There are those rare performances that fill you up so that you’re brimming, stoked by the integrity of the work, or perhaps elated with a feeling of reflection. Such is the case with Peter Trosztmer’s EESTI: Myths and Machines (Eesti is the Estonian for Estonia). It’s easily one of the best productions of the year.
The talented dancer-choreographer has pulled together a potent narrative with elements from his autobiographical past. He delves into his family’s Estonian heritage and intersperses those tales and recollections with some current stories. Presented in the small Usine C studio space as part of Tangente’s migrating series of shows (until the presenter settles into a permanent location three years down the road), this multi-layered performance encompasses the use of text, movement, sound and installation. With its concrete grey floor and black walls, the room’s vast and empty shell perfectly serves Trosztmer’s invention and that of his collaborators. Out of the darkness, he steps forward, with a kind of pedestrian amble, situates himself and says with a clear, calm voice: “This is the story of how my family came to Canada …” and seconds later: “This is absolutely nothing like how my family came to Canada.”
The stories of immigrants coming to this country are filled with innumerable recollections of escape, loss, horror, terror. And a multitude of tales are often tinged with longing and regret, and the stress around what is left behind. There are several ways of going about this kind of storytelling. One is to recount something that is somber, sad and steeped in melancholia. Trosztmer’s stories of his grandfather Isa flirt with those ways, but they are also well-told tales, some of them funny and amusing. For research, the dancer-choreographer tells us, he travelled to Estonia to find out more. The character of the grandfather comes across as a humble, simple man drawn into the horror and trauma of war (circa WWII and through the Communist era). It turns out that he was a man who, when confronted with crisis, chose survival. Trosztmer reveals him to be quick-witted and heroic. It’s unclear if the grandfather is still alive, but the relationship appears central and current to Trosztmer, and the piece reveals some latent minor-key heroic aspects in the grandson. These tales of his grandfather are interspersed with stories from Trosztmer’s own daily existence — his encounter with a homeless man who defecates in his backyard, for example, or a chase to retrieve a stolen computer.
Trosztmer is one of few dancers today (at least in Montréal) who knows how to speak on stage. His tone, calm and steady, never indifferent, draws the audience in, and we listen more closely. His constant collaborator Thea Patterson (his rehearsal director and also his life partner) has had a steady hand in teasing out this kind of nuanced performance. Other delights pop up — his rendering of Estonian syntax when speaking English (removing all articles from sentences) is a fine example.
All of the scenes in Myth and Machines, even in its discontinuous structure, gravitate around the central pull of memory. Memories, as we know, fade or are mingled with other stories collected and shared, in this case about Stalin and the Cold War. Indeed the “truth” of these shared stories is embellished and revisited by our own understanding and perception of what’s been said. The mythology resides in the stories not spoken, and the intimations of lives lived couched in mystery — there’s a satisfying respect and tenderness intertwined in the piece but it never becomes a romanticized, schmaltzy homage.
Moving between different places and different times and ultimately shifting voices, what Trosztmer achieves creates a new standard for the way in which narrative in dance is delivered. It’s intentionally unconventional, expertly assured and with a clear sense of rhythm and tempo. The humanity of the stories is ever-present in Trosztmer’s easy, focussed physicality, which sounds like a contradiction but isn’t. The skilled sound design by composer Jean-Sébastien Durocher provides added layers of resonance and further entry points; in this piece, sound is a partner. One moving sequence, after a blackout, has Trosztmer standing in a pool of light on an otherwise blackened stage, almost floating (Rasmus Sylvest works wonders with the lights). The sounds we hear are muted, almost like lost voices retrieved on an archival recording. It’s a sublime transport. In another section, Trosztmer is on his knees looking up, as if caught or captured in time. We hear distant Estonian voices softly registered on the track and it’s a hook. When Patterson asks, “Peter, what are you doing?” it’s not clear if hers is a recorded voice or live (turns out she is seated in the front row, and speaking into a microphone), and her equally calm voice is perfectly modulated. In yet another piercing theatrical moment, we hear the sound of the sea and see Trosztmer anchored on a simple, square cardboard sheet, a raft on which he is adrift, his body inverted, hands in clenched fists, his shirt over his head. We see the effort, the musculature of his active, powerful arms. Being in that place, alone, suggests so many things that are alternately traumatic and alive, and most importantly the sequence is not static; it resounds, shifting moment to moment.
Another achievement is Jeremy Gordaneer’s magnificent set construction — a workbench of sorts that supports a dislocated collection of recycled found objects (a bike wheel, a mini-generator, lights, weights and other materials). It suggests something utterly contemporary yet references a metallic machine of war relic. When Trosztmer crouches on the machine, he binds his thigh and calf tightly with packing tape, and nestles up to it, his back to the audience, and the image is threatening and intense. Is the tortured sidling up to the torturer? In another corner of the space, Gordaneer created a massive white sail. All of these disparate pieces fit together into Trosztmer’s cohesive and superlative whole.
Another dance work intimately linked to memory is Lara Kramer’s Of Good Moral Character. The first image is of a woman (Kramer), dressed in a white shift of sorts, with knee socks, perched with her back to the audience on a white claw-foot bathtub. She seems to be hovering over it, balancing on its lip. We see her back, never her face. She sinks into the tub, shaping her body into the unit, her body twisting and relaxing. It’s a scene filled with beauty but more than that; it’s a stark psychological reminder of a figure in isolation, on the precipice.
Kramer is a young Montréal-based First Nations dancer-choreographer and this is her second major professional creation. A static-filled soundtrack renders voices from a distant transmission, as if someone is switching a radio dial — this device transports and seems deeply connected to her roots (other times we hear drums and strands of throat-singing melodies surface). Her character’s mental state is blustery, shifting from defiant and full of rage and suggesting a terrorized background, to a playful flustered sensuality. Kramer has a clarity in her hugely expressive eyes — her wariness, her love, her fear and her chaos all register. She is a magnetic performer, and she doesn’t miss a beat as she casts her glance across the stage. In the duet sections, Lael Stellick, a strikingly tall, bald performer, eats up space with his dancing (especially on the intimate MAI stage). He is a solid partner for lifts, but Kramer tends to dominate him and presses his buttons in every way possible — she paces, jumps on his back, or she pulverizes him, slapping and pushing, slamming her body into his. Even in the more tender sections, Stellick seems passive, overwhelmed by what’s in his wake, or often needlessly overwrought in his response. Inner motivations drive this work of shifting sensibilities, and a better balance between the two performers would give nuance to the coupling and Kramer’s slashing rebuke of domesticity and its comforts. There are some memorable images of Kramer in the tub that reflect her containment, and real content here. But overall the piece is an off-and-on again experience. Time is on Kramer’s side though (she is only twenty-six years old) and someday soon she may be able to give a piece like this the intensity it deserves.