Jazz dance has always had to fight for legitimacy. The conventional bias has been that the genre belongs to Broadway, music videos and TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance – not the lofty climes inhabited by ballet and contemporary dance.
But choreographer Linda Garneau refuses to be consigned to a lesser status, as pop culture. She's made it her life's work to create full-length jazz-dance shows with serious themes.
That's not to say that Garneau's pop credits aren't impressive: She has choreographed for the stage (the Dora Award-winning Assassins), television ( Triple Sensation) and ice shows ( Stars on Ice). But every year or so, she also creates a work to prove that jazz dance can tell meaningful and relevant stories.
UnEarth, created for her company Helix Dance Project, is about the struggle for self-liberation. By digging deep inside ourselves, the piece suggests, we can find self-love which, in turn, can help us to unravel the tangled knots we carry inside and to experience the simple joy of letting go.
It's an abstract message that's hardly a piece of cake in terms of dance vocabulary. But Garneau has found a metaphor – those tangled threads – that works: UnEarth begins with dancer Jessica Keeling dragging a long piece of white fabric onto the stage. This material and other pieces of cloth, short and long and of various colours, stand for the tangled strands of our psyches. Freeing the knots from those fabrics will leave the dancers unencumbered.
It's not that Garneau has created something brand new here; fabric and knots are recurring symbols in both dance and theatre productions. Garneau's strength, though, is using that trope as a choreographic through-line that allows for seamless transitions built around metaphoric material.
The piece unfolds in three parts: Unearth, Unravel and Unveil. In the program notes, Garneau has added poetic subheads to deepen her meaning. Among her elucidations: Unearth is described as "the effort to uproot;" unravel involves a "strangled heart"; unveil addresses the act of "shattering the shell."
As always, Garneau's dance language is highly controlled, filled with off-balances, high kicks and lunges. But there is a fluidity here as the dancers give themselves over to the emotion of the work. Garneau is also clever in moving her dancers around the stage, progressing neatly from large ensembles to trios, duets and solos, and back again.
Keeling, Jennifer Mote, Lisa Auguste and Paulina Witkowski perform eye-catching solos that detail their journeys of self-discovery. All eight young women of the company are a joy to watch.
For sound design, Garneau has chosen songs including She's Looking for Something by Beats Antique, Forgotten Children by Charlotte Martin and For Madmen Only by Pentaphobe. Woven together, they become an alt-music tapestry.
Ira Antsiferova has costumed the women in corset bustiers and bouffant skirts – another metaphor for a complicating outer plate of armour. In the course of UnEarth, the dancers divest themselves of their coverings. Reduced to T-shirts and briefs, they find the freedom they are seeking, both in movement and in spirit.
- Helix Dance Project
- At Betty Oliphant Theatre
- In Toronto on Thursday
Helix Dance Project's UnEarth continues until Sunday.