“Struck”, Artistic Director Brent Lott’s new work for Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD), examines the power of the “aha”: those random flashes of insight in which — if you’re lucky — you suddenly gain wisdom about past events or choices you have made in life.
The highly anticipated production marks the forty-five-year old dance artist’s first full-length show since taking the helm of WCD in April 2004. Lott received a Winnipeg Arts Council New Creations Grant to create the sixty-minute work, performed by a stellar company that includes Lise McMillan, Johanna Riley, Sarah Roche, Natasha Torres-Garner, and lone male Brendan Wyatt. All are graduates of the Professional Division of The School of Contemporary Dancers (SCD), with the exception of Wyatt who recently graduated from the School of Toronto Dance Theatre Professional Training Program.
Lott graduated from The School of Contemporary Dancers in 1990, before establishing his professional dance career working with an A-list of choreographers, among them, Tedd Robinson, Julia Sasso, Davida Monk, Joe Laughlin, Rachel Browne, Karen Kuzak, Sharon B. Moore, Stephanie Ballard and Gaile Petursson-Hiley. As a choreographer, Lott has created a catalogue of works that includes “Glance”, a duet created for Odette Heyn-Penner and himself that premiered as part of WCD’s 2006/2007 season, and later toured to Toronto as a part of Older and Reckless, and a video “i went by a clean name” (1999) which premiered at WCD’s 35th Anniversary Festival.
Lott began the process for “Struck” last year, coached by Calgary-based choreographer Davida Monk in WCD’s first annual Mentored Choreographic Workshop. Lott worked with Monk over a three-week period, developing his own choreographic voice and the movement vocabulary that forms the basis of this new work. He was able then to further hone his ideas during an intensive, seven-week creation period, working directly with the dancers and beginning collaborative work with the design team.
The first thing that struck me about this show is Winnipeg artist Calvin Yarush’s pure white-box set. Shrouded with ghostly, hanging panels of gauze that add depth and dimension to the intimate stage area, the design creates a tabula rasa for what is to come. The skeletal guts of a boat hang precipitously in an upstage antechamber, becoming at times a cage, a swing, a prison. Studio wall mirrors are etched with poetic images of falling tree branches, a metaphor echoed repeatedly with Riley’s outstretched, reaching arms, which both begins and ends the work. Long-time Winnipeg theatre and dance designer Norma Lachance’s diaphanous, grey costumes of filmy pants, skirts and fitted tops contrast with lighting designer Dean Cowieson’s angular squares and rectangles, projected on the white floor at key moments like punctuation marks of light.
Acclaimed singer/songwriter Christine Fellows’ woven musical tapestry combines moody cello drones, repetitive piano chords, off-kilter African kalimba rhythms, and ringing finger cymbals with her own vocals, underscoring the movement with all-too-human, poignant simplicity. Fellows is currently WCD’s first composer-in-residence, and has also created original scores for Susie Burpee’s “The Spinster’s Almanac” and Karen Kuzak’s “Diving Girl” for TRIP dance company.
The work itself is structured episodically, as an amorphous series of solos, duets, trios and group ensemble work that seamlessly flows together like a pastel watercolour. Each dancer takes a turn becoming “struck” by an apparent insight — or sometimes, disturbing memory — that generates a new idea and motivates his or her interaction with others.
Lott effectively plays with changing perspectives, as the dancers become watching witnesses to each other: quietly standing behind the gauze curtains, taking refuge in the naked boat gunnels, or silently seated (or laying prostrate) onstage. The constant shifting of focus becomes most unsettlingly when the dancers suddenly turn their unblinking gaze on the audience, forcing the crowd to see themselves, uncomfortably, in a new role as voyeurs.
Lott’s lyrical movement vocabulary includes recurring motifs of reaching arms that suddenly snap like breaking tree limbs, torquing torsos, and body isolations led by swiveling hips and rolling heads. There are only a few, all-too-infrequent sections — such as petite McMillan’s solo where she explodes like a coiled spring near the end of the piece — that break up the overall softness of the work, created by the predominantly rounded movement.
The Toronto-based Wyatt may well be one of the country’s best-kept, emerging dance secrets. He, too, has his moment, and when he does, it’s impossible to take my eyes off him. Wyatt’s effortless grace marries sinuous physicality with communicative ability, in a seductive solo danced for McMillan that takes on the quality of balletic break dance. His sheer talent not only fulfills the intention of the choreography but also brings new meaning to it, with even a simple pirouette becoming a stylized act of beauty.
Torres-Garner has never looked better. The Winnipeg-based artist has already accomplished much during her relatively short career, including performing a national tour with Montreal’s Fortier Danse-Création, as well as an international tour of the late Jean-Pierre Perreault’s cult classic, “Joe”, dancing with Winnipeg’s TRIP dance company, as well as co-founding Winnipeg’s Young Lungs Dance Exchange, a collaborative hot house for emerging performing and visual artists.
Her riveting solo is an example of a dance artist’s complete conviction. As exquisitely painful memories illuminate and pass like shadows across her face, her minimal gestures escalate into a crescendo of emotional power. She propels her kneeling body, and throws herself across the stage like a flailing banshee, marking the climax of the entire work.
Despite consummately strong performances by five talented, artistically committed dancers, “Struck” never really does find its own “aha,” becoming awash in a sea of contemplative, unresolved memories. Although Lott’s poetic sensibility evokes questions and even seems to offer absolution for the unfinished business of the past, by the end of the hour I felt that the journey had only just begun.