Choregraphy by Holly Small
and Freya Olafson
At Betty Oliphant Theatre
in Toronto on Thursday
The latest dance: made in canada/fait au canada show, evanescence, is filled with startling images. The biannual series, under curator Yvonne Ng, twins established choreographers with emerging dance artists. Both Holly Small (established) and Freya Olafson (emerging) have unique choreographic voices.
The supreme craftsmanship of Small's mesmerizing Radiant shows the full weight of her wisdom and experience. Known as a collaborative choreographer, she has surrounded herself with a gilded creative team.
Her dancers are some of the best in the country - Johanna Bergfelt, Michael Caldwell, Keiko Kitano, Louis Laberge-Côté, Rebecca Mendoza and Jessica Runge. Inseparable from the movement are John Oswald's music and images, Emile Morin's scenography, Lionel Arnould's videography, Pierre Lavoie's lighting, Katharine Mallinson's Japanese-inspired costumes, and seven brass players (two trumpets, four trombones and a flugelhorn).
Everything about the piece is brilliantly thought through, and Small takes her time in the unfolding. The musicians are positioned in the surrounding upper galleries, where their ethereal, almost melancholy chords seem to come from the heavens. The stage itself has a cunning array of transparent panels upon which the projections play.
Small's world is one of fragile beauty and mystery. From the first burst of radiant light that reveals still bodies on the ground, to expressive movement bathed in luscious shadows, to the last image of a mummy-like Kitano undulating gently as she unwraps a long piece of drapery from her body, Small takes the audience through scenes that conjure up a myriad of ideas.
One sees everything from medieval images of cloaked death, to Zen-like samurai warriors, to hovering ghosts searching for peace and spirits who have found it, to new life arising from the ashes of the old. The movement itself is simple - sculptured poses, circle dances and parades - but the dancers must exercise exquisite control. Nothing must jar in this other world on the edge of memory.
And always, there are the ever-changing projections of an indistinct body, sometimes a corpse, sometimes a newly born being, wrapped in diaphanous material and floating in space. The piece is built around the play between the images on the screen and the live dancers on the stage. A secondary layer is the music score, at once mournful and tranquil, set against the breathing of the dancers, which is both laboured and joyous.
This is the rich dichotomy of Radiant, where birth and death are interchangeable yet seductive images.
Olafson is a Winnipeg performance artist. Her background is ballet, contemporary dance, visual art and new media, and she uses all these elements in New Icelander. The heart of the piece is the live Olafson dancing with an arresting film sequence.
Apparently Olafson was inspired by the trials and tribulations of her Icelandic ancestors who settled the colony of Nes on the Icelandic River north of Winnipeg in the 1870s, where many died of smallpox. A brief part of the film touches on the skulls and bones that erosion is uncovering in their unmarked graveyard.
Olafson is a multi-tasker who created the choreography, video, sound and set, while Hugh Conacher has provided the moody lighting and Sharon Johnson the two costumes, a fairy-like, multi-ruffled skirt and modern-day winter wear.
The dancer begins by summoning the spirits, and her shuddering body indicates that they have arrived. What follows is a fascinating duet for a live dancer and her film image. In the latter, Olafson plays with time by slowing and speeding up the frames and superimposing images. Fragments of spoken text seem to cry out from the past and richly layered percussion represents the beating of many hearts through the ages.
We see her on the frozen river bed, both in close-up and from a distance. Later, she is immersed in waterAt one point, the real Olafson cradles her film image in her arms, a remarkable sight indeed.
More performance art than dance, in the piece Olafson shows that these original settlers continue to live through her. With its clever multidisciplinary fusion, New Icelander is a journey that brings the past and the present together in the same body.
Evanescence repeats tonight at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.