Ever since the late, lamented fFIDA (fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists) exited the scene in 2006, Toronto dance aficionados have been without their August fix. Happily, the new festival dance: made in canada/fait au canada (d: mic/fac) is filling that void.
The event is the brainchild of festival directors Yvonne Ng, Jeff Morris and Janelle Rainville. Ng is a veteran choreographer, dancer, producer and arts educator. Morris and Rainville are both experienced dance stage managers, the former with The National Ballet of Canada, the latter with ProArteDanza, among other companies. The festival was dedicated to the late lighting designer David Morrison, who first floated the idea for this summer event in 2006.
Apparently, Morrison also suggested selecting pieces on a national basis through both a curated and free-for-all process. Thus, the festival featured three curated mainstage series that included two world premieres and four Toronto premieres, with participating choreographers representing four different cities. A late night series showcased five works by Toronto choreographers chosen by lottery.
There was an interesting twist in terms of programming. The three mainstage series were each chosen by different curators from dancer and choreographers’ submissions. Ng programmed one series, while dance icons Peggy Baker and James Kudelka chose the works for the other two. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of d: mic/fac was how the overall flavour of each mainstage series reflected the aesthetic of the individual curator. Baker tends to be an introspective choreographer, and the works she selected focussed on interior musings. Kudelka’s choices reflected his penchant for strong technical demands, his own quirky sense of humour, and his predilection for the narrative. Ng has always been drawn to the concept of relationships and identity issues — elements that dominated her program.
The curators each wrote an extensive program note outlining the rationale behind their choices, which, in turn, provided an entrée for the audience into the choreography. Luckily, the d: mic/fac festival directors, unlike some dance purists, were not against this audience-friendly device. But I have one cavil with the actual layout of these notes. A permanent program outlined all the d: mic/fac activities, with each curator’s choice, and the late nights, being a separate insert. It was, however, very difficult to find that insert (with its own multiple pages) amid the six pages of the general program. A redesign is definitely called for to allow the audience easier access to the specific playbill.
To create a festival atmosphere, d: mic/fac also featured dancefilm screenings, photography and visual arts exhibitions, dance workshops, pre/post performance artists’ chats and Q&As, and line-dance lessons for the general public on the street outside the theatre.
A curated series does ensure more polished work than a wild and woolly fringe festival, and all the dances certainly had elements to recommend them. Ironically, the five late night pieces were also worthy, even though they were on the playbill by the luck of the draw. Perhaps the very nature of this festival and its big name curatorial talent tended to attract more accomplished dancesmiths.
What follows is commentary on both the curators’ choices and the various choreographies.
The Baker Series
Baker is drawn to dance that physically taxes the body through movement that is original and authentic, or in her words, driven by physical impulse. Her three Toronto-based choreographers all reflected this element.
For Baker, the fascination of Keiko Ninomiya is both her breakdown of formal structure and the polished exactitude of her work. In the case of Marie-Josée Chartier and D.A. Hoskins, Baker admires their kinetically charged choreography specifically designed for the dancers who originally commissioned the pieces.
The standout was Ninomiya, not just on the Baker series, but in the festival as a whole Ninomiya was given the Paula Citron Award, a prize I originally established for fFIDA which recognizes artistic and creative excellence.
Ninomiya’s solo, “Kanan-Kiri” (which means right and left in Indonesian) was a world premiere. Ninomiya is of Japanese heritage, but in this piece, she explored Balinese dance. The exquisite beauty of this choreography lay in the homage and respect she paid to another dance tradition, while adding in elements of menace and surprise to create a work of mysterious beauty.
All the elements of Balinese dance were present – flexed knees pointed to the side, extreme turnout of the feet, gracefully folded-in body, angled arms, precise gestures, coordinated hand/eye movement, bent head, toe-to-heel movement dynamic. Apparently, Ninomiya was emulating the ancient tradition of women performing in male style.
But there was much more here, as toward the end of the piece, Ninomiya’s highly agitated muscle manipulations and body contractions made one think of a black widow spider luring her prey for the kill. What began in the studied slowness of a seemingly innocent flirtation, built to a statement of arching power.
Nami Sawada’s set was a gorgeous spider web overlaid by crystalline sparkles with a large moon above. Sharon Hann costumed Ninomiya in a sexy, black velveteen gown that evoked Balinese national dress. John Carnes’ score was anchored in the gongs of Indonesian gamelan orchestras, but modernist in sound. Arun Srinivasun provided the moon-drenched, shimmering lighting. In short, every aspect of “Kanan-Kiri” was perfectly conceived.
Hoskins created the polished solo “Excerpts from a Wet Summer”(2009) for Victoria-based dancer Jung-Ah Chung. The work is a meditation on the experiences that we carry in our bodies reflecting home and history. It began and ended with the dancer sitting quietly in a state of waiting.
Hoskins’ vocabulary was comprised of pedestrianisms executed in a very matter-of-fact style. Chung negotiated through a series of contractions, rolls, pliés, bends and twists. Sitting and standing segued into walking and running. Fierce bursts of total body energy were interpolated with moments of suspended stillness.
Circles of light on the stage that lured the dancer into their embrace symbolized key moments in her interior monologue. Hoskins does tend to include nudity, in this case, the dancer taking off her top. The incident occurred in one of these light circles, and the sensual languor of the choreography spoke of memories of heightened sexuality.
Robert Kingsbury’s electronic score was filled with gentle pings punctuated by throbbing percussion and street noises. Hoskins’ symbolism included Chung washing her body in a river of sparkles, and rolling out a green carpet. This ritualized movement represented important moments in a life experience, details of which were left to the audience’s imagination.
Chartier’s duet “La Lourdeur des Cendres” (2003), for Heidi Strauss and Darryl Tracy, was inspired by visual artist Betty Goodwin. There is an element of melancholy that runs through Goodwin’s work, which Chartier rendered as the body being both broken and heavy, and the cross-cutting of diagonal arms.
Set to Allison Cameron’s cacophonous score, Strauss and Tracy portrayed a violent relationship. Whether walking, running, slithering or crouching, their bodies were either entangled in some way, or the couple were connected in an abusive hold, his hand clutching the back of her neck.
This piece presented a study of acute physical closeness, the weight of one being borne by the other, although the aimless quality to the movement spoke to a subtext of disengagement.
The Kudelka Series
Kudelka deliberately selected works from other cities because touring has become so difficult. His choices were characterized by the human body presented in vibrant, energetic fashion. Each piece also had a strong dramatic element.
Where the choreographers differed was on approach. The vision of Montréal’s Lina Cruz was more oblique, while the presentation of Vancouver’s Josh Beamish was immediate and direct. These two pieces also sported the largest casts of dancers at d: mic/fac.
Cruz’s delightful excerpt from “Soupe du Jour”(2010) was performed by Elinor Fueter, Catherine Larocque, Loic Stafford, Soula Trougakos and William Yong, and each dancer managed to inject his or her own individuality into the mix. The piece presented a group of eccentrics randomly interacting with each other, almost as if a chat room or social network had been plucked from the Internet and rendered into movement.
Cruz designed her own bizarre costumes and props. The dancers wore a whimsical mix of leisurewear, while the stage was festooned with a series of metal poles-cum-seats-cum- tables that looked like chopped up light standards.
Composer Philippe Noireaut was live on stage surrounded by his keyboards and playback devices. His score of many moods was wonderfully evocative. Noireaut also joined in the dance from time to time. His contribution, both in music and physicality, was sly and droll. (There were also recorded snippets from Fauré and Beethoven that provided some faux-gravitas.)
The choreography was totally unpredictable. For example, a male performed a virtuoso ballet riff, followed by a female executing a sexy tits ’n’ ass routine. Several dancers together were like a rhythmic “in sync” music video. Then there were wacky physical images such as walking upside down against the wall, being a human semaphore, or participating in the group send-up of marching soldiers. Episodes of slow and snaky limbs were followed by movement that was crisp and pointed. Exits and entrances occurred without rhyme or reason. Choreographically speaking, this piece was all over the map, but intriguingly so.
Beamish’s witty “Tools for Cutting” (2010) was timed for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Take four good-looking, West Coast guys (Cai Glover, Jeffrey Sykes, Matthew Waldie and Beamish), and let them interact with skis, skateboards, skates and sleds (plus the appropriate gear), and you have a clever satire on men’s obsession with sports, all set to Max Richter’s percolating score.
The choreography incorporated Beamish’s trademark ballet/jazz/hip hop fusion in lively fashion and was built around a clever interaction between sports equipment and movement. For example, in one section, three dancers manipulated the fourth dancer on a snowboard, never letting him touch the ground, as collectively they mimed, in mid-air, his tortuous run down the mountain. Or, in another vignette, Beamish turned the phrase “He shoots, he scores!” into an artistic ballet solo with a hockey stick and puck. He even included a can-can, high-kick routine on skis.
There was a very clear subtext. By using sports as his artistic metaphor, Beamish was making the statement that these male dancers are talented athletes on an equal basis to those in professional sports. As well, “Tools for Cutting” inevitably raised the question of how much bullying these dancers had experienced from beer drinking, he-man yahoos as they pursued their dance dreams.
The Ng/Morrison Series
(Ng named her series in honour of David Morrison.)
Ng chose pieces that explored the important concept of “self”’. The choreography also celebrated the fact that dance can transcend the peripheral accoutrements of life (such as history, heritage and even clothes) to make a connection to universal truths. Ng pointed out in her program note that these pieces were studies of the “self” stripped bare, a necessary step to moving forward.
Vancouver’s MACHINENOISY (Delia Brett and Daelik) and Toronto’s Michael Caldwell both used the metaphor of clothing. In the former’s case, it was a plethora of men’s, women’s and children’s apparel strewn over the stage, while Caldwell’s work featured women’s dresses suspended in the air.
Both pieces suffered from visions that were, perhaps, too ambitious. The various component parts failed to weave together to create a whole cloth.
Brett and Daelik’s duet “Self Less” (2006) was inspired by images from the 2004 South East Asian tsunami. The scattered clothing on the stage symbolized the debris field — all that was left for people who had lost everything. The couple attempted to create a picture of two people trying to discover a new existence and a new intimacy. Christopher J. Kelly and Lutz Gladien provided the gloomy industrial soundscape.
The physical movement was mostly combinations built out of contact improv. Although they were certainly able to convey struggle with their shifting weight-bearing, they had trouble making the choreography speak beyond a studio exercise to address more lofty issues. In other words, the movement remained a constant and the physical imagery a monotone.
In terms of text, both performers told stories. Brett described an amusing incident from her childhood where she and her friends used an abandoned industrial sink as a latrine. Daelik’s monologue was a musing on warfare and the bombing of boats. These verbal memories, however, seemed isolated, both from each other, and from the dance itself. Voice-overs about the elements of wind and sun, and the use of popular song (The 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away”) seemed contradictory or functioned as non-sequiturs. The overall feeling to the piece was a lack of resolution because it was difficult to connect the dots.
The duo did create some poignant images, however. For example, Daelik’s rippling Brett’s slip as if she were standing in a strong breeze was a gentle reminder of the disaster (or the destructive wind) to come. Their attempt to put the scattering of clothes into some kind of coherent order depicted both the desperation to find some semblance of normality, or the coming of a brighter future.
Caldwell’s world premiere solo, “Ash Unravel”, was a case of strong theatrical values cocooning weaker choreography. The work was inspired by both the recent death of his Vietnamese-born mother, and a trip to South East Asia in search of his roots. Caldwell was also influenced by the bloody history of that war-ravaged part of the world.
The piece incorporated a video of charcoal drawings by Seth Ruggles Hiler. Philip Strong’s score was a judicious mix of Asian gongs and moody electronica. Roelof Peter Snippe provided the atmospheric lighting, while Hoax Couture (Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell) designed Caldwell’s gorgeous Vietnamese-inspired costume, a white tunic top with side slits, over wide pajama bottoms. (Snippe’s clever lighting outlining just parts of the various dresses gave a sense of a surreal other world.) C
aldwell’s choreography was anchored in one kinetic theme — a series of fluttery, staccato arm and body movements, and other images that connoted flying. Sameness, even tedium, dominated the movement. The pedestrian images on the screen, like an empty room, then a man appearing and disappearing, or later, jungle and river scenes, seemed to have little bearing on Caldwell’s live physicality.
Towards the end he did inject more energy into the piece, slamming his hands on the ground, violently flapping his arms, and running in large steps, but there lacked a strong choreographic through line to anchor his physical images. Caldwell failed to invoke the rich mother lode of movement that this piece could have explored.
One assumes the hanging dresses were a reference to his mother, and, thus, to his past. He did reach up for a dress in the final moments of the piece, but, in reality, the choreography did little to reveal a state of mind beyond superficial angst.
The Late Night Series/What You See Is What You Get
Taken collectively, these short, ten-minute pieces proved to be a potpourri of visual delights, running the gamut from ballet to jazz and contemporary dance.
Sylvie Bouchard’s solo “La Vie” for dancer Mairéad Filgate was another standout, and was runner up for the Paula Citron Award.
The piece contained Bouchard’s usual mix of the whimsical and the serious. Set to the soulful voice of the late singer Lhasa de Sela and her famous song “J’arrive à la ville”, the dance, mirroring the lyrics, was about letting go in order to move forward. The metaphor was Filgate’s dress, de igned by Emily Tench. The skirt was festooned with balloons attached by strings, and during the course of the dance, Filgate pulled off the balloons, which rose gently to the rafters. At the end, she opened a large chest, which contained more balloons, and then placed herself inside. It was an interesting ending. Did she still have work to do in getting rid of emotional baggage, or was she ready to take her seat in the world?
Bouchard’s choreography was masterful, full of starts, stops, hesitations, pullbacks and pull forwards. The dancer seemed to be trying to exert control over her body, but was fighting an unseen force.
The following are short takes on the remaining late night pieces.
The National Ballet’s Robert Stephen choreographed the charming “Two Dances “En Plein Air”” performed to the live music of violinist Edwin Huizinga and pianist Christina Faye. The solo for Jillian Vanstone, set to Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour”, portrayed a woman swept up in the raptures of love, shown through deep body arches and swooping turns. Stephen’s own droll solo, to Kreisler’s “Liebeslied”, was the antithesis to Vanstone. Using quirky body positioning, such as flexed limbs and clown walks, the dancer made fun of romance, particularly when he pretended to hold a woman in his arms.
Jasmyn Fyffe’s “Balanced Corridors” is her homage to a busy working mother. She began by running in encumbered by high heels, sunglasses, purse, umbrella, teddy bear and clothes. Her spoken mantra was “I’ll try my best!” which translated into movement that passed from a distracted air to one of steady purpose, rendered through a series of frozen tableaux.
Jannine Saarinen’s “Box Step”, performed by Jen Hum, Chelsea Lee and Jamee Valin to big band music, was a comical send-up of jazz dance itself. The voice-over intoned directions on how to do the box step, with each set of instructions becoming more complicated. Lee and Valin got it, and Hum did not. In the latter’s frustration, she jumped off the stage.
Andrea Spaziani’s amusing trio, “The moment before”, was performed by Amanda Acorn, Lauren Cook and Spaziani, and referred to the moment before meditation. The text was taken from Roy Masters’ “Be Still and Know”, the soothing male voice intoning that meditation is the most exciting experience. The cut and thrust of the piece was just how long it took these knapsack-toting women to settle down, given their frenetic movement and distracting chatter. Peace and tranquillity certainly seemed a long way off.
In the final analysis, the dance: made in canada/fait au canada festival created a positive first impression. The pan-Canadian choice of works, the stylistic variety of the programming, and the relatively high artistic quality of the choreography, were all strong contributing factors. Given funding constraints, the festival directors plan d: mic/fac to be a biennial event, but at least dance in August has returned to Toronto.