American minimalist composer Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974 to1976, subsequently attained stature as an enduring orchestral expression of New York City. It is the pulsing, late-twentieth-century equivalent of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) or Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957), each of which took a newly minted urban music signature from the Jazz Age or gang culture or Soho lofts into the realm of populist modern classic. Among those who have seized upon the mesmerizing original recording of Music for 18 Musicians (released by ECM in 1978) is Toronto choreographer Christopher House. According to program notes, House “used a short segment for a workshop piece called Toss Quintet” in 1979, the year that he joined Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) as a dancer. Fifteen years later he was named artistic director of TDT.
In November 2013, to open his twentieth season in that role, House has returned to Reich’s composition as the basis for a full-length work called Eleven Accords. It is among the most ambitious and technically complex choreographies devised for this superlative company, pushing the individual skills and physical capabilities of its dancers to new limits and demanding the utmost adaptive, interpretive and inventive skills of House and his creative team.
House has wanted to take on Music for 18 Musicians for several years and believes the time to be ripe because of the company’s quotient of experience and ability. Alana Elmer and Kaitlin Standeven are in their eighth seasons with TDT, Yuichiro Inoue and Naishi Wang in their seventh. Startling, essential performances are given by Jarrett Siddall (in his first full season with the company) and Mathieu Trépanier, a current dance intern. The choreography is credited to “Christopher House in collaboration with the performers.”
Each dancer carries him/herself as a distinct instrument, simultaneously player and played, consonant with Reich’s score that itself assumes so determinant a direction as to become an oracular force. Indeed, House consulted with Reich on which version of Music for 18 Musicians to use to realize the choreography. Reich recommended the digital rerecording box set that he conducted on the occasion of his sixtieth-birthday in 1997 (a year later it was released as a single CD on the twentieth anniversary of the landmark 1978 release). At sixty-seven minutes and forty-two seconds, this version is nearly ten minutes longer than the original. Both men thought that its range of tempi, extended ever so slightly further into pause or slowness, best suited and expanded the possibilities for movement. From the start, House gave himself a formidable durational challenge.
The structural division of Music for 18 Musicians into fourteen contiguous segments — including an overture of sorts titled “Pulses,” “Section I” through “XI” (including one subdivision into “IIIA” and “IIIB”) and a coda of sorts (also titled “Pulses”) — manageably partitions the serial phases of the dance. The title Eleven Accords refers to the eleven-chord cycle on which Reich based his composition, to which Reich’s construction into eleven sections itself pays self-reflexive homage. Surprisingly, House’s complement of eleven dancers – six men, five women – was not, for the longest time, so intended. In fact, the program lists twelve. However, during an ongoing development process that lasted up until its debut, even through the run, he made a late decision to trim one female member, tipping out of his habitual symmetry and rationality. As part of the preparation, House immersed the TDT dancers in Music for 18 Musicians, guiding them to notice “the joyful listening, watching and exploration of the players, all within a landscape of anticipation and emergence,” encouraging them “to emulate these same qualities.”
One enters the theatre to face a barren stage, unconcealed by curtain or darkness. Its only embellishment is a series of six suspended panels high over centre stage. Each consists of the same assortment of eleven white rectangles, overlapped in rows of increasing compression from near to far — they instil a forced recessional perspective and the apprehension of fully revealed space that exceeds its true limits and encompasses a wider world. The house lights dim. Simultaneously the rearmost panel descends to the floor.
Music for 18 Musicians commences with a monotone staccato of mallets. These opening beats soon pick up other instruments. Thirty seconds in, the up-left stage door opens through which Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Megumi Kokuba, Pulga Muchochoma, Jarrett Siddall and Naishi Wang bound onstage with fluttering steps, brisk leaps and landings, and kneeling lunges. They are barefoot, finding the floor, literally, over which they will range as a group for the five minutes and twenty-six seconds of “Pulses,” while individually lowering and asserting their bodies upon it. The floor takes on reflective properties at this sombre light level and mirrors their positions of palms, torsos, thighs and cheeks pressed against its surface.
“Pulses” phases into “Section I.” The six dancers now rise and begin a group walk into which the five remaining dancers — Nicole Rose Bond, Kaitlin Standeven, Yuichiro Inoue, Laurence Ramsay and Mathieu Trépanier — file and blend. House sticks to Reich’s method of introducing the key elements of one section in its predecessor. In both choreography and music, breaks are signalled by the co-ordinated removal or addition of dancers/instruments and/or movements/phrases, but never by outright replacement. The TDT ensemble continues its rangy walk, notably erect as compared to the previous section, occasionally spurting into a run initiated by one, after whom the rest momentarily follow, as a flock, only to subside into their walking stride again. The stage is now fully illuminated. As they mix and mill about, the dancers seem to be easily redirected, persuaded by encounters with each other, following, losing interest, diverted again, avoiding contact, collision and conflict. Rare bumps occur, gentle taps, pats of acknowledgement. One dancer boosts herself off the shoulder of another. Toward the end of “Section I” Muchochoma breaks into a free run, making a wide single circuit of the stage.
Throughout Eleven Accords, the panels of the set intermittently lower and rise. It is a subtle, peripheral effect, often unnoticed, given that one’s eyes are on the stage. As an impression, it compares to, say, a passing cloud, one that also arouses other sensations — a change of atmosphere, time or season. The set adjustments are never arbitrary, always flagged by a musical cue, however difficult they might be to discern.
As “Section II” begins, the dancers retreat to the rear wall and pull socks over their feet. The lights change again. Intersecting rectangles show up on the floor amid a dim perimeter. The bright, irregular grid suggests sidewalks, streets and city blocks. Greig steps out to take a solo sashay down, up, across and diagonally over the grid, with intricate stuttered footwork, gently flicking and expressing her hips upon which her carriage and arms just ride and keep balance. She improvises not only her movements but also her very path, following only the measures of the music. She has the admiring regard of her fellow dancers. Then she sits and Inoue steps in; he moves with less segmentation, more liquidly, more slowly. After a short minute, Siddall takes over. He is rapid and demonstrative. Wang comes in, casually makes a few gestures mirroring Siddall’s as in a relay before taking over, then Greig returns to take the section out. These serial solos go for more than five minutes, extended turns of individual prowess, but the soloist never seems alone, cherished by the communal gaze of his or her colleagues. Meanwhile, the company has peeled away from the back wall, split to either side, where on a conventional stage it would be waiting in the wings, unexposed to view. We might wonder, has this beaming unanimity been coached into the choreography or is it a customary attitude of standing by? Either way, or even both, it appears natural and genuine.
As “Section IIIA” begins, the company folds together from either side, all in their stocking feet. They move in a pack about, around and across the stage — walking, skipping, sliding, kneeling — probing the busy music without quite being carried into it. This is the first section of the dance fully grounded in the “vocabulary of restraint” to which House has referred in his program notes, which goes against the expressive instincts of the performers. As the section progresses, its energy builds off the floor. Yet the dancers leap tentatively, as if inhibited from the aerial displays of which they are accustomed and capable. Their socks compromise the footwork, both launch and landing, surely an impediment introduced by design. This section is perceived and appreciated differently according to one’s vantage point. From the orchestra seats near stage level, the dancers appear decidedly uncomfortable. Looking down from the balcony, the entire choreography becomes abstracted, the half-leaps more as subtle, integrated balletic bursts. Over the five-performance run of Eleven Accords the company willingly learns to hold back its flair and assume the spry yet demure hop of a contemporary gavotte.
At this point, House shifts his choreography out of phase with Reich’s assignment by having four dancers emerge out of the previous ensemble movement at the outset of “Section IIIB” and letting them continue through “Section IV,” which combines over ten minutes. Elmer, Inoue, Muchochoma and Wang verge nearer to coordinated contact. They elastically spread apart and regroup, huddle and intertwine. Extended or mirrored limbs, adjacency, proximity, pose and gradual reconfiguration elaborate and modulate the somatic relationships of the quartet. This, the longest sustained sequence of Eleven Accords, is the culmination and consequently a finale of everything that so far has been introduced. It will be somewhat reprised at the conclusion, but by then the operating conditions have changed and so too therefore does its significance.
Again, the dancers clear the stage to either side. “Section V” will be defined by a series of runs, athletic laps round the stage such as were presaged by Muchochoma toward the end of “Section I.” First to enter is Kokuba, taking a gangly, headlong spin, pumping her arms to the rhythm of her gait—and there is something different about her. She has changed her costume, having switched into a cheery rhubarb-purple tank top, and perhaps only then might one realize that until this point in the piece, all the performers have been outfitted in a casual assortment of gray and black wear. Gradually over this and the next four sections, performers will re-enter the stage having changed one item of costume to a colour in the red–purple–blue spectrum, indicating a critical phase in Eleven Accords within which the assumed rules of engagement are challenged and complicated. Running seems a simple enough action. However, the paths and patterns of solo circuits, twosomes, threesomes or more, trace figures that differentiate and separate the dancers from the disembodied music. Eventually, when they begin running in reverse just as Reich’s composition seems to achieve a standing aural wave, the unquestioned temporal propulsion of everything forward suddenly becomes thrown into doubt.
The six minute and forty-nine second segment of running concludes with darkness, the stage momentarily empties of performers and the lights re-establish the urban grid, which now appears subterranean, possibly submerged, beneath the city pavements. All eleven dancers return, disperse and press themselves face down or sideways upon the floor, legs partly tucked, arms spread. They twitch and tick, reigniting the implicit clockwork of existence, and in doing so locomote their prone bodies from one illuminated cell to another. Heads and torsos tentatively lift up to test the space above their flatness. A few dancers pop up, tentatively testing their legs and reclaiming their identities from this, the most anonymous passage of the work, only to recoil and replant. Gradually a milling walk resumes and then suddenly two dancers, Standeven and Siddall, approach one another and face off as Eleven Accords heads into “Section VI.” The others gradually depart.
Standeven and Siddall are poised close. Each presses a straight arm against the other’s shoulder. Such deliberate contact constitutes a dramatic development after forty minutes of only rare incidental or accidental bumps and taps. Their stances appear oppositional, however they begin to move in a tense accord. Neither holds onto the other as they shift through a series of transitions that depend on pressure, rest and counterpoints pulled through one another’s limbs and torsos. Each adjustment results in a precariously balanced position that either one or both could not sustain without the other. This riveting section abstains from common male/female archetypes, yet it gains unique sexual potency from the intensity of their indifference. Then, just like that, they disengage and separate. The ice has been broken, however, and the remainder of the piece carries more psychological force.
Standeven and Siddall remain onstage where they are joined by Elmer, Greig and Wang, then a minute later also by Muchochoma, while Siddall soon withdraws. All four now have donned a colourful top (unlike Standeven and Siddall, who remain in gray costume). The quintet-to-sextet-to-quintet refrains from making physical contact. Still, the dancers regard one another closely, responding to and transferring motions. They also abandon the integers of statuesque stillness that up until now has highlighted their movements, individually and ensemble. “Section VII” briskly flows into “Section XIII” with three male dancers — Muchochoma, Siddall and Trépanier — who resume the contact mode, pushing it harder. The sets and extensions that this trio co-operatively invent and achieve are nothing short of stunning. Compared to the earlier oppositional push-pull duo set, Muchochoma, Siddall and Trépanier at one moment might anchor and bridge two bodies so as to cantilever a third, then in the next moment wind their limbs and torsos into a compact nucleus from which springs an altogether different human chain. One counterbalanced proposition flows into another and another with brisk mobility. They necessarily grapple and release as the three-man cluster ranges quite freely across the floor. With Eleven Accords‘ oscillation between taut compression and loose-knit assemblage, House demonstrates how a complex choreographic precept will express its design through both individuals and ensemble.
“Section XI,” the penultimate, takes up a bit of unfinished business as it resumes the shimmy crossings introduced in “Section II.” Those who did not take a solo before now do so. And so do Greig and Siddall, again. Any who had earlier changed into colourful clothing are now back in their original grays. And again, the lights show an irregular grid on the floor, just a little fainter than before. The paths the dancers take are less wandering, more direct, straight lines from left to right, or vice versa. Each dancer takes it a little easier, having together fallen into step with one another as well as the home stretch subsiding of Reich’s composition. There are no longer any overtones of competition. Only the final crossing, by Trépanier, deviates from the constant, communal heartbeat, and he takes it languidly slower still, easing down the pace for the dénouement of the closing “Pulses” section. Here the company reprises the language that they have established, slow lunges and leaps, rolls and spins, strides and jogs, crouching to the floor, standing again, gestures distributed and equitably redistributed, numerous, perhaps innumerable accords, which for the sake of convenience (because, after all, who’s counting while being so hypnotized?), we designate “eleven.”
With Eleven Accords, House seeks a new potential for relational art, one that casts off the cumbersome didactic features that often drag on such initiatives. Instead, he trusts the latent artistic and social ecology of his disciplined company to imbue meaning. In early rehearsals, the dancers engaged in games, such as rapid ball tossing, to stimulate recognition and reaction; heighten awareness, assurance, readiness, restraint and responsibility for personal action; accommodate the presence and difference of others; and, as a group, to “inspire virtuosity, risk and play.” The vocabulary of surprise that arose from this research was then dropped into the matrix of Music for 18 Musicians, with its precise spatial and temporal indices. Yet Reich’s musical architecture not only tolerates, but also relies on, the physiological specificity of its players, each with individual (and varying) patterns of pulse, breath, reflex, feel, presence and becoming. Eleven Accords generates and performs its complex counterpoint against vividly implied intersections of planes — Cartesian demarcations of position and location, spherical projections of corporeal occupancy and containment and palpable somatic fields of sense and relationship. The dancers’ movements (within the remarkably spare and effective staging) establish topographies so convincing that it becomes unnecessary to fall into formation. Rather randomness induces a semblance of pattern that satisfies order. House and TDT reach an artistic pinnacle that proves why “concert” can be so fitting a designation for a dance performance.