Toronto Dance Theatre artistic director Christopher House has put together a honey of a show. Rare Mix is the picture-perfect example of what a retrospective should be.
The word retrospective conjures up specific parameters. It implies not only a look at past glories, but also choreography of exceptional quality. A retrospective carries the expectation of works that are in some way unique. There is also the implicit idea of historical context. All these elements are found in Rare Mix.
Historically, the works span the influence of Martha Graham's pioneering symbolist technique to Montreal's no-holds-barred physical experimentation. In between is quintessential modern dance.
In particular, when one looks at Patricia Beatty's Against Sleep (1968) and Jean-Sébastien Lourdais's Étrange (2012), the "anything goes" evolution of contemporary dance is writ large.
Beatty, a co-founder of TDT, created Against Sleep for the company's first season. This Canadian classic is steeped in dramatic archetypal symbolism.
The centrepiece of Ursula Hanes's set design is a long pole tethered by four wires. There are two platforms on the pole, one high above the other. Both platforms are bordered by rims that look like coiled snakes.
Within this environment, a woman (guest artist Danielle Baskerville) is asleep on the lower platform, clothed in a Red Riding Hood cloak and quintessential Grahamesque long dress designed by dancer Susan Macpherson. She wakes to encounter a man (guest artist Michael Sean Marye), her demon lover, who has come to earth from the upper platform.
The long red material of the cloak becomes a key component of the piece. As the two dancers play out their battle of wills, the long ribbon of red is a weapon of subjugation. He wraps her in it to confine her. She uses the material to strangle him.
In terms of dance, the movement is one of Graham's contraction and release. The downward pull of gravity is an anchor. The choreography itself is stylized, built around detailed hand gestures and expressive physical imagery.
Beatty has said Against Sleep explores the temptation of suicide, but the role of the man can conjure up many male archetypes in terms of romantic relationships. The sexual subtext is clear in the choreography, as is the darkness of the encounter.
Where Beatty's choreography presents beautiful bodies carefully moulded into exquisite dance patterns, Lourdais's three dancers (Naishi Wang, Mairi Greig and Yuichiro Inoue) express tortured physicality.
In fact, Wang's opening solo is almost unbearable to watch as he pushes his body into unbelievable distortions. The animalistic angularity continues when Greig and Inoue take over the stage. Lourdais was inspired by the dysfunction of mass behaviour, but his brutal piece can be read as a metaphor for our basest instincts, or even as primal screams.
Oddly, Beatty and Lourdais find commonality in their soundscape. Beatty uses the electronic minimalism of famed composer Ann Southam, whose bursts of staccato pulses are not unlike Ludovic Gayer's electronic drones in Étrange. Some things never change.
Both of House's works are inspired by the neo-romantic music of American composer Robert Moran. In terms of history, Four Towers (1993) and Vena Cava (1998) represent House's "dancey" choreography.
From the beginning of his career, House was known for choreography built around intricate dance patterns linked to distinctive music scores. His movement was constructed as physical challenges, but never just dance for dance's sake. There was always an enigmatic subtext buried within his complex patternings.
Vena Cava is notable for being House's final traditional work, in terms of movement linked with music, before he embarked on full-length dance theatre. This grand finale is wall-to-wall, relentless dance. Glorious waves of movement explode across the stage, interrupted by two intense physical solos performed by Jarrett Siddall and Mairi Greig.
Anatomically, the vena cava carries the blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. By cleverly calling his piece Vena Cava, House pays homage to Moran's driving percussive music titled Open Veins. Together, the music and dance create a thrilling physical poem to the love of life.
Four Towers is a more poignant piece. It is set to a musical suite adapted for a string quartet, taken from Moran's 1992 opera From the Towers of the Moon. Based on an ancient Japanese myth, the plot is about the moon goddess who comes to earth and falls in love with a mortal emperor.
This dance of lyrical grace includes an achingly beautiful solo of growing despair (Alana Elmer), a trio depicting bewilderment and loss (Syreeta Hector, Brodie Stevenson and Pulga Muchochoma), and a final solo of defiance (Kaitlin Standeven). In the end, Standeven manages to find a convert in Muchochoma, who does try to rise above his beaten-down fellows.
House may object to my reading of the dance, but these images are crystal clear to me. That aside, both pieces are wonderfully entwined in Moran's evocative music and House's choreographic brilliance.
Here's an oddity. Both works are built around the kilt as costumes, even though there are two different designers. Denis Joffre created the uniform kilts for Four Towers, while Lori Trez Endes dressed the men in kilts for Vena Cava, and the women in sarongs.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rare Mix is that what is old is also new. None of the dancers was in the company when House created Four Towers and Vena Cava. They are familiar with the choreographer's collaborative full-length dance theatre pieces. Their bodies must have been jolted with physical surprise at performing flat-out, non-stop dance. The company did, however, pull off these House classics in magnificent fashion.
Rare Mix continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre until Nov. 10.