In 1981, a 22-year-old dance student named Allen Kaeja was warming up in a downtown Toronto rehearsal space when a young woman walked into the room. He'd never seen her before and he found himself staring, struck by something powerful in her demeanour. He approached her and, without so much as a word, the two of them began to duet.
When Allen tells me this anecdote so many years later, with Karen – his wife of almost 25 years and dance partner of even longer – sitting next to him, I can't help but imagine what this duet would've looked like.
"I don't actually remember that duet," Karen says, fixing her sharp, blue eyes sidelong on her husband. We're sitting in their studio on the second floor of Dovercourt House, while the dancers in their company are on lunch. "But I do remember that any time that we danced together was incredible. There was incredible safety and physical intuition in the work."
"We didn't start dating for four years," Allen says. "But the connection was magical for both of us."
In 1990, the couple married and founded Kaeja d'Dance, a Toronto company that has become an important fixture on the Canadian dance scene. They have built a reputation for physically robust choreography, richly theatrical performance, community outreach and innovative dance film. In celebration of the company's 25th anniversary, the Kaejas are presenting a concert of two new pieces, both of which epitomize their individual approaches to making art.
Karen is interested in people, their awkwardness and imperfections, and how that might look and evolve in performance. Her new piece, Taxi!, begins with four dancers facing upstage in garish wedding dresses, the fastenings undone to expose their backs. They walk toward the far wall and the dresses slip from their bodies, a disrobing that foreshadows the intimacy of tussling choreography and personally revealing text. In one moment, a young woman in a turquoise lace dress is accosted by four dancers with a sequence of "first-date" questions. Finally, she is freed and buoyed into the air, screeching gleefully. In another, the five dancers pile their bodies horizontally onto a row of chairs as a sad refrain of text – "I called you a taxi, it'll be here in 20 minutes" – suggests a narrative of departure .
Karen tells me that the piece explores romance and coupling in both absurd and melancholy ways. "It's about discovering what you're looking for, what you're longing for. It's about the hope, despair, agony, flirtations and disappointments that come with that. I really bank on the failures in life. In creating art, that's where I'm motivated to work from. I don't work linearly. I let the dancers be who they are. "
Allen's piece, .0, showcases his much more physical and goal-oriented approach to choreography. "I'm very specific; I know exactly what I want. I know the connection, physicality, dynamic, range, the quality, the emotional content." Allen, who had a career as a competitive wrestler before being accepted (and then expelled) from the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, uses a demanding athletic vocabulary as a starting point in his choreography. "I need to crush the body, then release the body." His interest in kinetics led to the development of what he and Karen have titled Elevations, a repertoire of structured lifts that work via balance and propulsion, as opposed to strength. So the technique allows for gender parity in partnering – the women play an equal role in lifting.
As dancers, they are striking to look at – Allen has a sturdy, imposing largeness that's infused with warmth and gentleness. Karen is fiercely beautiful with hard features and a mass of thick burgundy hair. When she dances, her reserve turns into something almost violently intense. The couple have two daughters, 16 and 21 years old, who aren't dancers. "They went through a phase of rebelling against us, wondering who their weird parents were," Karen says. "But they like us again ."
When the company dancers come back from lunch, they're eager to effuse on the collaborative excitement of working with the Kaejas. "I find Karen's work phenomenal, very emotionally complex," Mateo Galindo Torres says. When I ask about the risk that's required of them, both physically and in terms of pushing formal boundaries through the inclusion of personal text, they echo one another on how trusting and supportive the environment is. Ana Groppler explains that she's using her own story of first love and heartbreak in Taxi! – everyone laughs when she says the upshot has been discovering that she's still angry with the guy in question. "It's just fascinating and wonderful to be working with people who have been doing this for so long and are still searching," Michael Caldwell says. "They seem to always be reinventing themselves. The contribution they've made to Toronto's dance community over the past 25 years has been immeasurable."
When I notice that Allen has rested his hand on Karen's knee, I find myself thinking of the likes of Kahlo and Rivera, Plath and Hughes, Stein and Toklas – artistic couples in which a profound affinity for a shared form proved transformative. Part of the magic of these connections is how cryptic and impenetrable they are from the exterior, which I think must account for why I can't begin to visualize that first duet.
"Karen has been my muse for 30 years. To me, she's just an intuitive goddess," Allen says.
"I've lived a life with him and I understand him," Karen adds. "I've spent time in the light and dark with him – that's how I feel. So when he describes work, I just know."
Kaeja d'Dance's 25th Anniversary Concert runs from March 24-28 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto (harbourfrontcentre.com).