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Alana Elmer, Pulga Muchochoma and Mairi Greig in This Shape, We Are In.

Omer K Yukseker

  • This Shape, We Are In and Slow Dance
  • Presented by Toronto Dance Theatre
  • Choreography by Jeanine Durning and Marie Lambin-Gagnon

What role does thinking play in dancing? Is a physical art uniquely disposed to express metaphysical ideas because of its special relationship to bodies, space and time? These are questions that New York-based choreographer Jeanine Durning often revisits in her work. In her solo inging, which the Toronto Dance Theatre presented in 2013, Durning experimented with non-stop talk, pulling her audience into the hazy psychological space between intention and automation. She seemed to ask: How can we think about thought unless we ignore its abstractness and turn it into something we can see and hear?

This relationship between the physical and metaphysical is present again in Durning’s latest work, This Shape, We Are In, which opened at the Toronto Dance Theatre’s Winchester Street Theatre on Thursday. Here, that relationship is coloured by a larger philosophical inquiry: what it means to “be” at all, and how that question is complicated by the presence of other people and the space we share.

The house lights are on for most of this one-hour piece for seven dancers, leaving the studio’s back wall and lighting grid exposed. There’s also very little in the way of a set, only an orphaned door standing in its frame. By contrast, Durning has asked her dancers to perform in their own clothes, which makes for a colourful mishmash of vests, shirts and lacy tights, as though they’ve raided a vintage store.

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The dancers where their own clothes in This Shape, We Are In.

Omer K Yukseker

The work begins with a task performed in silence: dancer Erin Poole attempts to get a small table through a narrow upstage entrance. Other dancers follow suit, walking onstage with their own tables, placing them down and fastidiously readjusting their positions. Attention is key – the attention they pay to the task at hand, to each other, to their space. The subtleties of this attention demand our own attention as an audience, and, as the table-placing transforms into purposeful entrances and exits, the dancers striding decisively across the stage, the room feels charged with a live-wired alertness.

Durning introduces text about halfway through the work. The dancers take turns bursting into a monologue that begins with the same refrain: “We’ve all been here before.” Through repetition, we’re invited to take the phrase apart and analyze its meaning: Who is we? What has been? Where is here? When was before? It’s a cleverly comprehensive statement, grazing big philosophical questions on the nature of time, space, community and self.

It’s a curious piece to watch in the sense that it consciously eschews drama. Durning is a disciple of the postmodernist Deborah Hay and clearly disdains the distinction between big and small moments in her choreography. We glean early on that physical virtuosity and evocative effect won’t be on offer and that we need to get closer, think more carefully, engage with a more rigorous part of our brains. These demands bring rewarding discoveries when an exquisite moment happens as a kind of side-note. At one point, two female dancers tussle in an entranceway upstage, suggesting a conflict that accents, or perhaps contradicts, the physical negotiation and co-operation we’ve seen up until that point.

And then Durning makes a startling exception to her own rules with an intensely dramatic moment. The lights dim, electronic tones swell from the sound system and the dancers start to bounce. We watch the bouncing take over their bodies until the dancers appear to exist as all bounce, no body. Being is no longer a secure phenomenon; we witness its transfiguration.


Yuichiro Inoue and Peter Kelly in Slow Dance.

Omer K Yukseker

In conjunction with Durning’s work, TDT is presenting Slow Dance by Marie Lambin-Gagnon in its downstairs studio. The 40-minute piece feels too long, but designer Christine Urquhart’s textured sculptures look like a 21st-century take on the gardens of Versailles, and there’s a nihilistic pleasure in watching the four dancers demolish the set, as though overturning a rotten world order.

This Shape, We Are In and Slow Dance continue at the Winchester Street Theatre until Feb. 2. (tdt.org)

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