Toronto Dance Theatre
At Premiere Dance Theatre
In Toronto on Tuesday
Choreographer Christopher House keeps on reinventing himself. Since he began creating full-evening works in 2000, each new piece he produces as artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre keeps transforming his repertoire, and just when you think you have a handle on where he is going, he turns 90 degrees in a different direction.
His latest creation, Sly Verb, is a case in point. House has moved away from the use of text and a narrative structure to return to themed dance. The movement vocabulary is elastic and fluid as opposed to crisp and angular. The busyness and complexity of previous works such as Nest, Severe Clear and Persephone's Lunch have been replaced by the economy of streamlined theatricality. What Sly Verb does have in common with House's other full-length works is an intellectual wellspring. In short, House is simply one of the country's most profound dance thinkers, and whatever avenues he chooses to explore are always fascinating.
The "sly verb" in question is touch, with riffs into the nouns sensation and perception. House cites as his inspiration the writings of Deane Juhan and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The former is a microbiologist who states that the skin has as many nerve cells as the brain. The latter coined the phrase "the flesh of the world". In other words, what has intrigued House is the idea of the body as both an object to others and ourselves, and a subject that is sensate from within. Sly Verb, however, is much, much more. House also explores the body as a tool of communication, and the conservatory of experience. Thus, one of the more absorbing aspects of Sly Verb is how these many, many abstract ideas play out in dance.
House credits his superb dancers with contributing to the piece through improvisation, which could be the reason why the movement vocabulary looks more loose and organic than House's usual tightly coiled signature. The images that House's collective has come up with are certainly arresting. A particularly interesting device is nakedness, and it is a mark of Sly Verb that the clothed and unclothed dancers weave seamlessly in and out of the movement tapestry as natural as life itself. A naked woman mimics, with stylized gesture, the thorough going over we give ourselves in the shower. A naked man gyrates in party dancing until a woman hands him a pair of briefs to conceal his very in-motion private parts.
The work itself is a parade of provocative images. Four dancers intrusively capture a colleague in the glaring light of hand-held flashlights, as opposed to the various reflective solos that fellow dancers view surreptitiously from the sidelines. Diverse duets and group ensembles evoke interior emotional baggage, while at the same time, convey the public persona of neutrality. Heterosexual and same-sex encounters, romantic or otherwise, show we are all colleagues under the skin. The fact that the dancers foray into the audience adds that extra dimension of commonality. And as always, underlying Sly Verb, there is the droll edge that marks House as a choreographer-cum-witty professor.
House's creative team have added immeasurably to the work. Scott Eunson's clever set design is a stage filled with filigreed, silver sculptures that resemble the convoluted nerve connections of the body, beautifully lit by Steve Lucas. Jeremy Laing's unobtrusive, grey-themed costumes mirror the casual sportswear of a gym, while Phil Strong's original score throbs with the electronic pulse of life itself.
Toronto Dance Theatre's Sly Verb continues at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre until Saturday.