The evening begins with palpable excitement. Perhaps the audience generates this electric feeling — they talk excitedly as they wait to enter the theatre, or it could be the pulsing music, a sound design by Driftnote (Omar David Rivero). It could be the thrill of entering a familiar place, the Dancemakers Centre for Creation, through a newly created white corridor. When I emerge, I enter a theatre I hardly recognize. From chicken wire structures, material drips. Bare incandescent light bulbs hang. Dancemakers has been transformed into an immersive environment where sound hums and light gleams. A white dance floor is bordered by a curving white wall. The audience completes this circular configuration; they sit in chairs and on comfortable grey cushions. This arrangement is inventive and precise, like the dance it was made to showcase. It opens lines of sight and brings the performance right into the audience.
I am here to witness through your eyes, a double bill of work presented by Alias Dance Project. Alias, a staple of the Toronto dance scene, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. It’s a significant milestone. The program begins with Outlook/Overlook, created and directed by Lauren Cook and Troy Feldman, and concludes with Me, You & Us, a choreographic commission by choreographer Hanna Kiel.
Outlook/Overlook begins quietly, with a reflective mood. Luke Garwood enters the warm darkness. His body melts and reforms, at times appearing boneless, his sinewy flesh folding and collapsing in a hypnotizing solo. The white canvas wall behind him is backlit, revealing the dark handprints of other dancers (this image was met with audible gasps; I heard a muttered “So cool!”). The dancers play with light and shadow, manipulating wire sculptures and their own silhouettes as Garwood trails them from the audience side of the canvas wall. Before long, the shadows reveal themselves to be Caitlin Amodeo, Drew Berry, Francesca Chudnoff, Lauren Cook, Amanda Davis and Emily Law, six female dancers whose calm but commanding presence fills the space.
Outlook/Overlook includes live sound design, projection and sculptural elements. From Francesca Chudnoff’s chicken wire sculptures, textures and geometric patterns drip, paralleling Rivero’s projection design. The projected topographical, geometric forms cast irregular shadows and provide a shifting digital landscape. These visual elements are referenced and integrated into the larger context of the performance; the dancers manipulate the sculptural forms to create cohesive, compelling imagery. Rivero’s sound design is spacious and powerful, combining electronic sounds with ambient guitar. Valerie Calam’s costume design highlights the individuality of the dancers with unique silhouettes while providing a unified pastel colour palette.
The choreography is the heart of this work. It is athletic and animalistic with enormous leaps and soft floor rolls. It is dynamic, musical and percussive with muscular accents, yet also employs expressive, long leg and arm lines and contemporary partnering techniques. It is magical. The dancers are weightless, then suddenly grounded; they unexpectedly collapse; they resolve into sculptural tableaux in a constant, uninterrupted flow of striking images; they erupt into unison and ordered chaos. The dancers behave with mysterious physics. Molecular, they seem to attract and repel; they vibrate and magnetically join — yet their human essence is never lost. This striking, highly physical dance vocabulary has an intriguing lineage. It is a hybrid of street dance, alternative contemporary techniques and parkour (“free running,” an athletic technique first developed in France). It is clear that Cook and Feldman have refined and developed their hybrid language. They have crafted an exciting, mature and confident choreographic composition that really, I mean really, moves, employing all parts of the stage and deploying the large ensemble of dancers with skill and apparent ease.
Like Cook and Feldman, Kiel is at ease working with large groups of dancers. She develops and refines her movement vocabulary in collaboration with her dancers, a democratic process foregrounded in Me, You & Us, the second work of the night. In the first half of the dance, each performer executes a unique gestural solo to tell an abstract narrative. The ensemble supports these solos, like pedestrians pausing to watch a story unfold in the subway. They run, walk and stand; they observe and calmly witness. They move and settle like clouds of dust or steam, their gestures evaporating into stillness. They slice and hover with long limbs and a low centre of gravity. These dancers were the same as in the first work, with the delightful addition of Greg “Krypto” Selinger, who drew gasps and sighs from the audience with tremendous physical feats such as a one-armed handstand into a front roll.
The program notes describe Me, You & Us as physical and emotional responses to the dancers’ memories. Kiel’s music choices delicately and deliberately reinforce this notion, crafting an ambient climate through sounds of wind chimes, rain pattering and gentle drifting melodies. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley also supports this environment with pools of warm light that glow like summer at dusk. Abruptly, Cook shatters the daydream with a sharp, dynamic solo, and the ensemble leaps into a startlingly contrasting realm. Exaggerated facial expressions are paired with fast phrases in unison. The dancers distort time with repetition and accumulation. Gesticulating phrases rewind, accelerate and twitch. The sudden and dramatic shift in tempo lifted me from my seat in shock and excitement.
This is a strong double bill, evidence that Alias Dance Project is at the top of its game. After ten years of work, these artists’ momentum shows no sign of slowing — indeed, it appears to have accelerated. This program is a self-aware, intelligent and dynamic visual feast — a proper celebration.
To view a video excerpt of Alias Dance Project in through your eyes, click here.