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Toronto Heritage Dance revives classics from the past

Danielle Baskerville and Michael English in the Love Duet from Maelstrom.

Emma Walker

Toronto Heritage Dance 2013
Winchester Street Theatre

The concept of Toronto Heritage Dance is simple. The mandate is a celebration of modern dance – the art form that first emerged out of the wreckage of broken ballet vocabulary. It was a cry for the body's freedom.

Not surprisingly, a THD program means revivals of classics from the past. Works from Toronto Dance Theatre co-founders Patricia Beatty and David Earle, for example, or the choreographers who were a beat behind them, such as Danny Grossman, Judy Jarvis and Nenagh Leigh.

No one has ever said that the style of the Mona Lisa is old-fashioned because it was painted 500 years ago, yet the prevailing attitude today, particularly in Europe, is that modern dance is dated. In this post-modern age where there are no rules in dance creation, modern dance is jejune.

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In experiencing THD 2013, with bodies that move in lyrical grace, where dancers dance in the conventional sense of the word, where form and substance are writ large, one comes away with the sheer, evocative power and timelessness of modern dance. I didn't want the show to be over.

There's something else that I notice in a THD program: All the dances seem to have something to communicate through movement, whether it be a state of mind or mood, or the push and pull of a romantic relationship, or a paean to the body moving in the abstract. Modern dance has always been food for thought.

Beatty and Leigh co-founded THD. Leigh and Mary Jane Warner are the current directors. They have put together a company of 12 expressive dancers that includes veterans and newcomers, who execute an evening of seven dances that please both the eye and the mind, and that premiered between 1968 and 2013.

Although the program is not performed in chronological order, let's look at the dances from that prism, particularly what each choreography contributes to the richness of the evening as a whole.

Earle's Mirrors (1968) debuted at the inaugural performance of Toronto Dance Theatre. Two couples, with the women in long dresses, mirror each other as the intricate, circular movement reflects the counterpoint in Bach's music. It is romantic and clever at the same time.

Grossman's and Jarvis' Bella (1977) is one of the most beloved Canadian classics of all time. Set to passionate Puccini music from La Bohème, and the humming chorus from Madama Butterfly, two lovers (Jessica May Hall and Michael Caldwell) cavort on a life-size whimsical horse inspired by artist Marc Chagall. She's in love with love; he is her bewildered swain.

Beatty's Skyling (1980) for five dancers, and performed to Michael J. Baker's delicately pulsing music, captures the joy of freedom in the flight of birds.

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Earle's "Love Duet" from Maelstrom (1996) is an intense, psychological examination of a romantic relationship in crisis. The great Danielle Baskerville is exquisite, ably supported by Michael English.

Leigh's Terra Incognita (2002) is a majestic male solo performed by Louis Laberge-Côté. The highly controlled, almost tortured movement is a journey of discovery through the obstacles of life.

Earle's Sculpting Time (2007) for nine dancers is a loose and lanky romp that is a snapshot of exuberant, confidant youth. They enjoy doing their own thing, while being in a crowd of like-minded individuals.

As proof that senior citizen Earle is still going strong is Two Soliloquies (2011 and 2013), each a male solo. The earlier one, excerpted from Night Garden, is performed by Bill Coleman. Filled with Christian imagery, the piece evokes a man wrestling with his soul.

The later solo, danced by Anh Nguyen, is a reflective and thoughtful questioning of one's identity, as told through carefully methodical repetition.

With scores ranging from medieval songs to originally composed electronica, the program ably demonstrates that modern dance still has something to say.

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To quote John Keats, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

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