Every so often an artist makes a definitive work – one that encapsulates his or her vision of the nature of humanity and the world. Such provocative works stimulate discussion that resonates beyond the particulars of the work itself. You can disagree with that artist’s vision. You can have your own preferences about what you’d like to see portrayed. But the work itself is unassailable in its uncompromising portrait of the world as perceived by that artist.
Toronto choreographer Julia Sasso’s “Beauty” is just such a provocative work. Performed by Justine Chambers, Micheal Sean Marye, Mike Moore, Ron Stewart, Heidi Strauss and Michael Trent, “Beauty” clearly distills a particular vision of human nature as it follows a community in an arc from birth to death. It’s a harsh vision of a primal existence, and the beauty of the title is snatched and visceral rather than transcendent.
The world inhabited by the community of dancers in “Beauty” is relentless, as is evidenced by a rhythmic quality in the phrasing of the demanding movement – a dynamic that remains constant throughout the piece. It offers little space for rest or contemplation. Even the stillnesses are charged with anticipation of the next action – the next response. Living in such a relentless world, the dancers are creatures of instinct. They seem always to be at the mercy of either their own impulses or events in their environment, responding/reacting rather than planning, controlling or changing.
As a frame, Premiere Dance Theatre works both for and against the piece. On the one hand, the size and theatricality of the venue undermines the kind of emotional intimacy that is intrinsic to the work. Such intimacy has been a key element of other recent Sasso works, and photographs of “Beauty” rehearsals (published in the program) reveal an emotional nakedness that is not visible underneath the stage lighting. However, on the plus side, the big stage highlights Sasso’s choreographic structure, which is in itself a courageous and impressive accomplishment.
In “Beauty”, Sasso eschews the carefully recapitulated phrases and spatial patterns that polite choreographic craft requires. Instead the spatial forms created by the dancers are organic and sometimes chaotic. They’re both constant and always shifting, like ice crystals on glass or wave patterns on water. The movement vocabulary is both coherent in its flavour and endlessly inventive, and you almost never see any image twice. The piece opens with the four men of the piece as babies, grasping and fussing. Indeed, throughout the piece all six dancers retain an infantile quality that is both selfish and innocent. They are self-contained, appearing to live in a world of sensation and impulse, as if their attention remains primarily within the bounds of their own skins. Interactions look as if they’re initiated to satisfy internal urges.
Sex, though it can be wild and unbounded, has a perfunctory quality that is more humorous than passionate. In fact these creatures seem more like our evolutionary forebears than humans as we prefer to think of ourselves. They rely more on the ancient parts of their brains than the big, recently-evolved forebrains that enable humans to use tools, plan political coups, write symphonies, build banks, and create language. In short, they are us at a basic level – narcissistic and transparent as young children.
Because the piece is so large in its scope, and so coherent in its vision, it provokes discussion of the view of humanity it presents. Where, one wonders, does such a view come from? It may be, for example, partially a byproduct of contemporary dance culture at this point in history — at least in Toronto. I suspect that the childlike narcissism of “Beauty”‘s characters reflects a creation process that emphasizes deep exploration of the dancers’ physical/emotional experience — an emphasis on the world inside their skins. This approach to dance, which is rich and satisfying for the dancer, is itself a lingering post (post-post-post) modern response to a number of historical trends: to the heavy emoting and self-mortification of early modern dance; to ballet’s tendency to discipline dancers’ sensuality so that it serves the external dictates of music and spatial geometry, and to more spectacular approaches to performance in general. However, the challenge, for those who espouse such a sensorially and imagistically rich approach to dancemaking, lies in sharing that richness with the audience. It can look from the outside like self-absorption.
In “Beauty”, there were certainly times when I felt excluded from the dancers’ experience, although I think (as I mentioned) that was partly a function of the venue. “Beauty” emphasizes the most basic mammalian aspects of human behavior. The characters’ actions are those of small children who have not yet developed the sophisticated capacity for emotional complexity or dissimulation. They are creatures of the moment, who seek pleasure and avoid pain. They neither plan the future nor learn from the past. By emphasizing these qualities Sasso seems to be telling us that if you look around, you’ll see that (whether we admit it or not) most of our behavior is driven by just such impulses. And indeed, when you do look around, that’s a hard position to argue with. But it’s a picture of humanity that excludes our capability to plan and shape and empathize and create all the things – good and bad – that we inherit when we inherit culture. The characters in this piece, for example, could never have created “Beauty”. However, in creating this work, Sasso transcends the childlike state this work portrays.