Choreographer Heidi Strauss was given a huge chance by Toronto Dance Theatre’s artistic director Christopher House. He turned his top-rated company over to Strauss to craft a prime time show that would be part of Harbourfront World Stage. The bar was high, but Strauss met the challenge. Everyday Anthems is a winner.
Strauss has been a Toronto independent choreographer since 1994, making her no stranger to creating dances. From 2008 to 2012, she was dance-artist-in-residence at Factory Theatre where she created three full evening works including her bone-jarring duet “this time” about a romance gone sour which won the 2010 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance.
An anthem is a song of praise. In today’s vernacular, anthem can also mean a closely held personal belief. Translated into dance, Strauss looks at the way we hold things dear, particularly relationships, and the way we are affected by the beliefs – or anthems – of others that cause changes in the totality of our experience.
Along the way Strauss touches on themes of belonging, power, pride, unity, overcoming obstacles and unrequited longing. These ideas are physicalized through a series of duets and group ensembles punctuated by the telling of personal stories, and even by a song.
Apparently, Strauss began her rehearsal process by both the dancers and her creative collaborators relating meaningful incidents in their lives. Well-known playwright Brendan Gall is credited as writing adviser. Presumably he crafted the text, spoken both live, and as voice-overs in Thomas Ryder Payne’s original electronic sound design.
The stories are as benign as expressing wonder at the beauty of a snowy night, to the horrors of being bitten in the face by a dog. The original song is about coping with things that are different. Two dancers who were born abroad tell about harrowing experiences in their homelands. Each story triggers a movement reaction, and Strauss’ genius is to further explore the implications of each story, rather than depict just a recreation.
For example, there is Naishi Wang’s moving story about his parents’ risking punishment during China’s cultural revolution. At a time when the arts were forbidden, Wang’s parents bravely introduced him to music and literature when he was still in the womb. Strauss’ choreography that follows is one of both tenderness and danger, opening up doors to a whole raft of subliminal imagery.
At the beginning of her choreographic career, Strauss was synonymous with lyrical grace and shimmering beauty. Along the way she has developed a talent for vigorous and intense physicality. The movement for Everyday Anthems contains both these elements. What is interesting is that reflective solos of controlled balance are never long as other dancers invade the space.
There are also many moments of abrupt pauses which are snapshots of meaningful moments in our lives. She also uses slow motion to show the changing nature of our experience, an unfolding as it were. Moving duets of intertwining are followed by outburst of delirious joy as bodies hurl through space.
Teresa Przybylski’s set is itself a metaphor. Her glaring opaque front curtain of white vinyl creates images that are indistinct and blurry – ghosts of the past. Her two opaque back curtains are grey vinyl, indicating incidents that have receded in time when the dancers are behind them. Rebecca Picherack provided the moody lighting.
Payne’s electronic soundtrack is edgy, even daring. From drones and percussive beats, he attacks the ears with crashing chords and thunderous roars. When his score is in full tilt, it is monstrously loud and irritating, but then, so, at times, is life.
One hopes that Everyday Anthems finds a shelf life. It certainly bears repeated viewings.
Toronto Dance Theatre continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre until March 9.