Made in Canada/fait au Canada is a biannual showcase of contemporary dance curated by choreographer/performer Yvonne Ng via her company princess productions. Over two weeks, the last of September and first of October, six works were presented, some new and some worthy remounts. The first three, all choreographed by men were collectively labeled IN(side)time; the second three, all choreographed by women were united as élémentale. This reviews concerns IN(side)time and the work of Québec City choreographer Daniel Bélanger and Toronto’s Louis Laberge-Coté.
“Quatuor pour la fin du temps” — an ensemble dance for four women — was first presented by Daniel Bélanger in 2004. The work is inspired by the story behind the creation of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed while confined to a concentration camp during World War II.
The opening images are iconic — the women in black dresses and Mary Jane shoes, drawing lines up the backs of each others’ legs in a nod to the war-time rationing of stockings. If these pictures are familiar, a great deal of the choreography is not. At times it seems to draw on Asian influences, other times classical Western forms. All of the movement is highly articulated (a wringing hand gesture of loss, a foot flexing without a shoe), an aspect that is aided and abetted by some very sophisticated lighting ideas by Bernard White, who also designed the set. That set references some of what we know about life in a concentration camp — for example, the back of the stage is rigged with translucent panels and fluorescent lighting. It is transparent and airy but anchors the scenography mightily and made me think of the showers which would be a feature in any “camp” situation but which had more sinister connotations during WWII where they were also sites of extermination. Suitcases, the modern symbol of dislocation and transit, are placed in rectangles of light across the stage, one each for three of the four women. Some sections occur in near darkness while in others, the performers trigger the light cues — with the stamp of a foot, for example.
There is some terrific ensemble work, with aggressive, almost abusive duets and a coercive, coldly mean trio, much of it suggesting the push-pull brutality of the camps. Other sections are highly theatrical — one remarkable segment sees the women laying out the clothes from their suitcases in the shapes of the loved ones they’ve lost (one of these outfits appears to be a child’s). They dance around and next to the clothes and in and around the suitcases, eyes closed. In another section, they march like soldiers, though one of the four can’t quite keep up with the rest. Clichéd in some respects, but not to the point that it’s troubling; grim but lovely, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” drips with sorrow.
“Soon…” choreographed by Louis Laberge-Coté, and performed by fellow Toronto Dance Theatre member Sean Ling and composer Laurel MacDonald, also explores a landscape of loss and mourning. Incorporating text from David Hare’s screenplay of “The Hours”, the work is a simple and powerful riff on losing someone. Both performers vocalize but they are never really in sync — there is always a sense that something (large) is dividing them even when their bodies are interlocked, as in one section that resembles an extended pietà.
Some moments of the work are haunting — as when MacDonald takes her vocal lamentation out of the house and down the hall while Ling continues to dance as the spotlight on him dwindles. But I’ve always thought the great strength of dance is in abstraction, in suggesting the undercurrents of human experience in a very non-literal way. This piece seemed a bit overstated to me, the work of the performers compromised by a framework that seemed overly structured and obvious. Loss can be a hammer blow but the ever expanding ripples and ramifications of loss are hugely complicated and, for me, “Soon…” didn’t really capture that.
Also by Laberge-Coté, “Scharachnia” is a solo for another fellow Toronto Dance Theatre member Johanna Bergfeldt. An exploration of the predator/prey dynamic, fear and, as the program notes, the subsequent “birth of alienation”, this work is scary in its intensity. Bergfeldt performs much of the piece with her back to the audience. And, what an expressive back she has — evoking fear, rage and defiance simply by extending her muscles and exposing her skelecature.
There are repeated physical motifs — violent wiping of the mouth, head-shaking — that offer some not-so-subtle clues to this woman’s emotional turmoil. The work derives just as much atmospheric power from Phil Strong’s eerie sound design of dripping water and creaking doors. The sum total is a bit madwoman-in-the-attic and might veer into camp in the hands of another performer. But because Bergfeldt is so absolutely committed to her interpretation of a woman grappling with the aftermath of rape (as fairly explicitly stated in the program notes), we believe in and empathize with her pain and confusion.
Despite their individual excellence, taken together the three works make for a somewhat depressing evening of performance. Serious depictions of serious subject matter, no matter how thrillingly interpreted, can be difficult to absorb without a few moments of levity here and there. I left the theatre impressed but not elevated; educated but not transformed. That said, I find myself still mulling over the meaning of these works, recalling some of the images and rolling them around in my head. Perhaps they are still working away at a subconscious level, on a slightly longer arc of digestion than many dance performances.