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0 out of 4 stars

The Four Horsemen Project

Created and directed by Kate Alton and Ross Manson

Starring Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi

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and Andrea Nann

At the Factory Theatre in Toronto

Rating: ***½

Please, please, please believe the hype. Throw away that old copy of Adbusters you bought to show off how unsusceptible to the marketing juggernaut you are. Stop being a skeptic and fall for the catchy ad campaign of The Four Horsemen Project which promises a show so far out, it's back in. And how.

If anything, the slogan undersells it. Just far out? How's about spaced out of this solar system, man? At the end of 65 minutes of seamless and exuberantly integrated dance, animation, poetry and dopy archival footage, the jury is still out on the mental state of the show's creators and directors, Kate Alton and Ross Manson.

All things considered, I'd say that Alton, a choreographer, and Manson, an actor-director, are just on the right side of the madness-brilliance divide. What they've created is experiential theatre which defies words on a page, but that's the very spirit of the Four Horsemen who inspired them in the first place.

At the risk of sounding like notes from Sound Poetry 101, here's what you need to know. A collective of 1970s Toronto sound poets -- Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol -- the Four Horsemen symbolized the experimental spirit of Toronto and its literary awakening in the seventies. They believed that language is criminally misused as a "shield" to protect ourselves when in fact it stems from, and is informed by, our bodies. In Dutton's words, their poetry was "an abandonment of language," bypassing the written word and investing in the visual and corporal. It's poetry as elemental expression which naturally lends itself to dance. Yes, poetry in motion, as it were.

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Neither a recreation nor a tribute show, The Four Horsemen Project is a free-wheeling intervention between the aesthetics of the original poets and the forward-thinking theatrical sensibilities of Alton and Manson. It's produced by Manson's Volcano in association with Alton's Crooked Figure Dances, Vancouver animation studio Global Mechanic and Toronto's Factory Theatre, where it opened Wednesday.

Four shamelessly versatile performers (Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi, Andrea Nann) share the stage with hypnotic animation devised by Global Mechanic. The performers unite their bodies and vocal cords in movements that enhance the sound of the poem and its physical shape. The animation is not merely a backdrop but a context that at times frames the movement and at others projects a contradictory reference that isolates the performers (and, by implication, the poets) from their surroundings.

The result is a sensory rush and a feeling of giddiness that, apart from one or two repetitive moments, seductively merge sound and movement, the visual and the mental and the there and now. Alton, who confesses in the program notes that her choreography includes unabashed theft from sources as far apart as Bob Fosse and Charlie Chaplin, ultimately creates movement that dances to some unexpected internal rhythms. Both she and Manson have directed The Four Horsemen Project with the kind of meticulous attention that never feels fussy or overproduced -- just blissfully creative and wonderfully amusing. While all performers are effective, Dahl and McKelvie bring sexual magnetism to the mix that turns on the heat of the evening just that bit more.

The Four Horseman Project may not look or sound like anything you've seen in Toronto recently, but it shares something worth celebrating with two other shows in town at the moment: Darren O'Donnell's Diplomatic Immunities: The End at Buddies in Bad Times and Ahmed Ghazali's The Sheep and the Whale at Theatre Passe Muraille. All three reflect the true face of Toronto, with casting that mixes races and cultures instead of ghettoizing them or using them as tokens on some multicultural-funding report card. That this one does it while paying tribute to a long-gone Toronto just shows that players may change but Hogtown still has what it takes to lead the next wave of artistic experiment. Maybe I'm overstating the case, but a bit of hype never hurt anyone.

The Four Horsemen Project continues at Factory Theatre

until March 4 (416-504-9971).

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