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Performing arts on the edge Add to ...

  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company
  • Ginette Laurin/O Vertigo
  • Toneelgroep Amsterdam
  • Festival TransAmériques
  • In Montreal

Montreal's annual Festival TransAmériques, a dance and theatre showcase featuring 24 performances (12 of each) from 10 countries, is not for conservative tastes. The opening weekend clearly tilted to performing arts on the edge.

From New York came the farewell tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

When Cunningham died last July at age 90, he was still considered the doyen of dance experimentation. The world premiere by Montreal veteran choreographer Ginette Laurin demonstrated that she still has creative bite. The most surprising and refreshing show came from Dutch director Ivo van Hove and his Toneelgroep Amsterdam who collectively presented a radical rethink of Shakespeare.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company: Nearly 90²

For much of his long career, Cunningham deconstructed dance by eliminating accepted conventions of structure and form, treating choreography like a scientific experiment. His last work Nearly 90² is a cool, intellectual exercise for 13 dancers that manipulates perception.

For example, Anna Finke's costumes begin as dark unitards decorated with narrow bands of white, which along the way, become mostly silver unitards.

I'll bet that every audience member became aware of this changing parade at different times.

Similarly, all the costumes have a ridge of black netting, each uniquely placed, that bulges and flaps as the dancer moves. The silhouette of the body is distorted, and it takes a while for the eye to adjust to the strangeness.

The movement itself travels between slow motion and bursts of energy, but again, the eye slowly realizes that the same movement is being executed in different directions, or staggered beats, or sudden repeats.

Christine Shallenberg's lighting also goes through subtle shifts that one has to be alert to catch. The back curtain rises at slow increments again another element to absorb. The music of John Paul Jones (of Led Zeppelin fame) and Takehisa Kosugi is ferocious in change of rhythms.

Nearly 90² is an intriguing puzzle of trompe l'oeil that plays games with the quickness of the eye.

Ginette Laurin/O Vertigo: Onde de Choc

The translation of Laurin's new piece is Shock Wave, and her nine dancers experience the agony and the ecstasy of being within a human body. There is a wide band of neon light on the back wall that mirrors their moods with flashes of brightness. There are also stethoscopes that the dancers use to check their heart beats.

The dance itself is performed on both the stage and a raised platform.

Laurin's modus vivendi is duets. By interacting with each other in some devilishly difficult lifts and counter-balances, movement for the dancers becomes immediate. Performing on the deliberately slippery platform seems to put them at a heightened level of awareness.

Laurin uses both synchronized and individualized choreography to convey the outward manifestation of the inner source of physicality. Marc Senécal's costumes are unique to each dancer, starting them off fully clothed, then stripping them down to briefs and halter tops, until they are virtually naked - the ultimate revelation of the inner kinetic soul.

The music is an interesting blend of Martin Messier's electro-acoustic soundscape and chamber music by the English minimalist composer Michael Nyman. Martin Labrecque's lighting is masterful, fusing squares of light, pin spots and wide swaths that are intimately tied to the dancers' experience.

If I have one cavil, it is that this piece goes by its natural ending.

Nonetheless, Laurin provides an attractive series of tableaux that neatly catches the eye.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam: Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies (Coriolanus + Julius Caesar + Anthony and Cleopatra)

Take away all battle and crowd scenes. Eliminate subplots and reduce characters to the necessary few. Heighten the dramatic arc and tragic flaw.

What you have left is political machinations laid bare.

Dutch director Ivo van Hove uses three Shakespeare "Roman" plays (over six hours of time) as a metaphor for a cynical look at portraits of power. The Bard's universal themes could be ripped from today's headlines.

The great general Coriolanus's downfall comes from his overweening pride and hatred of the lower classes. Brutus is chained to his honour which causes him to make bad decisions, resulting in the defeat of the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar. And then there is Marc Antony, another accomplished general who is ruined by his passion for Cleopatra. In fact, only the ruthless, steadfast and monolithic Octavius Caesar wins at political gamesmanship.

Hove's set is something like a convention centre where the press and politicians meet. It's a labyrinth of couches, television sets and video cameras. The audience can sit on the stage among the actors. There are food and drink kiosks and an Internet café on stage. Two live musicians crank out the percussion as needed.

Overhead is a large screen that shows close-ups of the action (which sometimes takes place off stage). It also carries the French and English surtitles. A red ticker tape gives real news updates. While van Hove and his dramaturges have taken out Shakespeare's poetic language, they are certainly true to the spirit of the text. The 15 actors are all very strong.

The freshness is derived from characterization and gender-bending. (Cassius, Casca and Octavius are women.) Coriolanus (Fedja Van Huet) is a coiled spring of righteous indignation. Brutus (Roeland Fernhout) is more emotional than ever played in English-language productions. A weak Marc Antony (Hans Kesting) infuriates by blaming others. Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) begins as a self-absorbed, petulant spoiled brat, and ends up a wan, grief-stricken, broken woman. (The snake is real.)

The production crackles with excitement because it is a cross between CNN, CPAC and tabloid journalism.

(Toronto audiences can look forward to van Hove's new show as part of Harbourfront's World Stage.)

Festival TransAmériques continues in Montreal until Jun. 12.

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