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At the Gladstone Hotel

In Toronto on Thursday

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The contortionist captured it best, flopping around the stage in a state of sad, stoic bravado, body bending in ways we can never bend, appearing to be broken in ways we hope never to be broken. The program identified Jinny Jessica Jacinto's number simply as Broken Doll, and both the image and its realization breathed the air of damaged festivity emanating from Mauricio Kagel's 1977 music-theatre work, Variété.

The piece has taken on shrewd and spectacular form at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel, where Andrew Burashko (Art of Time Ensemble), Ross Manson (Volcano) and Eda Holmes have conjured a small circus-cabaret out of sweat and thin air. From composer Kagel, they got a suite of deeply evocative variations on what he calls "traditional vaudeville styles," and an open invitation to fill the stage with illusionists, sword-swallowers, mimes, fire-eaters, or other carnival figures, amateur or professional.

Thus we had a skit for violent clowns (Wendy Akerboom, Erin Bouvy and Kathleen Le Roux); a sapphic tryst performed on a low trapeze by two Amazons (Stacy Clark Baisley and Heather Hammond); Roberto Campanella's shattered tango for two sexy desperados (Kate Alton and Graham McKelvie); and a mimed black comedy for another clown with an armload of eggshells (Rebecca Hope Terry). Lara Ebata and Natalie Fullerton did a light-spinning routine tinged with sexual menace; Loran performed some classic illusions with a bird and a scarf; Peter Chin fussed out a mute monologue of anxiety; and Julia Sasso engineered an erotic photo-shoot for two mostly nude dancers (Evadne Fulton and Stephanie Thompson) and a dwarf with an old plate camera (Rick Howland), in honour of Auguste Belloc, who was busted by the Paris police a century and a half ago for making pornographic pictures.

Individually, and without music, any of these diversions might have seemed much slimmer than they were together and with Kagel's score. The best episodes spoke frankly to obvious carnival desires for titillation or astonishment, while acknowledging the ghosts of lost meaning that hide in the shadows of Kagel's vaudeville.

The show includes a lewd and literate MC (Nigel Shawn Williams), who spouts Heather McHugh's gymnastic musings on the world, the theatre, and everything in between. He offered a running lexicon of meanings for MC, ending with Multiple Choice and Mea Culpa, which summarized both the freedom and the potential for disaster of the project as a whole.

It may have been a mistake to give Williams a voice so early in the piece, before Kagel's overture had established the music's emotional environment. The buoyancy of its unstable dance rhythms gives way early and often to a frozen melancholy that seems occupied not with present pleasure but with lost past and future extinction.

That depth of tone was difficult to discern in, say, Loran's tricks with the bird, during which one instrument paces up and down a brooding arpeggio while the others wait on their chords with an air of uneasy anticipation. It came through much more strongly in the Belloc episode, during which both the dancers and the photographer seemed for a time to forget about the task of stock-piling desire, and to strip themselves to a more revealing nudity of spirit.

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The sextet fielded by Art of Time and directed by Robin Engleman gave a sweet and savoury account of the score. The catwalk stage and Veronica Verkley's petticoat curtain defined the space and its uses very well, while Kimberly Purtell's variable lighting made the scene shrink into privacy or expand into a raucous clown-zone as needed. Trista LeBlanc's costumes were both tough and sentimental, though seldom at the same time.

At the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen W., Toronto, through tomorrow.

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