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Paige Culley performs Daina Ashbee's Pour.Daina Ashbee/Supplied

Title: Pour

Choreographed by: Daina Ashbee

Performed by: Paige Culley

Presented by: TO Live/Native Earth Performing Arts

A beautiful and challenging solo dance-work is playing at Toronto’s Theatre Centre this weekend, one that’s hard to discuss without mentioning the audience attrition-rate on opening night. (Several people walked out midway through Friday evening’s performance.) In fairness, it’s understandable—and maybe even interesting—that people might find Daina Ashbee’s one-hour piece difficult. The exquisite Paige Culley performs entirely in the nude, maintaining long sequences of total stillness. Moreover, the work is shot through with a startling violence that’s rendered all the more powerful by the fact that it’s only suggested. Something has happened to this woman; we aren’t sure what.

It begins with a scream. The stage is dark as the audience enters the theatre—a darkness pierced by an overwhelming sound: pure, crystalline, almost operatic. The sound repeats sporadically, growing increasingly deafening, until its soprano clarity crackles into a blood-curdling shriek. The lights flick on and Culley is standing at the foot of a blinding landscape: the stage is like an ice field, a square of arctic blue-white. She’s topless and in jeans, staring fiercely toward us. What can she see? It’s difficult to describe the quality of her gaze other than to say that it touches on something not quite of the here-and-now. Culley seems oracular. She also seems stunned. As she slowly removes her jeans, and squats down as though to relieve herself, she appears like a woman at the edge of a remote Canadian highway. Half-clothed, disheveled, adrift.

But there’s transcendence. Culley finds the floor and becomes one with it. There are puddles of water onstage that she drags her body through and, as she experiments with supporting herself on different joints and limbs, her skin gleams. In these moments, I was reminded of the quality of light in Baroque paintings, in which faces and bodies appear hallowed and luminous. The sequence feels likes a long, careful reclamation of Culley’s physicality, freed from any sexualized gaze. Interestingly, this was also when people started to leave.

The 28-year-old Ashbee, born in Nanaimo, B.C., is of Cree, Métis and Dutch heritage. Named an artist to watch in Dance Magazine in 2017, she’s quickly establishing a reputation as a serious and visionary choreographer, bent on enlivening complex, feminist subjects in her creations. Pour is stimulating and discomfiting—evoking themes of power, recovery, sensuality and indigeneity. It’s well worth catching this collaboration between two rising Canadian dance artists.

Pour continues at the Theatre Centre until February 24th and will be presented at La Rotonde in Quebec City, March 4-9.

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