- Burpee/Chin: Two New Works
- The Toronto Dance Theatre
- Winchester Street Theatre
The Toronto Dance Theatre is currently presenting a double bill of two Canadian premieres: Peter Chin's Returning Empathis and Susie Burpee's Making Belief (Or Seven Stages for Transformation, as played by a Willing Character). Stylistically, the works are very different: Chin is working from a palette of Southeast Asian and martial-arts-inspired movement, while Burpee is interested in a theatrical collision of concept and choreography.
Returning Empathis (that's a portmanteau of empathy and emphasis) features five dancers in vaguely Buddhist-looking costumes. The choreography is full of stilted expressions and ritualistic gesturing; the dancers bang on their mouths, wave their tongues around and repeat a motion that looks as though they're pulling invisible material from their throats. They spend a lot of time watching each other; there's a wooden armchair they take turns sitting in, the others gathered around like minions, while one dancer (usually Naishi Wang) performs quick, clannish steps. This is all done to a mix of chanting, percussion-rich music from Tibet, Madagascar and Western Africa.
If this all sounds a bit hard to picture, I think that difficulty speaks to the choreography's underlying weakness. The formations of dancers seemed disorderly and conceptually unclear. Nothing in the movement felt innovative or, I'm afraid, terribly interesting; I recognized bits of Kathak and (maybe) Kabuki but with no sense of productive synthesis, and without tension or crescendo. The tiny dramatic flair near the ending, with the dancers lowering their bodies to swelling drums and dimming lights, had the effect of underscoring the monotony of everything preceding it.
Making Belief is much more ambitious and more interesting to watch. Burpee is clearly trying to find fresh, imagistic ways of unpacking theme through flashes of storytelling and visual impression. But the piece suffered from a messy feeling of excess, the sense it was trying to "mean" too many things at once, which diminished its ability to mean anything.
With all 10 company dancers dressed in ill-fitting business suits, the piece centred on the use of a rubber old-man mask that the dancers took turns wearing and vivifying. Woven into this dress-up was the motif of running out of breath – the dancers were frequently (literally) gasping, a theme furthered by the repetition of a collective surfacing sequence, a cluster of heads rising skywards as though coming up for air. Sometimes the piece was about Broadway performance; sometimes it seemed to be about classroom show-and-tell; other times, one dancer would call out letters from the alphabet into a microphone and the others would answer with synchronized corps-like work. At yet a different juncture, Kaitlin Standeven and Christianne Ullmark perform a duet to a female voiceover – she speaks about truth and meaning.
Making Belief is about performance, artifice and truth. But Burpee doesn't find a way to let her themes exist onstage with any logical or satisfying coherence. We're left with no sense of the stakes of these vignettes, how they fit together, what the dancers mean to each other (and why, for example, the dancers keep swapping suit jackets). The upshot is that the work has the feeling of a haphazard experiment. Any sharpness or beauty in Burpee's ideas or images are lost in the undisciplined surplus.
TDT has showcased some beautiful work this season, particularly Christopher House's atmospheric Martingales and his strange and riveting interpretation of postmodern icon Deborah Hay's I'll Crane for You. The latter is an especially subtle and abstract piece, demanding patience, attentiveness and non-literal expectations. In modern dance, there are times when the line between difficult and disorderly can appear hazy, but these are the moments that behoove us to look harder, and figure out the questions that can make this distinction clear.
Burpee/Chin: Two New Works plays at the Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto through April 12 and again from April 15-18 (tdt.org).
Editor's note: Peter Chin is working from a palette of Southeast Asian and martial-arts-inspired movement. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.