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One of the strongest dance performances at this year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival is the hypnotic and beautiful multiform(s) by rising Toronto-based choreographer Amanda Acorn.

In the 1949 movie The Hidden Room, the lead character imprisons a man in his basement. He wants to keep the man locked up for a while so, to bide his hostage's time, he gives him all four volumes of Boswell's Life of Johnson. The joke is, of course, about where the real punishment lies – is it in being held captive indefinitely or being forced to read the world's longest and most boring book?

SummerWorks Performance Festival, which turns 25 this year, has a reputation for featuring innovative, often genre-defying, theatre. Sometimes the work is excellent; sometimes being held in a dark room is the lesser part of the sentence. This year, the festival is presenting its first dance-only series. While some of the dance pieces won't open until the final weekend, I managed to catch about half of the dance programming in the first few days. A few pieces are very good; others are decidedly punishing. But I'm not sure that punishing is far off the agenda in some of these "convention-pushing" pieces that feel bent on testing what they can get away with.

It's an interesting reflection on something – either an overwhelming trend in Toronto's contemporary dance scene or dance-curator Amelia Ehrhardt's taste – that the choreography (so far) has been so sparse on actual "dance." I use the term a bit loosely; I don't mean to imply that text and pedestrian movement can't fall under dance's domain. But it's surprising to see that so many young choreographers are more interested in breaking down barriers between forms than they are in finding innovations that exploit the singularity of their own.

One of the danciest works – and also one of the strongest – is multiform(s) by rising Toronto-based choreographer Amanda Acorn. This hypnotic, often beautiful, piece features five women (Meryem Alaoui, Ellen Furey, Jolyane Langlois, Ann Trépanier, Kathia Wittenborn) moving perpetually on a sunken square-shaped stage. The dancers perform a trajectory of swings, whips, sways and crawls, a progression that feels redolent of the anti-choreography trend of the 1960s. There's an intriguing tension between chaos and order as the dancers subtly interact with one another's individualized repetition. Unison breaks and formations dissolve. There's coherence in the language and momentum of the steps – this is Acorn displaying both confidence and vision as a choreographer. And the music is strange and delightful; atonal electronic sounds supplement a live musician (Germaine Liu). She makes all kinds of inventive percussive music by, for example, pulling a violin bow across a cymbal.

I was less impressed with the double-bill Desiccated/LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL 2.0, both of which closed this weekend. Desiccated, by Aria Evans, was set to live singing of environmentally themed ballads that I desperately tried to decode as ironic. The piece featured lots of crunching of and rolling over empty water bottles – I assume this was meant to be symbolic of waste. There were some jumps and tumbles midway through, but this flourish of choreography lacked any sense of aesthetic integration with the connective steps in between.

The real punishing began with LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL 2.0, created and performed by Alicia Grant and Ellen Furey. This piece of random spectacle was like a protracted joke: How long can two performers be meaninglessly absurd and self-indulgent in front of a paying audience? They played dress-up, spoke fragments of text about missing ponytails and misplaced souls, barked intermittently and held postcards under their crotches. Both performers have courage (clearly) and tons of presence, and it's a testament to their talent that any of this was watchable, but it all had the feeling of a lost opportunity. The ending saw them standing on chairs for what felt like ages, doing little more than moving their hips to pop music while staring defiantly forward. The joke was on us – they continued at their pleasure.

Two pieces that could've just as easily been billed as theatre are Are You Still Coming Tonight? by Riley Sims of Social Growl Dance and Forgetting Remembering by Robert Kingsbury. Both works are experimental – a word I mean quite literally; they both seem to engage in a theatrical trial-and-error. While Are You Still Coming Tonight? frames some interesting themes on self-obsession and isolation, there was a feeling of haphazardness in the panoply of animal sounds and unrelenting sexual content. I wondered at the need for one performer to thrust his groin repeatedly into the back of an audience member's head (a well-known Toronto theatre director, it turns out, who didn't look too amused).

Near the beginning of Forgetting Remembering, creator and performer Kingsbury tells the audience through his headset: this is a show that's not a show. He's right, and it was hard not to begrudge the following 90 minutes of audience/performer activities that included touching fingertips to feel each other's cranial-sacral energy (why must contemporary dance keep company with pseudo-science?) and moving around the auditorium while determining whether we felt like "space" or "form." Still, everything about Kingsbury is very funny – he's lanky and relaxed and speaks in a hilarious deadpan. Despite my overall frustration with the piece's lack of content, there were moments when I laughed aloud, such as when Kingsbury is beset by nostalgia as he shows us a video of their tech run-through.

Paradoxically, the most dance came outside of the dance series. Freya Bjorg Olafson's HYPER_ featured long sequences of choreography that were developed through virtual kinetic programming. The most technically rich dancing came via MacArthur Park Suite; A Disco Ballet, which is part of the regular theatre series. Playing themselves, the young cast each performed a short solo that expressed his or her personal attitude toward love. I saw surprising and inventive steps here, with standout work from Cheryl Chan, Raya Facey and Shakeil Rollock.

When defiance becomes a self-serving norm, things get repetitive quickly. One hopes the second half of the dance series will show a little more dancing, a little more range.

SummerWorks runs until Aug. 16 in Toronto (summerworks.ca).

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