Two works of dance being shown this week as part of Toronto's ongoing Luminato Festival are more about connections than kinetics: intense physicality, the stock-in-trade of most dance shows, being decidedly beside the point.
How people relate to each other is, broadly speaking, a theme shared by both Kontatkhof, a signature work of Germany's acclaimed Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch Dance Company, and Stones in Her Mouth, a stark masterpiece by New Zealand's Mau company. Both are brilliant, must-see performances.
The Pina Bausch company has not been to Toronto in more than 30 years, making this year's appearance at Luminato, personally initiated by artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt, a long-time Bausch fan, a major coup. Wednesday night's opening at the Jane Mallett Theatre attracted a cross-section of leading artists, politicians and other assorted elites, all witnessing the return to Toronto of a dance company regarded as among the best. Similarly, the Mau company, founded in Auckland in 1995, has never before performed in North America, making its debut at Toronto's MacMillan Theatre on Thursday night, greeted with a standing ovation.
While both of these internationally acclaimed companies presents works preoccupied with the emotional impulses shaping the human condition, each takes a distinct approach to its fundamental subject matter.
Stones in Her Mouth by Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio is rooted in myth and ceremonial ritual, bringing together 10 Maori women who chant, dance and orate passages of South Pacific poetry excoriating the degradation of the planet and the diminished status of the female, once highly revered in traditional Maori culture, in the present day. The title comes from a work by 1980s feminist poet Roma Potiki and the chanted language is Maori. A theatre artist who named his company Mau after the Samoan word meaning to declare the truth of a matter, Ponifasio offers up translations of the sung poems in his program notes, making clear that the meaning is cultural and sexual identity. In Maori culture, women were originally considered the leaders for whom the spiritual truths of poetry were composed. But their status has been diminished, replaced, in this piece, by organizational structures they now rail against.
The resulting 90-minute work – a primal scream rendered as sculptural dance and a monolithic work of visual art – is unremittingly black: black set, black costumes, black hair, even black lipstick. This yawning void is where mournful ancestral spirits and angry warrior goddesses ebb and flow among the shadows. Their voices are foregrounded against an oftentimes ear-shattering sonic score of electronic beep and buzzes augmenting the oppressive atmosphere. Punctuating the darkness is luminescent white poi, tethered balls used in traditional Maori performance art, tosses of blood-red sand, and Helen Todd's blindingly bright lighting design. Her fluorescent floor strips illuminate the dancers from below, contributing to their ghostly glow, their appearance as totems from some long-lost ancient civilization.
Kontakthof, by contrast, is more recognizable, if not painfully familiar. It is situated in a modern-day German municipal hall – three white plastered walls with a tiny curtained stage as designed by Rolf Borzik – where 21 men and women, almost equally divided, act out the rituals of the mating game. In contrast to Ponifasio's black-robed women, Bausch's preening, gossiping females are brightly costumed in satin tea dance dresses. The men (non-existent in Stones in her Mouth except as a rage against patriarchy) wear dark boxy suits with white shirts and ties. Interactions between the sexes occur against a backdrop of sprightly German jazz and tango tunes from the 1930s. Kontakthof – the direct translation is contact hall – is prom for adults where erotic tensions, self-conscious tuggings at bra straps and worries about poppyseeds caught between the teeth, are writ large.
Choreographer Pina Bausch, who died of cancer in 2009 at 68, once famously said that she was not interested in the way people moved, but in what moved them. Kontakthof, first created in 1978, five years after she took over the Tanztheater Wuppertal, expands that thesis into three hours of dance-theatre in which movement is minimal even as it describes vast seas of emotional unrest. Dancers repeat the tiniest of gestures – a delicate pinching of the nostrils, a smoothing back of the hair, a hooking of the thumbs – as they encircle each other, prey and predator. The visible is here a reflection of the invisible, the silent, hidden motivators underlying even the most ordinary of human activity. The goal is human contact, the extremes to which people will go to get noticed. The results are funny, sad, guttingly poignant: Dance as a contact sport.
Kontakthof and Stones in Her Mouth both conclude Saturday in Toronto.