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The Globe and Mail

Mathematics in motion a winning formula from Peggy Baker

There’s tension between determinism and will in the piece.

Makoto Hirata

locus plot
Peggy Baker Dance Projects
Betty Oliphant Theatre

Introducing locus plot on opening night, Peggy Baker made reference to the influence of American choreographer Lucinda Childs's work on her own. Childs was a member of the Judson Dance Theater (the 1960s New York collective that brought tenets of postmodernism to dance) and a frequent collaborator with Philip Glass. I have an old photograph that I love of Childs in rehearsal: Her shadow exaggerates the suspension of her body – as do the long thin lines made by water pipes on the wall, and the way that Manhattan's tenement buildings hang vertically in the window. It foreshadows the vaguely mathematical choreography that she would become famous for, drawing on patterns, formations and repetition.

Baker explained that locus plot, her first full-evening ensemble piece, was inspired by pictorial images of mathematical equations that she found online. If this sounds like an unlikely source for dance inspiration, I'm not sure that that's the case. In many ways, the relationship between math and dance feels like a natural one. Both can be thought of as pure form: one of logic, the other of bodies. You could say that math is a language that talks about itself, describing pattern, order, structure and change. You could make the same argument of dance.

In a more figurative way, math conjures ideas of a perfect universe, of elegance, harmony and precision. It's these qualities that Baker is so good at both capturing and questioning in her piece. She's created a subtle work for five dancers that incorporates eerie vocalizations (directed by Fides Krucker) and is set to a beautiful score of piano and electronic music composed and performed by John Kameel Farah. It isn't all ethereal accord – math produces unreal numbers and paradoxes, and Baker suggests the way that similar contingencies can affect human bodies and relationships. There's a haunting tension between determinism and will in the piece. Tiny bits of chaos erupt and resolve within a system that may or may not be completely controlled.

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In one of my favourite moments, the women (Sarah Fregeau, Kate Holden, Sahara Morimoto) perform tendus and chassés in a black abyss of space. They are dressed elegantly and unaffectedly in skinny jeans and silky shirts (Robyn Macdonald's designs distill something stylish from real life). Their movements have an easy fluidity, enhanced by the watery feeling of the piano accompaniment (I thought, in this instance, of Debussy and Satie). The choreography in this section is distinctly Baker-esque. Arms stretch, scoop and fold into negative space with her particularly focused muscularity. Legs unfurl high in the air and hands place feet into passés on the knee – we see the body gracefully manipulated.

All this poise and order is juxtaposed by the alternately shrill and primitive sounds that emanate, in bursts, from the dancers' mouths. Although "juxtaposition" isn't quite the right idea; instead, it feels as though the dancers get stuck in force fields that are the inevitable consequence of their momentum. Sometimes this generates what sounds like piercing electrical feedback. Other times, Morimoto skews her head in a rasping, voiceless howl. What's fascinating is the question as to whether or not these sounds are expressive or incidental. Are we listening to static electricity or is this what emotion sounds like in a vacuum? The music becomes pounding and bass-driven during a duet between the men (Ric Brown, Sean Ling). Moving around one another's body, they seem to churn up waves of resistance that confine and condition their steps.

The ending comes with a shift in costume and atmosphere. Its beauty is testament to Baker's skilled use of minimalism – her sparseness isn't a kind of pedantry, but a way of framing detail. Holden performs a striking solo in a luminous, white shift dress – her high extensions give way to crouching on the ground, where she convulses as though in the grip of aftermath. In the far corner, the four other dancers move in shadow to the sounds of an electric storm, their arms winding and spinning like intertwined propellers. The effect is both stark and opulent, which is a bit like math itself, in which simple numbers can gracefully expand into a complex, streamlined world.

Locus plot runs through May 3, Wednesday-Sunday.

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