When Pablo Picasso designed the costumes for the Ballet Russes's 1917 Parade, he put together huge, cubist contraptions made of solid cardboard, some extending several feet above the dancers' heads. Images from the ballet show dancers leaning on walking sticks to off-set the weight of the small towers rising from their shoulders. With a giant of modern art on the playbill, movement wasn't a top priority.
One of the most exciting aspects of Singular Bodies, the Toronto Dance Theatre's current show – a collaboration between 10 dancers and 11 local visual artists – is its steadfast minimalism. There are no big sets or elaborate costumes. The 10 short solos are all subtle, thoughtful pieces that exploit a more essential overlap between dance and visual effect, without letting one medium tower over the other. Rather than impose an aggressive or preconceived aesthetic on their dancers, the artists seemed interested in questioning how their practice could be reimagined or reframed on a moving body.
The results were surprising and often beautiful. Sometimes the pieces felt like paintings come to life, as was the case with Diane Borsato's spitpop, in which Valerie Calam did disgusting and hilarious things with her bubblegum – think of a misbehaving cartoon character from Mad Magazine. Other pieces were more explorative and task-based. I'm thinking in particular of Jim Verburg's Shape and Light #1, in which dancer Justin de Luna manipulated a white rectangle through a shaft of light, creating Rothko-like divisions on his improvised canvas and, later, prisms that revealed wedges of the colour spectrum. Dance, in any conventional sense of the term, came only from de Luna's determination to direct light and shape, whether this meant lifting his legs to make shadows or twisting onto his side to reconfigure an effect.
Another highlight was 8 Legged Dancing by Johanna Householder, a reworking of an improvisational piece from 1978, set to a manifesto-like text on dance as a vehicle for political expression. Megumi Kokuba danced to the text as though it were a complex orchestration, finding stillness and stresses, and letting that colour her combative use of levels, jumps and turns. There's lots of meta resonance here – a dance set to a treatise on dance – but rather than feel heavy-handed, the dancing seemed to sometimes illuminate, sometimes fly in the face of, its cerebral accompaniment. Credit for this goes to Kokuba; she's always a strong performer, but I saw real ferocity and nuance in her attack of the choreography, giving the work urgency and weight.
Hot Corners, by installation artist Nadia Belerique, was striking, tactile and playful – it had the semi-satirical aesthetic of eighties-throwback portrait photography. Dancer Christianne Ullmark moved around the parameters of a white rug in black heels that she clicked into the floor, creating the basis of a tapping soundtrack that then became more elaborate. The choreography involved sudden, self-conscious poses and hip winding/thrusting flush with sexual parody, all delivered with intensity by the always watchable Ullmark.
Other interesting collaborations included A Rest by Jon Sasaki, in which dancer James Phillips, dressed in an undershirt and shorts, assumed awkward, off-balance poses centre stage. An old photograph of a dancing couple was projected behind him, revealing that Phillips was mimicking the man's stance. As the photos changed, the poses became increasingly difficult to manage and hold. Phillips's naked arms and legs trembled, as though the photo had undressed and acquired temporal endurance. There was poetic juxtaposition in the parallel events; the photo had come to life, but in a surreal slow-motion that magnified muscle and limb.
You and I, by Stephen Andrews, used a staggering of sound and projected video to frame dancer Jarrett Siddall's alternately fluid, formal and aggressive movement. Guest dancer Erin Poole joined the company in the dynamic, charismatic solo Take my scepter/take my blade by Walter Scott. The piece drew on a variety of dance influences (I saw what looked like flashes of hip-hop crunking followed by balletic petits battements) and might be the evening's best example of an invisible collaboration. The artist's input was subsumed entirely by choreography and the dancer's use of space.
Singular Bodies is aptly named; it's always fascinating to see what different artists do under the same guidelines. These unique, understated solos epitomized the pan-disciplinary spirit of contemporary performance, in which the idea of formal boundaries feels pretty much beside the point.
Singular Bodies continues at Toronto's Winchester Street Theatre until April 23 (tdt.org).