By any standard “Dis/(sol/ve)r”, Christopher House’s curiously titled new work for Toronto Dance Theatre, is extraordinary.
The now middle-aged House – he’s fifty-three – has been part of TDT for three-quarters of its forty-year existence. He’s been the company’s artistic director and dominant choreographic presence since 1994.
House made his name with snappy, technically virtuosic, musically savvy and audience-friendly works that blossomed freshly from the traditions of mainstream American modern dance. Just three years into his career with TDT its trail-blazing, Graham-influenced co-founders – Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo – named House “resident choreographer”. They could be forgiven for living to regret their decision. House soon eclipsed them and, to avoid their fate and ultimate marginalization, has kept rejuvenating himself by deliberately embracing new creative challenges.
The most obvious was House’s late twentieth-century conversion to the fashionable genre of “evening length” works as the preferred substitute for programs of mixed repertory. That gave us a succession of self-contained programs triggered by House’s passing intellectual preoccupations and personal experiences; works such as “Nest”, “Severe Clear”, “Sly Verb”, “Timecode Break” and, most recently, “Chiasmata”. “Dis/(sol/ve)r” in some ways follows this trend but with enough notable differences to hint at yet another House rejuvenation.
“Dis/(sol/ve)r” eschews those previous works’ various usages and combinations of highly elaborate decors, props, video and speech. Where their soundscapes functioned as aural backdrops, the eclectic score Phil Strong (in collaboration with Ben Grossman and Mark Korven) has assembled for “Dis/(sol/ve)r”, without dictating it, often bears a direct rhythmic relationship to the movement. And what movement! Convulsive, gestural, percussive, spasmodic, vernacular; even violent at times.
Compositionally “Dis/(sol/ve)r” shifts from clearly formal arrangements – lines, chains, circles, repetition and unison passages – to seeming anarchy with the dancers going off in all directions. There are solos, duets and variable ensembles for the cast of five men and four women. Sometimes they are widely spaced; other times closely bunched. Even when not looking at each other they seem acutely conscious of each other’s presence. Their exits and entrances are more casual than emphatic.
In common with much contemporary dance, the work as a whole does not present itself to the audience, despite being performed on a traditional, proscenium stage. It is not a “show”. While the focus shifts internally, the dance remains the private domain of the performers, with the audience as an unacknowledged corps of detached observers.
Yet, the hour-long “Dis/(sol/ve)r” is far from being unemotional or abstract. For one thing it is elegantly set by designer Cheryl Lalonde and atmospherically lit by Ron Snippe. Lalonde uses black velour to mask stage left and part of the back but curtains the remaining perimeter with vertically overlapping, creamy toned panels, made of some crushed material, that spill onto the floor. The presence of five armless chairs – two downstage right and three on stage left – suggest that the action might be occurring in a fashionable nightspot.
Phillip Sparks’s costuming supports this hypothetical situation. He puts the men in dark suits and white shirts. Some even wear ties. The women are in nicely cut frocks of silky brown or beige. They’re a cool and trendy looking bunch. The men’s jackets come off and on again at various points. The women’s dresses stay put. Clearly, gender distinctions, as advertized by costuming, have significance. So when, for example, two men are put together their encounter sounds specific emotional overtones. Male/female encounters are similarly emotionally spiced.
“So, what was it all about?” baldly asked a friend as the house lights came up after the work’s premiere: a good question with probably as many answers as there were audience members.
Nowadays, going to see dance often requires serious homework. If my friend had read the several preview articles she’d have known that when House started fashioning “Dis/(sol/ve)r” – “in collaboration with the performers” – his ever-curious, intellectually promiscuous mind had been pre-occupied with particle theory, the kinetic theory of matter; and not just with science. House had resort to new age guru Gary Zukav’s 1979 book, “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, which helped popularize the notion that the links between quantum physics and spirituality, as framed in Eastern thought, were closer than those allowed by the prevailing science-versus-faith divide. A tenet of this “new physics” thinking is that “reality” and human consciousness are not entirely separate entities. The process of scientific observation impinges on objective “scientific” reality. “Subatomic particles,” wrote Zukav, “forever partake of this unceasing dance of annihilation and creation. In fact, subatomic particles are this unceasing dance of annihilation and creation.”
You can see how all this could get House excited, particularly about the idea of applying scientific theory to human experience and translating it in dance form; except that’s not exactly what he’s done. House’s program note is both suggestive and cryptic. He offers this: “Dissolving lovers, the moment of joy, the comfort of cruelty, rising and falling. The wave collapses, I see you.” As that copy editor’s nightmare of a title suggests, “Dis/(sol/ve)r” plays not so much with the notion of annihilation and creation as with the transient, elusive nature of reality. Life’s reality, House is intent to remind us, is evanescent; just like dance.
There’s little joy to be spotted in “Dis/(sol/ve)r” although there’s a good deal of rising and falling and more than a little overt cruelty; and the recurring motif of an aborted embrace, in which the embrace melts away to leave the embracer empty armed, certainly plays to the “dissolving lovers” idea.
Whether cruelty is comforting is open to debate but there’s a good deal of it in “Dis/(sol/ve)r”. Cast against type, amiable TDT newcomer Brodie Stevenson is recurrently mean to Matthew Waldie; tauntingly proffering then withdrawing a supportive hand. Luke Garwood rough-houses Kaitlin Standeven. Alana Elmer pinions Yuichiro Inoue. The guys slap themselves. There’s little tenderness on view. And when in the work’s fading moments Waldie approaches Stevenson again, you get the feeling this whole unlovely cycle of unresolved encounters is going to repeat itself.
Taken at a purely human level “Dis/(sol/ve)r” is dark, grim and discouraging. That said, in all its chaotic oddity, “Dis/(sol/ve)r” is compelling and, in terms of sheer performance quality, impressive. Like it or hate it, it’s hard not to want to figure it out.