Three large square windows line the wall of the Baker Studio at the Dancemakers Centre in Toronto's Distillery District. The day is overcast, so the light that falls on Amanda Acorn's naked body is naturally diffused. She's moving non-stop, pulsing rhythmically from her shoulders, her legs crumpled beneath her on the floor. The pulses are tiny, but I'm close enough to see what each one does to her ribcage. Her chest becomes increasingly concave until the contractions introduce a swinging mechanism that propels her body horizontally, slinging her weight out onto her forearm.
A few hours later, in a studio just a little north on Parliament Street, Heidi Strauss is standing inside a wall-moulding a couple of metres off the floor. "I'm going to need some help," she tells her practice audience – a youthful, mostly female, group that has gathered on this Monday evening to watch a run-through of her new solo. Strauss means "help" in a figurative sense – she wants the audience to be involved over the hour-long show that follows – but she needs literal help, too. Two volunteers are instantly offering their arms to assist her off the ledge. Strauss surprises them with twice as much weight as they bargained for, collapsing face-down into their arms. Everyone laughs.
"I don't know you," Strauss says when she re-emerges from a corner of the studio a little later. "But I trust you," she proclaims confidently, taking the time to look a few of us in the eye.
Audience is key to both Acorn and Strauss, the two Toronto-based choreographers whose works form the latest iteration of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie's Bright Nights series. Interestingly, this shared focus wasn't baseline/multiform's starting point; it's more of a welcome curatorial surprise. CLC co-artistic director Laurence Lemieux – who runs the series and the Citadel performance space (and lives in the apartment above the Parliament Street studios) – originally imagined presenting two artists who would work in some kind of stylistic/conceptual counterpoint to one another.
Lemieux approached Strauss with the idea of commissioning Bright Nights' first original piece (in the past, the series has only functioned as a presenter). Lemieux has known Strauss's work for more than two decades; she taught Strauss at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre in the mid-1990s and, when she started to work on her own choreography, Strauss was one of the first dancers she hired. Then she saw the Calgary-born Acorn's multiform(s) at the Summerworks Festival in 2015, and was impressed by the way it used pedestrian movements to such a satisfying, architectural effect. "I thought – this is really, really good," Lemieux tells me, her eyes widening with their characteristic mix of sincerity and enthusiasm.
She knew that Acorn had previously performed a solo version of the piece and, despite some initial trepidations about presenting an evening of solo works by women (in the sense that it would suggest a mandate of its own), Lemieux was confident the two choreographers would make for compelling programming.
Baseline looks at how experience affects who we are, and how we see and understand the world around us. For Strauss, who founded her own company, adelheid, in 2008, it was an opportunity to continue her exploration of audience proximity and involvement that she began during her residency at Toronto's Theatre Centre. The residency culminated in the hybrid theatre-dance work what it's like, presented in the fall of last year. But this time, her role has shifted from director to performer. "I wanted to ask myself to do the same kinds of things I ask, and have asked, of other people," she explains.
There's a lot of writing in baseline, something that Strauss has found both exciting and challenging. And, in the same vein as what it's like, the audience is called upon, both collectively and individually, to become a part of the show. "When the territory of the performance space is evened out, there's a different kind of availability from both parts," Strauss tells me. "And I think one of the most amazing times to watch something is when it's in a rehearsal hall and you get to see the real thing in development before it has all the stuff around it. I feel like proximity allows for that – there's no insulation of spatial distance."
Acorn's multiform also brings the audience into the performance space – they'll sit in a semi-circle in front of her. But her solo maintains a more traditional separation between the viewer and the viewed. Instead, Acorn, who's currently the emerging artist in residence at Dancemakers, wanted to explore the effort that's shared by both parties, the overlap between the work of watching and the work performing. "I'm interested in that line between where your interest lies and what happens when you get bored – where your mind wanders when something is tedious, or even tiring, to watch."
Inspired in part by the paintings and writing of Mark Rothko, Acorn was also determined to find a way to get beyond the idea of representation in her dancing. "I started wondering if you can look at a body and stop seeing a body." That's the main reason she's chosen to perform nude. "The body is the material of the piece. If I imagined myself wearing a dress or slacks and a blouse, I could never become something else."
After running though the 40-minute piece, she lies on the floor, surprised by her breathlessness. "I think I was pushing a little," she tells her rehearsal director, Kate Nankervis, before throwing on some clothes. They go through a list of notes together, sharing an elaborate vocabulary to identify different landmarks in the piece, all of which change in placement and intensity with every performance. But there are practical questions to address, too. It turns out that nudity isn't always the simplest costume. After rehearsal, Acorn posts on Facebook: Best, cheapest makeup for covering tattoos??? I'm also gonna sweat in it.…
Baseline/multiform runs from March 31-April 8 at the Citadel in Toronto.