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Dazzling moves from a gutsy choreographer

Lee (Lethal) Pham (in yellow), Malgorzata Nowacka (with red hair) and Brendan Wyatt in "The Calm Before..."

Sian Richards

The Calm Before…

  • The Chimera Project
  • Choreography by Malgorzata Nowacka
  • At Enwave Theatre in Toronto on Monday

At the beginning of Malgorzata Nowacka's new dance, Brendan Wyatt comes out on stage and announces he's looking for the exit. Apparently, he's not up to another show. He disappears backstage and we hear him shouting for a light.

It's the unsettling entry into The Calm Before..., a raw depiction of a psychological meltdown – an emotional electrical storm – where Wyatt's character is confronted with his worst fears, embodied by other dancers.

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Nowacka has been known for her gut-punching choreography since she exploded onto the Toronto scene 12 years ago. In the intervening years, as artistic director of The Chimera Project, she has refined her treatment of themes that focus on the dark side of human nature, and added polish to her powerful physicality.

In her new work, she attempts to step up her game with a narrative framework, in which Wyatt's character (the Protagonist), is harassed by the Shadow (Lee "Lethal" Pham) and confused by Guides (Tyler Gledhill, Jenny Lee, Anisa Tejpar and Nowacka).

This piece is extremely gymnastic – think horizontal airborne body rolls, dangerous ballet lifts. Her signature movement has always been powerful and athletic, with crisp limb outthrusts, forceful turns and jumps, and detailed gestural language. In this work she also integrates hip-hop moves into the action, a growing trend in Canadian choreography.

For example, Pham, a well-known b-boy, does execute showy hip-hop tricks, particularly floor work where the dancer twists and turns his body while balanced only on his hands. But in the main, the hip-hop elements are blended into the movement tapestry. The choreography works well with DJ Dave "Serious" Yan's pulsing score, which runs the gamut from throbbing squeaks to nerve-wracking static. Lighting designer Sharon DiGenova compounds the tortured mood with harsh squares and circles of light that denote the labyrinth of the subconscious.

The end result may be a sombre, reflective work, but the dancers dazzle as the Protagonist negotiates his journey into his heart of darkness.

Nowacka's props include oranges, perhaps a metaphor for forbidden fruit, but also a favourite of jugglers. They get thrown, rolled, carried and stacked. Collectively, they are a curveball with which Nowacka confounds the Protagonist – just another element that either tantalizes or infuriates him.

Throughout the work, dancer Lee appears carrying signs delineating scenes built around one of the Protagonist's fears – Fear of Death, Being Touched, Ridicule and the like. Fear of Love is also there, twice.

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Nowacka does not take the easy route of literal exploration. Rather, she presents choreographic musings that seem to play devil's advocate. We may be watching Fear of Being Touched, but the dancers are in constant contact. It's as if we're seeing the Protagonist's thwarted desires.

In The Calm Before… nothing is as it seems. Nowacka may be flirting with narrative, but it is never straightforward, and certainly, never calm. Even the title is a mystery, it seems.

The Calm Before… continues until March 25.

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