Thursday, January 3, 2013

Stepping Through the City of Light

While Paris might not be the dance capital, as Deirdre Kelly points out in Critics at Large, The Paris/Toronto Project has revived the city of light's stature.

Vive la difference: The Paris/Toronto Project (Opposites Do Attract)


It can't be dying, - it's too rouge, -. (Photo by Guntar Kravis)

Paris hasn’t been a dance capital since Marie Taglioni donned wings to dance La Sylphide more than 150 years ago, at the height of the Romantic era. Ballet in any event has always been the city’s strong suit, developed largely by the French court. Modern dance, a New World dance form, was invented by the barefoot American dancer Isadora Duncan who so hated the high-reaching artificiality of classical dance that she created a school of movement grounded in the earth and earthly concerns. Paris never really made that leap, not in ways significant enough to wrest back its reputation as a dance innovator. And so it came as a surprise when Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT), the city’s main exponent of the modern dance tradition as directed by Christopher House, announced that it had recently looked to Paris as the source of new creation for its own troupe of barefoot dancers, inviting French choreographers Alban Richard and Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh to Toronto to collaborate on the making of two new works. It felt like the dance equivalent of that old expression, bringing coal to Newcastle: what could Paris give what Toronto already had? Plenty, it has turned out.

What makes the Paris/Toronto Project such an artistic success is the very fact that the choreographers are from Paris, their foreignness giving them the advantage of being able to create here without the burden of knowing local dance traditions that might otherwise have compelled them to follow some kind of prescribed plan or pathway. As a result, each work on the program that opened last Thursday night, and continues through to Saturday at Winchester Street Theatre, represents a complete departure from anything TDT has done before, both in terms of movement vocabulary and ideas. It’s probably why the dancers, still the same solid troupe as before, look so different, in a heightened sense of the word, performing them – appearing bolder, more robust and fully present in the works at hand. This artistic experiment, sponsored on both sides of the Atlantic by government agencies representing both Canada and France, has definitely paid off. The choreographers surpass all expectations by creating works that are decidedly avant-garde while the dancers are newly inspired. They, for one, will now always have Paris as a fresh influence on their collective performing style: vive la difference.

That difference also comes across as a boy-girl thing, the program being divided into two parts – an all-male ensemble piece choreographed by Richard (he) followed by an all-female piece by Vo-Dinh (she). Richard’s first:

Simon Renaud (Photo  Guntar Kravis)
It can't be dying, - it's too rouge, - , as his work is called, is inspired (and accompanied) by “The Distinegration Loops, Dip 4”, a fascinating piece of music in the throes of being lost and destroyed as a result of composer Wiliam Basinski having attempted to transfer its sound from an old analog reel-to-reel tape to digital hard disk. Richard, who trained in music before becoming a dancer and then a choreographer, hears in the dying music a metaphor for the fragility and impermanence of both life and art, writing rather philosophically in his program notes, “What we hear on “The Distintegration Loops” are not the poetic images of nature or beauty, but nature and beauty as they truly exist in the world: always fleeting, slowly dying.” With this premise in mind, Richard creates a dance piece that essentially is about loss as translated in human terms by means of stampeding young men arrested in action, much like soldiers at war, their full-on testosterone drive and promise of virility squashed underfoot by the brute reality of time passing into inertia. The dancers – David Houle, Pulga Muchochoma, Simon Renaud, Brodie Stevenson and Naishi Wang – wear Cheryl Lalonde’s costume design of blue jeans covered over by what looks like a blue camo-print plastic diaper that extends up over the torso like a carapace offering only the flimsiest of protection (gotta love that French fashion!). In these barely-there battle fatigues, the men repeat a a series of ritualized movements, some involving dry rutting into the floor, others animal scowls and silent screams or else hand-wringing and far-away stares. It all has the look of the looney-bin, if not the madness of war. The starkly de-romanticized imagery is at once disturbing and compelling. Richard’s use of repetition succeeds in creating atmosphere of diminished intensity that simultaneously, and poignantly, mirrors the slow death of the music as heard on the tapes.

Kaitlin Standeven (Photo: Guntar Kravis)
Vortex, Vo-Dinh’s work that follows, is also profoundly influenced by its accompanying piece of music. In this case, the work is “Vortex Temporum” by Gerard Grisey, featuring an instrumental sextet that uses repeating swirls of sound to invoke the passage of time. Accordingly, Vo-Dinh begins her piece with a solo dancer describing a swirling pattern of movement that pitches forth from the centre of the body and into limbs that carve the air like the storm-tossed branches of a tree. A second dancer then mirrors and enhances the theme, followed by a third, a fourth, a fifth and finally a sixth, all of them at once swirling thickly together like fall leaves in a forest. The dancers – Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Syreeta Hector, Kaitlin Standeven, Sarah Wasik and Linnea Wong – are dressed in differently coloured hooded tops (paired with monotone pants) to distinguish one from the other. But really the point of this dance is more about stripping away personality or anything else identifiably individualistic to make the dancers appear as much as possible as just dancers caught completely up in a repeating line of movement, pared down to their bare essence, as it were. Composition, colour and tone, abstract qualities more often associated with visual art than choreography, seem more paramount than anything resembling emotion, so much so that work evokes (to my mind at least) one of those colour-dot paintings by Gershon Iskowitz, the late Toronto artist whose work Vo-Dinh is likely unaware. But seeing that in her program notes she cites the history of painting as an influence on her work, the comparison might not be far-fetched. Another influence is what she calls the principle of repetition at work, a technique used to draw attention to the rhythmic and spatial configurations of a dance. In Vortex, this principle is definitely hard at work, with the result that the dance appears astringently analytical in its presentation of dance as a measure of temporal and proportional elements set to music. While rigidly unsentimental (and at times too long) in its approach, Vortex ultimately fascinates by being a showcase of not only bravura dancing (this is the real grrl power) but choreography so unwavering in its pursuit of an ideal that it is a marvel to behold.

- originally published on May 24, 2011 in Critics at Large.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre).

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