Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie has mounted a sparkling evening of choreography inspired by popular music. The revival of James Kudelka’s The Man in Black and the premiere of Laurence Lemieux’s Looking for Elvis make perfect contemporary dance companions.
Kudelka’s work is a masterpiece. First created for BalletMet Columbus in 2010, The Man in Black has gone on to seduce Canadian audiences since the National Ballet of Canada took it into its repertoire and toured it across the country.
The score is a pastiche of mostly hurtin’ songs recorded by Johnny Cash late in his career, taken from the songbooks of the Beatles, Ian Tyson, Gordon Lightfoot, Trent Reznor and Bruce Springsteen. The traditional folksong Sam Hall is tucked in to provide levity in the midst of melancholy that is driven by Cash’s world-weary voice.
The joy of this performance is to see the piece in an intimate setting. The cast features mainstays of Toronto’s indie dance community – Luke Garwood, Tyler Gledhill, Daniel McArthur and Christianne Ullmark – and the quartet performs from the heart.
The first impression from this up close and personal encounter with The Man in Black is just how difficult it is to dance. The positioning is brutal as the dancers have to be in the exact place at the exact time in order to pull off the complex patterns. Kudelka has them attached to each other in some way for most of the work, and if one person is off the grid, another dancer is in for a fall.
The intimacy of the space allows for an examination of how clever Kudelka has been at bending country-western dance styles to his will. Line, square and step dancing are all there, but the images they create are sad ones, evoking death and loss. For example, the way the three men manipulate the lone woman seems to call forth a dismissive attitude, and even abuse.
The times when Kudelka mirrors the lyrics in movement, as opposed to mood counterpoint, are also seen more clearly. The piece is a brilliant mélange of obvious overt statement and penetrating inner dialogue.
Lemieux’s new work, Looking for Elvis, unfortunately, suffered from a computer meltdown. Not only was there a pause in the score that brought the dance to a dead stop, the opening night audience never got to see Jeremy Mimnagh’s projection design. Nonetheless, Lemieux can take heart that the piece, for the most part, can stand alone on the strength of the choreography.
John Gzowski’s sound design weaves together songs and interviews. Presley talking about his relationship with fans and the media, his feelings about his career, references to his beloved mother, and so on, add depth to the piece. He comes across as a thoughtful man who is bewildered by his success.
Lemieux’s excellent cast includes the quartet from The Man in Black, plus Michael Caldwell, Andrew McCormack and Erin Poole. Collectively, the seven dancers show Presley’s insecurities and doubts through simultaneous solos. Lemieux has slipped into the movement hints of the singer’s famous swivel hips and leg swings, but the core of these solos are the lunges and body arches that convey a deep inner angst.
In fact, this motif of solos goes on a bit too long. It takes a while for Lemieux to get to her ensemble sections where the dancers can interact together. For example, a trio on one side of the stage, and a quartet on the other are both strong representations of people caught in a trap of conflicting emotions.
Garwood’s emotional collapse when lip-synching You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me is poignant, as is the finale of the piece with the group approaching the audience with movement that expresses every world of Can’t Help Falling In Love.
Lemieux’s judicious mix of simplicity and complexity in Looking for Elvis presents a picture of a man who was overtaken by his fame. In Lemieux’s reality, Presley loved to perform, but it was also his downfall.
Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie continues at The Citadel until May 31.
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