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What is Ame Henderson saying with her dance of voice and gesture?

Ame Henderson’s dance work titled what we are saying.

Liam Maloney

what we are saying
Public Recordings
Power Plant, Harbourfront

What is the definition of dance? With each new work, Toronto choreographer Ame Henderson keeps redefining the art form.

Her latest opus, what we are saying, cunningly combines movement, language and technology to explore what she calls a "leaderless togetherness."

The roots of what we are saying go back to two previous productions that Henderson mounted in 2010 – relay and 300 Tapes.

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In relay, dancers recalled snippets of choreography they had performed and taught them to their fellows, who then went on to personalize them. The result was the absence of any uniformity in the chorus line.

In 300 Tapes, Henderson had three actors each record 100 hours of personal stories. The performance included the men sharing the tapes and blurring memories of which story belonged to which actor. Their movements around the tape player were precisely timed.

Is a performer carrying extension cables, microphones and sound monitors considered choreography? Henderson would have us think so in her new work.

For what we are saying, the large exhibition space at Habourfront's Power Plant gallery has been stripped bare. Two hundred chairs have been set up facing every which way. Scattered on the chairs are sound monitors. Throughout the piece, these monitors are shifted around. Ultimately, about 20 performers are involved in the execution of the work, joining in at various stages. They all begin as members of the audience.

Henderson's players include dancers and actors, but she has also roped in lighting designer Kimberly Purtell, photographer Liam Maloney, arts administrator Slade Lander, composer Alexander MacSween and a host of other "non-performers" who are usually offstage. The result is a performing group of different shapes and sizes that looks exactly like the audience.

The structure of the piece follows a clear trajectory. At first, the monitors produce whines, drones and pings. The performers emerge from the audience, pick up the monitors, and move them to other chairs, turning knobs to control the loudness of the ambient sound.

Some players start to relate personal stories, while others hook up cables and microphones to the sound monitors. Someone poses the question, "Is being together possible?" From somewhere in the room comes the answer, "Being together is impossible." The rest of the piece has the players trying to resolve the issue.

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At first, the players and their voices become separated. For example, a person talks into a microphone, but their voice is coming from a monitor across the room. Then questions are asked like, "What was your closest call?" as two people talk at the same time, struggling to find a commonality in two different stories, by trying to say the same words at the same time.

This morphs into three, then four, then five players talking simultaneously, trying to tell an identical story. It is a very dysfunctional form of choral speaking to say the least.

What ultimately happens is words disappear altogether as players respond to questions, such as "Is it important to break rules?" with gestures and body language. This becomes a game of follow-the-leader as movement patterns are copied, with the leadership subtly shifting from person to person.

Thus, from a disconnected voice, to the merging of one's voice with others, to the loss of voice entirely, Henderson demonstrates that being together is possible, if one is willing to sacrifice one's individuality to the group. Is this a happy, or a sad ending? That's the question she leaves us with.

The 75-minute show ends with the players sitting down in the audience. They then gather up their cables and microphones, and leave the space. We've laughed, but it has been an unsettling experience.

what we are saying continues at the Power Plant until May 25, before performance at Festival TransAmériques, June 1-3.

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