Michael Trent must feel eyes focussed in his direction. “Light Confronts Unknown” is his first major program for Dancemakers after being appointed artistic director in August 2006. As recipient of the Paula Citron fFIDA Award (1997) for best new work and co-recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artists Award (2004), Trent is indeed a recognized talent.
The roles of watcher and watched recurred throughout the show. Often both appeared onstage, forcing the audience into the role of the outsider looking in. In other moments the dancers react to the audience’s gaze, daring us to look, or simply acknowledging our presence. The program is a triple-bill harking back to the founding days of Dancemakers when an evening of dance often included multiple works. It is a compilation of three pieces: one old, one borrowed and one new.
Formerly a solo set to Prokofiev’s “Piano Sonata #7”, “Acts of Light” is now a series of duets danced, the night I attended, by Kate Hilliard, Neil Sochasky, Simi Rowan and Steeve Paquet. According to the program notes, the work was inspired by the “three elements of light – chiaroscuro, reflection and speed”. We see two dancers, lit by a hazy spotlight, one covering the eyes of the other. The relationship appears protective rather than restrictive. On one side of the stage, a metal domed structure hovers, suspended by wires. Its many-faceted surface creates fractured reflections on the stage floor and light bounces off its reflective surface.
The opening duet has an undulating, languid quality throughout, which is enhanced by the gradations of light and shadow. Often, there are two pools of soft light on the stage floor, and later the stage is washed in a soft, uneven glow, slowly shifting in intensity.
The metal structure tilts vertically in the second duet, revealing dancer Steeve Paquet crouched underneath. He is bathed in fragments of light reflecting off of its surface, which creating a rippling effect reminiscent of the surface of a pond. Dancer Simi Rowan circles him menacingly. On occasion, she breaks from her circular pattern by staring out into the audience as if gazing at a starry night sky. Her outward gaze is unfocussed, but she appears to be sensing we are there even though she can’t see us. In these moments, I felt like an omnipresent god.
Continuing to circle, she seems predatory, gradually increasing in speed to a run. Paquet is a cornered animal, moving with small precise upper body isolations as if caught in a net of light. He appears captivated by his own image reflected in the surface of the metallic dome. He is unable to look away, bringing to my mind imagery from the myth of “Echo and Narcissus”. At other times, Rowan resembles the archetype of the huntress, cunning in the exactness of her gaze and muscular in her movement. There is grittiness in the movement quality of this duet, as if the dancers are moving against a wall of sand.
The third duet begins with Rowan performing a speedy and virtuosic solo while Paquet observes from the floor, visually reacting to her. She seems to be showing off for both her partner and the audience. Daring us to look at her, she directs facial expressions and hand gestures to the audience, which seem to say, “I bet you can’t do that!”
Choreographed by Doug Varone, “The Thing of the World” was the audience favourite of the evening. Originally created for himself and Trent, the piece maps an abusive relationship between two men, one dominantly violent, the other a passive instigator. The dancers exude an aggressive machismo that is most evident through pedestrian movement that never seems out of place within the contemporary dance vocabulary. Paquet seems to devour Trent, who also participates more subtly in the power dynamic by goading him. Trent himself performed the less dominant role, using his dramatic ability to heighten the impact of the work. Paquet, playing the aggressor, seemed to devour him whole with his gaze.
Despite the work’s inherent violence, there are tender moments in which the dancers seem to melt into each other and the audience takes a breath. The softer movements, although rare, depict a relationship that treads a fine line between love and hate. The piece is provocative both in its pairing of two men in a sexually violent relationship and in its comment on masochistic self-sabotage.
Trent’s new work, “Constructing Doubt”, encompasses brilliantly realized sections, but overall, felt somewhat like a work-in-progress. As a study of the human instinct to create doubt, the set design depicts this idea. Initially, mobile sections of white picket fence, divide the stage. Throughout the piece, the dancers move them, configuring the space to create new barriers. One side of the stage is covered with green Astroturf, while the other side remains bare. The dancers move with constricted tension on the Astroturf, while allowing freedom in their limbs on the bare side of the stage. For me, the pairing of the set design and movement suggested that the quest for happiness is not always fulfilled by what society deems valuable. Nor is it advantageous to want more than what we can attain. In this way, the set is a reference to old adage, “the grass is always greener …”.
At the notable climax, the dancers perform a dizzying combination of turning skips and hops in unison, executing staccato changes of direction. They alternately evoke apprehension and joyful abandon, at times holding their arms tightly against their torsos and at others, swinging them freely, all the while maintaining a consistent rhythm in their stepping. The music, credited to Trent himself, reaches a crescendo during this section and the sounds of deep horn instruments resonate throughout the theatre.
A solo by Linnea Swan evokes a struggle between freedom and inhibition. She struggles against the constriction of her clothes, pulling at the neck of her shirt as if it is choking her. The solo culminates as Swan knocks over sections of the picket fence. In doing so, she appears to be rejecting the limits of doubt.
Trent wore many hats on this program: dancer, choreographer, sound designer and artistic director. While his multifaceted integration in the show was no doubt challenging, it would also have allowed him different vantage points to reflect on his new company. It will be exciting for Toronto audiences to see what direction he takes Dancemakers in years to come.