The fourth instalment of the Toronto Dance Theatre's international series brings two exciting New York-based choreographers to Winchester Street: Joanna Kotze and Jeanine Durning. Artistic director Christopher House calls them two singular artistic voices that, together, can go some way toward capturing the essence of what's happening in New York's dance scene.
Both choreographers come from postmodern traditions in dance. While the pieces are entirely self-contained, they possess almost startling similarities in terms of structure, quality of movement, use of silence, costume and mood.
Kotze, who won the 2013 New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer, has created a work for five dancers that makes a jubilant use of space and (literally) imposes on the audience – at one point, dancer Valerie Calam sits on the lap of someone in the front row. Un Petit Peu Plus begins with dancer Jarrett Siddall interrupting his own understated solo to leap onto the first auditorium riser and watch us. He exits abruptly, and an offstage eruption of yelling is followed by the ensemble bursting onstage in a barrage of colour (they're wearing bright crop tops, patterned pants, jumpsuits).
Structurally, the work makes use of scattered formations and sudden exits. The movement, which is aerobic, recursive and playful, is tinged with a feeling of parody – our inability to determine what exactly is being parodied is intriguing, if not entirely satisfyingly resolved. There are beautiful sequences, like Calam's solo against the upstage wall, in which she shifts in and out of Grecian, statuesque shapes.
Kotze is so skilled at drawing the parameters of her off-kilter world, that we come to recognize what can be uniquely funny inside of it. At one point, dancer Megumi Kokuba is escorted across the stage in a bouncing arabesque. Freed of context, there's nothing particularly funny about that. But Kokuba is gleeful as she watches us watch her, and the moment comes to epitomize Kotze's self-conscious investigation of what it means to watch and perform.
This Shape, We Are In feels flush with the influence of Durning's longstanding work with choreographer Deborah Hay. The title even reminds me of a Hay quote: "What if where I am is what I need?" (Author Maggie Nelson also used it in her much-acclaimed 2015 memoir The Argonauts.) An implicit questioning of time, place, chaos and fate seems at play in Durning's five-dancer piece, which makes use of automatic, non-stop movement and random props such as umbrellas, Timbit boxes, inflatable balls and traffic pylons. The dancers alternate between pursuing the movement objectives of their own insulated worlds, and sharing in rounds of text, beginning each time with the phrase "We've all been here before."
Christopher House performed Hay's solo I'll Crane for You last year, a work that also drew on twitching non-stop movement and bits of unexpected – often totally bizarre – text. Hay's spare style of work demands an otherworldly focus and commitment from its performer(s), making it easier for a soloist to pull off. While House's performance felt electrifying and fully realized, Durning's piece never entirely cohered, weighed down by a busyness of words, props, microphones and sporadic music.
The New York/Toronto Project runs till Sunday, and Feb. 17 to 20 at Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto; tdt.org.