Dance and dancers were all over this August’s two-week SummerWorks Festival in Toronto — yet they weren’t only dancing. Within the festival framework, the sensibilities of these artists, their respective positions concerning tradition, technology, engagement and cross-disciplinary collaboration, became highlighted in a provocative and energetic way.
Toronto-based dance artist Linnea Swan spent every day of the festival from 7pm to 11pm hosting The Re-view Project, an ambitious, capricious forum for discussing criticism, the “art” — as qualified by the artist — of the theatre review. Swan placed boxes outside festival venues and supplied postcards for audience members to anonymously “review” performances, rating them from one to five “swans.” She also held office hours for face-to-face encounters and discussions and created a daily video, sometimes riffing on reviews, sometimes relying on her own special brand of self-deprecating soul-searching.
The project provoked a useful questioning of why it’s so challenging to talk about performance with a formal boldness that transcended disciplinary classification. And although it seemed to scare folks off to a certain extent (including festival organizers, Swan mentioned to me), for the many who participated the project perfectly captured the angst and influence of performing arts reviews on artists and audiences alike. And the videos live on.
As the inclusion of The Re-view Project attests, SummerWorks is one of Toronto’s more interdisciplinary performance festivals. There were several dance-driven events that included artists from Toronto’s visual arts, music, film and theatre realms, most of them taking place in the Theatre Centre’s exciting new BMO Incubator space, where I watched the Flowchart mixed program, Zeesy Powers’ Common Fate and Benjamin Kamino’s Fathers & Sons.
Flowchart is an ongoing showcase series of small-scale multidisciplinary performances curated by contemporary dance artist Amelia Ehrhardt and hosted here by SummerWorks.
Co-founder of Toronto Dance Community Love-In, Amanda Acorn’s dance multiform was already underway as we entered the space and arranged ourselves around the performance pit. This magnificent solo — in which Acorn spins and channels currents of energy through her naked body without pause — continued for the better part of thirty minutes to a score by Canadian musician and sound artist Tim Hecker.
The remaining two works on the program — cinematic desire: or how I learned to stop worrying and read the signs by Bojana Stancic and Scott Harrison (basically a slide show of images with text read by Stancic and some live music mixing) and Liz Peterson’s Nighty night, sweetheart (which admittedly had many hilarious moments, especially when self-identified “non-dancer” Peterson was dancing) — couldn’t really compete with multiform’s elegance and corporeal courage but were engaging nonetheless.
Common Fate was a forty-five-minute presentation, a so-called “empty plot for four dancers” devised by Zeesy Powers. The dance featured Emily Law, Amelia Ehrhardt, Julia Male and Chelsea Omel performing in front of projected animations by Powers and a semi-live music composition by Andrew Zukerman. Each performer had a set script and vocabulary of moves, which they repeated over the course of the performance, alone or in combination with some or all of the others. Subtle changes in the movement arose, probably unintentionally, over time — the most interesting aspect of the work was how it forced close attention to the details of performance through repetition. There seemed to be no real connections being maintained onstage, and neither did the offstage musicians interact much with the dancers. Projected animations of pins, needles and swords — though gorgeous — remained in the background, ignored by the performers. For me, the work alternately prompted fascination, ennui and irritation. Is that enough? I guess so.
Benjamin Kamino’s durational performance Fathers & Sons: Kamino Family transformed the Incubator space into a cozy family rec room in which so much was going on and with so little pressure to pay attention to it that a viewer could have happily remained there for the entire six hours (the amount of time needed to drive from Toronto to Montréal, as the Kaminos mentioned in their program note) with no urge to flee. Furnished with blankets, cushions, books, music machines and family photos, the perimeter formed a zone of relaxation on which viewers could sprawl or sit as Kamino moved around the performance space drawing inspiration from photographs, a self-described “practice of image-based embodiment.” Kamino is a captivating dancer (he works with Peggy Baker and Dancemakers, in addition to frequent solo performances in a wide range of settings), moving evenly and continuously until a hidden impulse sends him into overdrive, jumping and shaking. His face grimaces or silently screams, he rolls his eyes or takes stock of his audience, always present and aware. On this afternoon, Kamino was flanked by his father, Timothy Kamino, and brother, Alex Kamino, each busy drawing on wall-size canvases (white for visual artist Timothy, black for muralist/tattoo artist Alex). Mom, Gabby Kamino, watched with friends and family from armchairs at the edge of the performance space. I dropped in at the half-hour, three-hour and five-and-a-half -hour marks to gauge the evolution of the work and it was substantial. The elder Kamino took down his drawings from the wall and fashioned moving sculptures, the cut-up drawings forming sails on motorized undercarriages. Later, a combination of drawings from the white and the black canvases was fashioned into a kind of teepee in which the sons hid. I noticed that while some people stayed in the room, others came and went and there were many new faces for the final hour of this moving, low-key but rather enchanting performance piece.
A wide range of SummerWorks performances took place outside traditional venues. Two that relied on dance content were Jacob Niedzwiecki’s remount of Jacqueries, Part 1 and Danse Carpe Diem/Emmanuel Jouthe’s multi-venue one-on-one performance Écoute Pour Voir presented in collaboration with Workman Arts. Both required digital devices and headphones to fully access a bespoke theatre experience.
Jacqueries, Part 1 relied on iPhone’s most recent OS and a custom-built app designed by Niedzwiecki. Accessed by headphones, the app supplied atmospheric music (by John Gzowski), cues and directions for audience members, video (both live feed and pre-recorded) and, in one brilliant instance, a dance for Luke Garwood with animated augmented reality elements — the dance was live with the iPhone screen overlaying animation detail upon it. The technological sky is the limit for this work-in-progress but I also just loved the physicality of running around back alleys and in and out of buildings to follow a story told in movement. This is a potent combination. See Marie France Forcier’s review of the show’s previous 2013 iteration here.
I wasn’t able to see Écoute Pour Voir in which individual dancers were linked to individual audience members by headset, but heard wonderful things about its intimacy and humanity. I’ll hope to catch it another time.
Liberated from the confines of constructed theatre spaces, these projects are a tantalizing glimpse of a possible future for performance — playful, improvisational, more in tune with our mix-and-match cultural times than many a proscenium-framed production.
Yet the mainstage remains an important stage. One of the best-loved works at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques in 2012 was Étienne Lepage and Frédérick Gravel’s Ainsi parlait with extensive text in French. Thus Spoke… is an English-language version of the work making its Toronto premiere at SummerWorks.
Performed by Anne Thériault, Marilyn Perreault, Frédérick Lavallée and Gravel, this is a cynical yet cheeky exploration of individual agency within uncertain moral environments. We are reminded at the top of the show — and again in a coda — that we (artists and audience) are privileged. And it continues from there: Lavallée muses about contract-killing Stephen Harper with crowd-sourced funding and why it wouldn’t do any good; Thériault talks about all the “stuff” in the world — seven billion sweaters, seventy billion fingers and so on; and the ensemble urges the audience to Google Stalin and pass the knowledge on. Oh, and we need to go beyond talking rebellion only with rebels, Lavallée suggests.
It sounds like a lot of fiery revolutionary talk — and it is — but movement, dance and gesture remain key to the performance, enhancing, illustrating, expanding and grounding the discussion in the body. What an exhilarating, smart and sexy show. Read Lucy M. May’s review of the original French version of Thus Spoke — Ainsi parlait — here.
Also on the main Theatre Centre stage, the Chimera Project’s Malgorzata Nowacka’s Black Or Ange explored control and personal agency, but in a much less pointed way than Thus Spoke…. Six dancers — Emily Law, Erin Poole, Daniel McArthur, Adam Toth, Amy Hampton and Lee Pham — dressed in variations of black and orange clothing (layers of which go on and off throughout the performance) form an aggressive ensemble. They manipulate each other’s limbs and heads, animate and immobilize, lift and carry each other in a furious barrage of movement.
There’s some sly humour at work in this mostly bleak dystopia — although it gets lost at times amidst the sound and fury of choreographic verbiage. However, the dancers keep the energy high and definitely have earned the respect they receive at show’s end.
On the final day of SummerWorks, awards were announced. Among the shows discussed here, Jacqueries, Part 1 (Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation) was a winner. SummerWorks artistic director, Michael Rubenfeld, also took the opportunity to announce Progress, a new international festival for performance and ideas that will launch February 4-15, 2015. It is a mid-winter spawn of SummerWorks and yet another chance for movement-based performance to shine.