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Dance project recreates Niagara tightrope rivalry

The cast of The Great Farini Project are photographed during dress rehearsal in Toronto lat week.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Imagine a catapult from medieval siege warfare in a dance studio. That was my first startled impression of the ES Dance Instrument. Now picture dancer Brian Solomon giving Peter Pan a run for his money as he swings up to the ceiling, defying gravity as he cavorts through space, all due to this astonishing invention.

The ES Dance Instrument is at the heart of choreographer Sharon B. Moore's new work because her inspiration is the dangerous rivalry that existed between the Victorian era's two greatest tightrope walkers, Canada's The Great Farini (Solomon) and the Frenchman Charles Blondin (Brendan Wyatt). Without getting her dancers into the air, Moore would not have a show which is a fusion of aerial and ground choreography, physical theatre, and the spoken word. The Great Farini Project: A Harrowing Dance of One-upmanship opened at the Enwave Theatre on Wed., Sept. 22.

The impetus for the dance came when Moore was browsing through the sale bin at Book City and found Shane Peacock's 1995 The Great Farini: The High-Wire Life of William Hunt. What began as a $5.99 purchase ended up being an elaborate $66,000 budget.

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"The book was fascinating," says Moore, "and I thought the competitive natures of Farini and Blondin would make for a wonderful male duet. The narrative of the dance, however, is more than one-upmanship. It centres on Farini's spiritual journey. He lost his first wife during a high wire act over the bull ring in Havana. She was on his back and did an unrehearsed arm movement. As she lost her balance, he grabbed her dress, but the silk ripped, and they both fell. Farini was injured but Mary died. He converted to Catholicism."

The piece's director/dramaturge is Derek Aasland, Moore's significant other. Says Aasland: "Farini and Blondin were two guys at the top of their game who were willing to risk everything. They kept pushing each other into greater danger, until ultimately, they needed each other to define who they were. The press really played up the rivalry, but they never met in real life. We have them meet to highlight their metaphoric pact with the devil. A big part of this dance is exploring the physical possibilities of partnering between two men."

How extreme did the rivalry become between these two funambulists? Just take the Niagara gorge below the falls as an example, which Blondin crossed first in 1859, followed by Farini in 1860. Each time they did a Niagara tightrope crossing, it was with embellishments, each trying to outdo the other. (As a side note, if there is a particular edge to the dancing of Wyatt and Solomon, they were once a romantic couple.)

Blondin (1824-1897) crossed Niagara blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying his manager on his back, and sitting down midway to cook an omelette (on a portable stove he carried) which he then ate. Farini (1838-1929), at mid point, attached a rope to the wire, climbed down to the deck of the Maid of the Mist tour boat, drank a glass of wine, then shinnied back up. Another time he carried a washtub to the middle of the wire, lowered a bucket to the river for water, then washed a dozen handkerchiefs collected from female admirers. Farini also did somersaults and hung by his feet.

Both dancers have done a great deal of research to find the characters that emerge out of Moore's emotionally drenched text and demanding, visceral choreography. Solomon on Farini: "His wife's death became an obsession, and he keeps reliving the images of her falling. He takes it out on himself, and believes her death was a result of his willing to risk everything." Wyatt on Blondin: "He may be cocky, but he's disciplined, professional, highly trained, and knows what he wants which is perfection."

And from Aasland: "No one else was on their level of skill. Blondin and Farini only had each other as adversaries. That very intense relationship is the catalyst for the piece."

The Great Farini Project" plays at the Enwave Theatre until Sept. 25.

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