There's a sequence near the beginning of Red Sky's Backbone in which the ensemble is paused in reverse tabletop positions, panting. As their muscular bodies heave up and down, their breathing gets louder and plainer. Breathing conjures ideas of vitality and exhaustion, of desperation and desire – moreover, it isn't an action you can fake. So there was a riveting overlap between the performing body and the real body; something powerful is happening on stage and we're instantly intrigued.
I wish there'd been more of these layered and experiential moments in the 50-minute dance piece, directed by Sandra Laronde (artistic director of Red Sky, an Indigenous performance company) and choreographed by Jera Wolfe. On balance, I found the work more physically impressive than emotionally affecting, but maybe it's unfair to fault it on those terms. My hesitance is in part because, on opening night, the Berkeley Street Theatre audience was clearly excited by the performance, leaping to their feet at the curtain call.
On many levels, I can understand this enthusiasm. The athletic, downward-oriented choreography, set to striking electronic sounds and recorded vocals (including throat-singing and beat-boxing), had exciting moments. Wolfe frequently had the ensemble working in unison – and given the charged, aerobic quality of the movement, this was often visually striking. Imagine hypermuscled bodies twisting and heaving in sync to pounding percussive sounds. At its best, the combination of sound and motion felt like an externalization of my own heartbeat. That's no faint praise.
But unison can also feel like a crowd-pleasing trick – the kind of easy-watching you see on the likes of So You Think You Can Dance (incidentally, Wolfe was a finalist on the Canadian version of the show). I found some of the opening passages compelling; I especially liked a sequence that saw the ensemble crumple into each other in a way that felt spatially inventive. Still, when unison is used as a through-line instead of an accent, its power has diminishing returns.
There was standout dancing from the intense Lonii Garnons-Williams, who's built like a lightweight boxer and fluidly showcased her strength. I also appreciated the gender neutrality of some of the side-by-side pas de deux and trios: a woman's role in one grouping was danced by a man in the other. I was awed by dancer Samantha Halas's contortionist poses and intrigued by the way an aerial-view video of her and her partner was projected on the screen behind them (designed by Andy Moro).
However, I longed for a string to tie this all together or a firmer anchor into what was going on. There are great building blocks in Laronde and Wolfe's workshop: fascinating themes relating to Indigenous concepts of continuous time and borderless landscapes, then powerful music and expressive bodies. In the long sequence of heightened breathing that I described at the top of the review, all these elements came together in a manner that felt both simple and complex. It was simple in the way it made for an arresting theatrical moment and complex in how it gestured to the dancers as real people, undergoing an experience of their own. We got to exist with the dancers in a moment that seemed truthful and contingent; instead of acrobatic performing, something experiential was going on. We had art instead of showcase.
I still encourage you to go see Backbone and not just because the audience responded so enthusiastically. It's heartening to see Canadian Stage, one of Toronto's major non-profit theatres, dedicating so much of its programming to dance (its season is packed with it) and the conversation about how we should watch dance and what we should expect from it will only benefit from more voices.
Backbone continues in Toronto until Nov. 12, and plays in Halifax on Nov. 17 (redskyperformance.com).