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Theatre & Performance ‘Every step is of equal value’: Christopher House’s dance philosophy

The Toronto Dance Theatre’s new piece, Echo, features dancers in striking skirts, which make militaristic sounds.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Dressed in white-lace tops and hulking skirts made from army tents, a cluster of dancers move across an empty stage. They look like semi-possessed courtiers, their faces lit by the stained-glass windows high on the wall, their expressions attentive and, it seems, a bit peculiar. Each holds two long-stemmed flowers – I see lilies, irises, carnations. They play at making decorative portraits, framing dancer Pulga Muchochoma's face with overlapping petals. It's an effect that conjures the haunted mood of French symbolist painting: gilded, tactile, somehow ominous, too. The feeling gets stronger as the dancers give in to the soft techno soundtrack, their hips winding downward, finding flashes of tempered sex.

All this eerie restraint is exploded in part two of Echo – the latest work from the Toronto Dance Theatre. The bass speeds up (the music is a mix of original and reconstructed electronica by Thom Gill and Phil Strong) and the dancers return wearing combat boots and less on top – the women are in black bras, the men shirtless. As the dancers dive toward the floor, breaking their fall with flexed hands, their skirts flap around violently, making military sounds of wind and weight. Then the women form a line. A pale-haired dancer named Christianne Ullmark stares forward with an intensity I can't quite decode; it's both furious and imperturbable.

"That quality of ambiguity is so important," choreographer and artistic director Christopher House tells the dancers after the run-through. They've taken off their Jeremy Laing costumes and returned to the stage in T-shirts, leggings and shorts. Their note-taking session doesn't actually involve writing anything down; instead, the dancers listen carefully, ready to troubleshoot on their feet. "Don't teach the audience to engage in a disinterested way," House continues.

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House wants to revisit a sequence he calls the "beautiful suicide," in which dancer Jarrett Siddall brings his flower stem down on his chest like a dagger. Then there's a series of tours en l'air (high, spinning jumps like single Axels) that need to go faster. Ullmark suggests she fix the problem by not taking a second plié. House draws on all kinds of imagery to make his ideas understood – he talks about Gothic groupings, about denuding smooth surfaces, about a cheap set of broken Venetian blinds. He demonstrates the languid quality he wants by bending backward with his chin to one side. "Who is the famous revolutionary painted dead in his bath?" When no one answers, I pipe up, "Danton, right?" The company, very graciously, applauds my interjection, though it turns out I'm completely wrong. House is referencing Jacques-Louis David's iconic painting of Marat.

As the dancers listen to the rest of their notes, decor designer (and company production manager) Cheryl Lalonde shows me a maquette of the stage. She points out the strip of broken mirrors that she's designed to lie along the stage's apron (Echo will be performed at the Fleck Theatre at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre). In Echo's first half, this jagged effect will be softened by scattered flowers, creating a look that's a bit art deco, a bit twisted Renaissance. I glance back at the three huge stained-glass windows on the far wall – by coincidence, they have just the right flat, unmodulated look.

It's rare that I get to be at 80 Winchester St. during the day. The mood in the rehearsal space is both serene and industrious. Built as a church in 1891, the building's a mass of heavy masonry and rounded arches in Cabbagetown's sea of more elegant Gothic points.(apparently, it's one of the few examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the city). TDT made the space its home in 1979, moving in with the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, the company's three-year professional dance-training conservatory. Watching the company stretch and listen, the muted light making oblongs on the floor, I get a feeling that, for me, is singular to watching dancers in their element. It's partially the way that their focused, physical repetitions seem in such stark contrast to the workaday bustle outside. But there's also a sense of the elemental in this kind of creativity – a poiesis (the Ancient Greek root for poetry that simply means to make) that depends on active labour, on the remaking of the body itself.

Echo, which opens TDT's 2015/16 season on Nov. 3, is an elaboration of Echo's Object, a piece that House choreographed for the company in 2005. But TDT prefaced its season this year at Toronto's inaugural Fall for Dance Festival in September. The company presented a classic House work called Vena Cava, a high-energy composition from 1999 with speedy jumps and synchronized formations, set to a beautiful, dissonant piece of music by Robert Moran. In revisiting this old favourite, there were whisperings about how much House's choreography has changed in the past 15-odd years.

"I'm not sure how different it is," House tells me. "I mean Vena Cava is formal in a more conventional way and, certainly for a general audience, it's more …" he cuts himself off self-consciously and smiles, aware of the trap of generalizing about any audience. "I think part of what people love about Vena Cava is how hard the dancers are working in it. It's so complex rhythmically, so fast, there's a particular demand in terms of spacing, where being on the right count or in the right spot is immaterial. It's about being part of this metaphorical machine."

House, who first danced with TDT in 1978 and became artistic director of the company in 1994, explains that his earlier works, such as Vena Cava, consisted of movement he'd mostly invented himself. His newer pieces, such as Eleven Accords (2013) and the atmospheric Martingales, (a work-in-progress from 2014) use more improvisational structures, allowing the dancers greater agency inside the choreography. He likes to think of these pieces as contingent and eventful, instead of just strictly performative. But whereas Accords and Martingales develop choreography through task-based movement (the latter builds on an ongoing game of catch), Echo relies on powerful imagery and a more expansive vocabulary of steps.

Part of this transition – from more formal choreography to less-rigid structuring – has to do with House's decade-long friendship with renowned New York choreographer Deborah Hay. House came to Hay a bit late (she was a member of the iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater group in the 1960s), but when he finally saw her perform in Manhattan in 2006, he was overwhelmed. "The quality of my sensation kept changing. The affect was so odd. Despite that, there was clearly a strong underlying logic to her work; I had no idea what it was, but I wanted to figure out how to generate it." He smiles as he adds, "She says I pounced on her after the show."

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What he's describing is more or less what I experienced watching his rendition of Hay's solo I'll Crane for You, which he performed in this space (the Winchester Street Theatre) in January of this year. It's a subtle, absurd piece, presented without music, and relying on no conventionally set choreography. Instead, Hay uses "scores" to transpose her pieces. In I'll Crane for You, the score consists of a list of questions that the dancer must, in some way, address. What emerged was a surprising, irreducible presentation – sad, manic, weird, surreal, full of tiny, startling movement – really like nothing I'd ever seen.

House tells me that his ongoing work with Hay, including commissioning her to make a piece for TDT in 2009 (called Up Until Now), has turned him into a more patient, sensitive director. He launches into a description of the score for her solo News, which he performed in 2006. "You begin with what 'looks' like clapping." His eyes brighten; he brings his hands together with a slowness that suggests resistance. "So what you're doing is using the idea of clapping as an exercise in not clapping. It invites virtuosity without ever being inventive. You accept the thing that happens, this almost clapping, and then you let that thing go, while simultaneously practising your most sophisticated choreographic thinking."

Muchochoma is a young, captivating dancer from Mozambique, now in his seventh season with TDT. He thinks that one of the things that distinguishes House as a choreographer is his interest in this kind of focused, curious minutiae. "You can do 16 pirouettes and land perfectly, but for you to walk from the curtain to the spotlight and make it interesting without forcing that interest – that's something else."

Ullmark, a luminous young dancer from Edmonton and in her second season with the company, agrees. She loves the sense of egalitarianism that House brings to his choreography. "I feel a bit cheesy to keep repeating everything Christopher says, but it's so true – the idea that nothing has more value than anything else. Every step is of equal value. So stillness is as important as a complex jump."

Siddall, a young and dynamic dancer from Alberta in his fourth season with TDT, explains that for House, counterpoint and timing provide a large part of the choreographic structure. "All of Christopher's pieces rely on dancers. Everything is very set – but that includes the spaces in which we're able to make decisions. As performers, Christopher wants us to make new choices all the time. You're never, ever repeating something. It's one of the greatest things I've learned from him."

They're all excited about the upcoming season, which includes the New York/Toronto Project, a continuation of TDT's international series (they've already done choreographic exchanges with artists in Berlin, Paris and Brussels). In the new year, they'll be working on 10 solos in collaboration with local artists. House tells me that "everyone in visual arts wants to work with choreography these days." The season will end with a duet called Marienbad, created and performed by House and Jordan Tannahill, a young, award-winning Toronto playwright.

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It's 6 o'clock in the evening by the time the dancers have finished chatting with me. It makes for a long day spent largely on their feet– company class begins most mornings around 10, then rehearsals continue late into the afternoon. But being part of the TDT ensemble, one of the oldest and most established modern-dance companies in the country, is a stroke of luck for a contemporary dancer, and luck that goes beyond the practical benefits of 30 to 34 weeks of work a year and the accompanying salary. "It's another Christopher quote," Ullmark says with a laugh, "but one of the best parts is doing 'the daily work.' What we do isn't just performance prep. We're working collaboratively on so much."

In the days following my afternoon at Winchester Street, House and I exchange a couple of e-mails. He wants to clarify a few points about how his choreography has both changed and stayed the same over his 21-year tenure at the head of TDT. He leaves me with an anecdote that seems to encapsulate his current approach to direction, how he balances his own vision with the will, intelligence and intuition of his dancers:

"Several years ago I was invited to participate in the Big Intensive given by Sadler's Wells in London. … One of the presenters was Frank Bock, a dancer turned psychologist. I was struck by a comment Frank made: 'When you're working on the group, you're working on your piece.' It served as a sort of epiphany for me, a way of naming something that I had been circling for a while. … This has been a good thing for all of us."

Echo runs at Harbourfront Centre from Nov. 3 to 7 (harbourfrontcentre.com).

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