felt the production resonated most strongly when it injected more emotionally charged overtones into the mix, such as during Le Moullec Mancini’s unabashedly lyrical solo, or when individual dancers are thrust upwards as though flying through space, or when Torres Orozco holds her arms out near the end as though in silent benediction.
Bailie’s long-time collaborator Winnipeg-based Hugh Conacher creates brilliant lighting effects including small, interconnected squares of light cast onstage as dancers dash on and offstage to industrial sounds of shunting (made even more dramatically powerful by a few stray petals falling — unwittingly or not).
The show’s climax comes as dancers strike each other’s chests and leap wildly into each other arms, before ending with Le Moullec Mancini tenderly cradling Maclaine like an infant as lights fade. This final image reveals the softer underbelly of Bailie’s thoroughly contemporary aesthetic — a poignant vision of arching humanity in her often turbulent sea of no-holds-barred physicality.
The production itself runs fifty-five minutes and could easily be whittled to forty-five. There were several “false endings” that an overall tighter focus would help mitigate. Nearly an entire hour of a pastiche score featuring music by late American experimental/post-war electronic art music composer Pauline Oliveros with her Deep Listening Band (including herself, Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis) also demands certain fortitude. Its heavily electronic buzzing and rumbling, as well as low drones, begin to alienate the viewer by the midway mark with nary any relief in sight for contrast.
Still, Bailie has proven her resilience and tireless questing for new dance horizons year after year as notably Winnipeg’s second-oldest contemporary dance company, founded in 2000 — with Phase Wash being her ninth full-length production. I felt her latest creation billed “a dance between will and imagination” is among her strongest full-length works to date — stripped to the bone of extraneous influence while focusing on the expressive power of movement itself.