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Toronto Dance Theatre journeys through Christopher House’s career

Toronto Dance Theatre performs Martingales, choreographed by Christopher House.

Guntar Kravis

Toronto Dance Theatre's Animated, the company's first show of the season, feels like a snapshot retrospective of choreographer Christopher House's career. Featuring four striking pieces that House made over the course of 30 years, the program is bookended by newest and oldest – two full-ensemble works that pose very different questions of the form and show how much his interests as a choreographer have changed. And yet they bear similarities that reveal the obsessions that make House's choreography so good – his use of space, his sensory attention to detail, his freakish ability to instantly construct atmosphere and his focus on the quality of interaction between his dancers.

The 12-dancer Martingales was the first work of dance I reviewed for this paper, and it impressed me even more now than it did at its premiere two years ago. It's a work that plays with order and chaos in such a simple and satisfying way. Choreographically, there's little more here than a game of catch, a lot of running, and some waltz-like formations, but the piece reverberates with energy and contingency as the dancers, in white shirts, black shorts and high-top sneakers, stake out their territory like a tough but elegant gang.

The sense of movement is so overwhelming that, at times, it's hard to believe the dancers are limited to the confines of a stage and that we aren't panning across a long, dark alley – an effect made by an exposed black wall and a high, dangling row of amber lights. This all happens to surging electronic music, played (and composed) by Thom Gill, who stands behind a laptop upstage.

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Fjeld (1990) has been compressed from a five-movement epic into a suite of three chamber pieces set to the richly tonal, almost religious music of Estonian composer Arvo Part. The piece's slow, meditative grace makes a lovely counterpoint to the speed of Martingales. But Fjeld, which means a barren plateau in Norwegian, never gets too soft or sentimental. House's interest in constructing relationships through gestures and details is particularly keen in the first luminous duet, between Megumi Kokuba and Christianne Ullmark.

Dressed in white, Grecian dresses, the women partner and console each other – memorable images include a reprised lift in which Kokuba tilts Ullmark high to the side, and a moment when Ullmark sits on Kokuba's lying body. Their compassion flows in classical lines that are punctuated by moments of funny posturing: patting down each other's backs like security guards and exchanging a series of French bises (kisses that don't quite land). This overlap in tone makes an intriguing tension between the public and the private, between authenticity and protocol.

The duet is followed by a fluid pas de deux danced by Erin Poole and Peter Kelly, then a trio of bare-chested men (Yuichiro Inoue, Lukas Malkowski, Pulga Muchochoma) who slink and collapse against each other's arms, shoulders and rib cages, conjuring powerful images of suffering and lament.

Next is House's 1994 Colder Ink, a high-style piece for four dancers dressed in black, set to industrial music by Tim Brady. It feels austerely 1990s in its static use of sharp, geometric choreography and the almost exclusive separation between its four dancers (Kokuba, Ullmark, Inoue, Justin de Luna). Kokuba gets to show off technical strength here that we don't always see, with some gorgeous sustained developpés and a recurring back bend with one arm angled above her head. There's an East Berlin, early techno feel to the gloom that offers a welcome counterpoint to Fjeld's lusciousness. Interestingly, it also foreshadows some of the grit of Martingales.

The final work, Animated Shorts (1984), is a lively and exuberant ensemble piece that captures House at his most classically modern – the choreography uses Graham contractions and Limon tilts in sequences of synchronized group work. The ensemble parts are interrupted by frenetic – and often funny – solos, performed by Ullmark, Kokuba, Muchochoma and James Phillips to bursts of squeaking clarinet . While the piece is compelling on its own, it's doubly interesting to watch in the context of Martingales. The earlier work explodes with choreographic details, while the later uses sweeps of movement to evoke, rather than fill, space. And yet, you can still hear House asking himself some of the same questions in both, about the rules of engagement between his performers, and what the pace and clutter of choreography do to an audience's engagement, their sense of being in retreat or advance.

TDT's dancers are looking strong, particularly its more veteran members (Kokuba, Inoue, Ullmark, Muchochoma), whom House showcases to great effect over the course of the evening and challenges with a range of styles and technical demands. Animated is a dynamically beautiful and entertaining arc through 30 years of House's oeuvre – and then an important extract of Canadian modern dance itself.

Animated continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto until Nov. 5 (tdt.org).

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