"Double Story" is just that — two stories. The first is "The Bouncy Woman Piece" by Richard Siegal, an American; the second, "Man Asunder" by Vancouver's Crystal Pite. Both highly theatrical duets, performed by Siegal and Pite, feature dancing that is meticulously inscribed in space with long limbs and precise intention.
The pair met while dancing at Ballett Frankfurt, then the home of ballet's radical revisionist, William Forsythe. Their time spent in Germany comes through in a similar intellectual approach to movement although, for these artists, intellectual does not mean cold or dispassionate; in fact, Double Story is very funny, despite having death at the centre.
"The Bouncy Woman Piece", the cryptic tale of a man who falls from a balcony, premiered in November 2002 at Dance Theater Workshop in New York. "Man Asunder" premiered two years later in October 2004 at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, presented by Kidd Pivot (Pite's company) under the Double Story umbrella. Pite's piece builds upon the first, adding detail and understanding by retelling Siegal's story from the point of view of the woman who was on the balcony below the one from which the man fell.
The two works, which together clock in at about seventy-five minutes, present a tale of memory and reality, cleverly structured to slowly shed light on the central narrative event. Relentlessly, beyond the humour of both choreographers — at times he is almost a stand-up comedian, she a silly prankster — the fragments come together into a vortex that sucks everything together to shape the final tragic moments of the evening.
Siegal is a self-effacing storyteller, friendly and chatty, casually dressed in dark shirt and pants. He portrays a man who receives confusing telephone calls that he, as the choreographer and director, has arranged. We hear only one side of the conversation, as his character discusses his psychotherapist, his dreams, his confusion about where he is, his hands holding the balcony rail and then letting go. It seems he is being pursued, but not by a stalker — it is his memories or his inner self that hounds him. Pite is the bouncy woman of the title, moving in loose-limbed, twitching fashion forward and then across the stage while he talks. She wears a vivid red top and black pants, with a blonde tangle of braids. While dancing, she does not smile and her movement is a broken flow of detailed articulation.
Then they strike the set and prepare the space for Pite's half of the evening while the audience watches. Here is my one caveat over Double Story: this and other transitional sections could be tightened as the evening tends to regularly lose momentum, and the non-event of preparations could be more succinctly presented. Actually, a couple of minutes cut here and there throughout would create a more compelling rhythm to the work as a whole.
After fussing about on the stage, Pite follows Siegal's lead and counts "Three, two, one" — and the theatre goes dark for a few moments of interlude just as it did at the start of the evening. When the stage lights come up, it is her turn to tell a tale. Pite begins, again like Siegal, with words, describing from the neighbour's viewpoint the same episode he has told us about the man falling. Pite presents the event through her own poetic descriptions; through puppetry, using dolls with over-sized cardboard faces of the two performers; and through dance. She tells us something new each time, filling in the picture from a different perspective.
Like many contemporary choreographers, Pite and Siegal are drawn to words. The secret obscurities of modern dance movement have become a cliché, and the specifics of language are obviously one way to provide clarity. Words are not used as directly as they are by Thomas Lehmen in Germany or Nigel Charnock from England, who challenge the obscurities of modern dance by directly mocking the art form's abstract nature. Lehmen and Charnock do this through broad humour, and their audiences can actually be heard laughing loudly. Double Story, it should be said, is less raucous than these examples, with the humour understated, and the words less direct.
As for the dance, it is particularly gorgeous in "Man Asunder"'s duets. The pair performs Pite's choreography of falling and broken bones like a sad, modern day Fred and Ginger: two halves of the same unhappy dance. Pite makes things difficult by skewering expectations and forcing flow where it wouldn't naturally happen: in the space behind, or with an unexpected part of the body. The movement is sometimes decorative, although not pretty: unexpectedly, a foot twists for a moment behind the calf; a knee is pushed into place.
The main set pieces are two large wooden frames with mirror-like surfaces that are wheeled about to offer distorted reflections of the performers. They are also used to hide behind. One is manoeuvred onto the ground for Pite's piece, the reflective surface removed; Siegal lies underneath and uses the edge of the frame to represent the balcony railing he will let go of. The lighting design by Jonathan Ryder, in collaboration with the choreographers, goes from an extreme bright, revealing wash to a more dramatic illumination, as if moonlight has found a way through dense fog.
The soundscape by Montréal composer Diane Labrosse supports the story at just the right level: it is often present, but not insistently so. Labrosse performs live, seated behind a table with her electronic equipment and countless wires, creating a variety of sounds that include chimes, an insistent hum and what sounds like a vat full of churning, broken glass.
Brilliantly, "Double Story" balances storytelling with dance, puppetry with poetry, comedy with tragedy. It is, as Siegal told us right at the start that it would be, all smoke and mirrors. Yet, ultimately, the smoke and mirrors are not used to hide and obscure. Through all the theatrical pretence and all the pretend reality of performers acting "natural" on stage in front of an audience, something that feels real is reached. By the end, there is narrative understanding and emotional illumination, and the artists give their audiences a satisfying "Ah-ha!" moment. Postmodern obscurity meets up with an Aristotelian belief in resolution as the fragmented "Double Story" transforms into a satisfying whole.