Being anywhere outside of your home during the pandemic is kind of similar to what going to a performing arts performance was like before the coronavirus struck.
The vast majority of people around you follow the rules, but there’s almost always that one person who irritates by ignoring the announcements and behaving in an entitled way. (See: Unrepentant texters; anti-maskers.) You can’t let these selfish individuals get in your head, but that’s easier said than done, as I was reminded this past Sunday.
That afternoon, I went to see Solo in High Park, the first of three dance programs that Canadian Stage is producing this fall in its outdoor amphitheatre in Toronto’s west end.
This rare live, in-person event was all very safely planned out, with a cap of 100 audience members in a space that normally can fit more than 1,000.
Patrons received an e-mail in advance with a COVID-19 self-assessment tool and a heads-up about on-site rules, including wearing a face mask at all times and keeping two metres away from others.
As I arrived at the show on Sunday, however, I passed a man who had obviously not received the memo and was arguing with front-of-house staff, refusing to wear a mask. I’ve seen this at the liquor store; I wasn’t expecting it at a dance show.
Eventually, this man was seated without a mask – off to the side, a safe distance from other patrons. An usher told me – and Canadian Stage later confirmed by e-mail – that he had said he could not wear a mask because of a medical condition.
Fair enough. But the man’s unscheduled prologue performance then continued when he got up and wandered down to the left of the stage (not staying seated until the end as instructed) to smoke a cigarette (a no-no, pandemic or not).
Approached by front-of-house staff, this rebel without applause didn’t even put out his cigarette right away, but hopped over a fence to finish it.
What can I say? I let this guy’s irksome behaviour get into my head. I had come to be uplifted by bodies in motion and found myself tumbling into thoughts of despair about humanity and rising coronavirus case counts.
The first dancer in Solo in High Park – curated by Seika Boye and Timea Wharton-Suri – wasn’t quite able to pull me out of this funk.
Raoul Wilke, whom I knew from a fun YouTube video where he swivels and slides his way through a subway, performed a piece called An Open Letter to Myself. He popped and glided around to the sound of his own recorded spoken-word autobiography, which flowed in and out of music by Lauryn Hill, Sam Smith and Martha Wash.
Through much of this, however, I couldn’t stop thinking: “How I hate that man in the audience.”
Carmen Romero, a flamenco dancer, was next, dressed in a black veil and a dress with a long, flowing train; she soon shed the veil and the train and danced around and at them in a simple but effective dramatization of a woman’s battle with grief. The rat-a-tat-tat of her thick soles hammering away briefly chased away thoughts about a certain audience member.
Next came a piece danced by Sam Grist called futuredance, choreographed by Rock Bottom Movement’s Alyssa Martin, who, the afternoon’s emcee said in her introduction, works at the intersection of theatre, dance and comedy.
This is an intersection I’ll try to find a detour around in the future. Grist, dressed as a kind of PG version of Peaches, spoofed contemporary choreography in an obvious way that felt like an overextended cut-away gag on Family Guy.
But it did make me forget about you-know-who.
Finally, Travis Knights, the luminous Brampton, Ont.-based tap star who performed at the Vancouver Olympics and has worked with Cirque du Soleil, came on to use his heels and sole to heal our troubled souls.
He winsomely woodpeckered his way around every inch of the diamond-shaped stage with his shoes, then let us hear its texture, dragging his feet across the cracks between the wooden boards.
Next, Knights broke a rule in a pleasurable (and preapproved) way – and brought up jazz singer Jenna Marie Pinard to join him in a call-and-answer game of tapping versus scatting that was pure joy. “I know it’s called Solo in High Park,” he joked. But he wasn’t going to be up there alone, he said – not after being under lockdown and with more lockdown looming.
Knights’s moves were amazing, but I was most impressed by his ability to connect to those watching him – with looks, jokes and an overall energy of embrace – and thus connect those watching him.
Spread out two metres apart on the grass, we onlookers were just a group of individuals until his performance brought us together, clapping and laughing.
Suddenly, we really were that thing together again: an audience. The line between me and that other guy was erased. The anger in me, an antisocial emotion itself that’s been too easy to access these past months, dissipated – for a few minutes anyway.
Going to the performing arts is an exercise in getting along with everyone. You have to exercise empathy or it erodes. Solo in High Park reminded me that there are no solo performances, really.
Canadian Stage’s Dance in High Park series continues to Oct. 11.
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