Spring made its usual emphatic entrance in Toronto this year, bringing strange wardrobe combinations to the streets, a wonderland of pale pink cherry blossoms to High Park, and a diverse season of theatrical dance to downtown theatres. Two low-key but fascinating showings from a couple of Toronto veterans made the most of all the seasonal good will and hopefulness in the air. Both artists are supremely grounded – in their physicality and also in their creative practice. These were new beginnings with some solid foundations.
“Sensorium” was a York University MFA thesis presentation from Susan Lee, long a fixture of the independent scene. Lee has been lying low at school for the past few years but she’s clearly been busy experimenting. “Sensorium” addresses twin concerns in Lee’s dance practice: the narrative potential of movement and gesture, and technology. How one could possibly enhance the other was the thrust of this new work, which was presented several times in a row over the course of a day in a small multipurpose space in York’s Accolade Building. Each new audience was invited to enter and sit. The lights were low though tables full of digital machinery gently glowed and blinked behind the seating area. The “stage” was defined by a carpet and heaped with cushions. Several lengths of cloth framed the space, spilling ceiling to floor.
The dance begins quite simply with Lee rolling around amidst the pillows. An audio-scape of cicadas, bells, hums, and sighs unrolls; it feels linked to how she is moving but it is not clear how. Lee remains low to the ground and her repeated hugging and adjusting of the pillows is sensuous, lush. The dance ends and because it’s a thesis presentation, Lee casually addresses her audience and reveals all. The audio phrases, it turns out, are cued by triggers under the pillows and carpet.
She then moves on to the next section, which focuses on one of the hanging panels as a kind of screen. What we see are video images of Lee dancing, at times layered with distorting effects that stretch her limbs or turn them into abstract spirals. It reads like an experimental video. What is actually happening, explains Lee, again at the section’s end, is that she is behind the panel creating the base material with her body in real time. This movement is then captured and mediated by computer programs to create the images we experience in front of the curtain. Kind of like the great and mighty Oz.
In the third section of “Sensorium”, Lee invites audience members to type words or phrases into a laptop mounted on a podium. These words are then projected in a constant dancing flow onto a hanging panel. Meanwhile, Lee moves in front of the screen. What seemed at first like a pleasant improvisation — featuring slowly transitioning movements reminiscent of tai chi or some other martial art form – became even more fascinating to watch once the connection was made between word and movement (some of us are slower on the uptake than others).
The final section uses an overhead camera and spatial triggers to control video sequences playing on a panel while Lee moves through the space. The images are fairly generic — streetscapes, treetops — until an onscreen Lee appears and the real and virtual performers make a tangible connection. It was a satisfying conclusion and summary to a technically challenging yet warmly human presentation.
“The Possibility Dance” is a work-in-progress choreographed and performed by Jessica Runge. Simply staged at the collective studio space Hub 14, Runge incorporated elements integral to the bare bones space — a light switch, a window — to efficiently set up the dance. Directly speaking to her audience, the seven-months-pregnant Runge explained that throughout her dance career she’s regularly addressed the physically impossible; she had decided this time, she said, to address the possible. Runge has always been a lovely mover — as a member of Toronto Dance Theatre for many years, grace and a kind of otherworldly beauty were her hallmarks. None of that has changed even with a substantial belly altering her lines.
And what’s possible for Runge is still rather a lot. To a quirky and violin-heavy score by Canadian folk composer Oliver Shroer, she performed a circular dance punctuated with simple jumps and leg extensions, some of them held for an unnervingly long time. Runge is strong and stable and made no apparent concessions to her temporary physical state other than framing her belly with her hands from time to time.
After a brief intermission where the audience was invited to eat strawberries and drink some wine, Runge repeated the eleven-minute solo, this time to a completely different score by the electronic outfit Poke 20. The harder edges of this music revealed some darker depths in the material – there was a more menacing or urgent quality to the movement where previously there was calm and control.
Afterwards, in keeping with the informal-showing vibe, Runge caught her breath, then took a moment to talk about the origins and evolution of the dance. Some of the ideas she mentioned — describing loss through spatial relationships such as empty and full and the unintentional betrayal of children — gained added meaning after the fact. As we learned more about the origins of the movement, remembering the dance became part of experiencing the dance. And that experience resonated long after Runge’s young son impatiently reclaimed his mother as she tried to wrap up the evening.
It was illuminating to watch these two artists present new work in close succession. The combination of Runge’s angelic yet emotional musings and Lee’s calm yet searching explorations made me want to see much more from these soft-spoken choreographing/performing super-heroines. Maintaining an artistic practice over time and keeping it fresh is no mean feat; incorporating the elements of real life — aging, family, school, technology — gracefully into that practice is possibly even more challenging. I liked glimpsing that rich mixture in the presentations of Runge and Lee — it elevated the art by shedding light on the artist behind it.