What can you say about love, lust and sex that hasn’t already been said in a million different ways in a multitude of media? This is the fundamental dilemma that must underpin any discussion of Julia Sasso’s new full-length exploration of eros: “The Betrayal Project”.
Like Sasso’s previous and hugely successful full-length choreography, “Beauty” (2003), “The Betrayal Project” was co-commissioned by Nightswimming, a Toronto theatre company directed by Brian Quirt, who also served as a dramaturge for the work. Sasso has a history of bringing dance to theatre: at last season’s Stratford Festival, for example, she choreographed Peter Hinton’s staging of “Into The Woods”. Well-regarded for her work as a performer (she was a member of Dancemakers from 1984 to 2000), choreographer and teacher, Sasso likes to tackle big themes – gender, relationships, desire. They all make their way, to greater and lesser degrees, into “The Betrayal Project”.
Conceptually, Sasso has an interesting idea that she outlines in her program notes: “… A notion that has accompanied me throughout this process comes from Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “From tender youth we are told by father and teacher that betrayal is the most heinous offense imaginable. But what is betrayal? Betrayal means breaking ranks. Betrayal means breaking ranks and going off into the unknown … nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown.”
The work begins with the reveal of a simple set of Sasso’s own design – a line of translucent panels that provides both backdrop and exit/entrance interest. Michael Trent stands in underwear playing the harmonica. He pulls on his trousers and the piece begins.
The cast of five, Trent, Ray Hogg, Neil Sochasky, Daryl Tracy and Molly Johnson, dance a rather murky beginning of mish-mashed couplings with style (including lots of imaginative lifts and gestures resonating with abuse, contempt, aloofness and aggression), but I found myself missing a narrative all the same. While there was lots of meaningful touching and feeling within Sasso’s mix of formal and pedestrian movement, compositional purity seemed to be the driving force.
“The Betrayal Project” is nothing if not well crafted. All of Sasso’s choices support the work’s momentum – the costumes by Lori Trez Endes (loose, simple shirts and pants in shades of burgundy and brown) and the lighting design by Geoff Bouckley are both unobtrusive; Catherine Thompson’s sound design comes and goes (much of the work is performed in silence or to the harmonica stylings of the cast). Nothing interferes too much with Sasso’s structure – she leads her audience from curiosity to amusement to ennui and back with real skill. But I was frustrated with the degree to which the dancers’ personalities failed to fully emerge – their hookups seemed somehow anonymous and thoroughly interchange-able. But perhaps this was Sasso’s ultimate intention – to demonstrate that casual sex is boring, perhaps?
Thankfully, the action becomes increasingly engaging, with moments of real intensity. There are some fascinating sequences where Johnson is either the centre of attention or the object of exclusion, though her role in the group dynamic of the piece remained unclear to me. Sasso sets her up as Other but other to what or whom? The fact that she is the only woman in the cast naturally suggests that she might be a voice for the choreographer but that seems too obvious for someone like Sasso. I hadn’t seen Johnson on stage before, and she was fun to watch in spite of her mysterious purpose – her poise perfectly containing her youthful reserves of energy.
There are also some magnificent duets in the work. My favourite was towards the end, with Trent and Hogg dancing a pas de deux full of lifts, acquiescence, tension and, ultimately, tenderness. Moments like these went a long way towards mitigating the irritating coyness of some of the more naughty bits of business. The use of harmonicas as surrogate penises – though it raised a laugh from the audience at the performance I attended – struck me as being sophomoric. But then I was thoroughly sick of harmonicas by the time they underwent this transformation from musical instruments being blown by the entire cast to more overt phallic symbols.
“The Betrayal Project” is not an easy work to love; it’s a tribute to the strength of Sasso’s casting and to their skills as performers that I didn’t end up wanting to hit every last one of them by the time the curtain fell. Sasso is stingy with moments of beauty in this piece, preferring to explore the more cynical edges of human interaction with irritating effectiveness. But it’s strange how the more gentle and lyrical passages of the dance are that ones that stick. For myself anyway, the Trent/Hogg duet, Hogg singing a capella, and the final images of longing that close the piece (the cast assembles naked behind the translucent wall and serially, sweetly embraces), are for taking away and mulling over at leisure. Perhaps the most meaningful innovations don’t have to have a hard edge.
Tagged: Contemporary, Performance, ON , Toronto