Call it a bicycle-wheel model of artistic programming that's gaining momentum - as it should. The Art of Time Ensemble's artistic director, Andrew Burashko, has been kicking the tires for nearly a decade.
Ted Dykstra, one of his current collaborators, recently ruminated that Burashko's projects are constructed like a simple bicycle wheel.
"The spokes on a bike all connect to the centre. He picks a centre and then he chooses what spokes to concentrate on," Dykstra says.
It's an apt description of the cascade of connections that link Art of Time's latest offering, The Kreutzer Sonata, collectively staged by Burashko and actors Dykstra and R.H. Thomson, Canadian Opera Company concertmaster Marie Bérard and the dancers of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie.
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote the stunning Kreutzer Sonata, which for reasons unknown became the focal point and title of a novel by Leo Tolstoy about marriage, sexual jealousy and revenge. Canadian choreographer James Kudelka was inspired by the sonata. His father, an amateur violinist, once told him the way to seduce a woman was to take her to one's room and play the Kreutzer. Kudelka later choreographed 15 Heterosexual Duets, which opened to rave reviews in 1991, and dedicated the relationship-based dances to his father.
"It's almost like a bunch of mirrors all looking at each other, and I think that's really cool," Dykstra said.
The program features a monologue Dykstra has adapted from Tolstoy's novel, to be read by Dykstra the first night and Thomson the second. It will be underscored by passages from Beethoven's score, which will then be played in full by Burashko (on piano) and Bérard (on violin) in the program's second half, accompanying the dancers in 15 Heterosexual Duets. It's a typical Burashko program, a crosspollination with the ultimate goal of bringing classical music to new audiences.
Laurence Lemieux and Bill Coleman both danced in the premiere of Duets with Toronto Dance Theatre nearly two decades ago and it's a mainstay of their company's repertoire. But they've been using the same CD for years and have never performed the piece to live music. Lemieux said the duets, many of which are fast and intensely physical, must stay thoroughly synchronized with Burashko and Bérard.
"Everything is choreographed tightly to the music," Lemieux said. "Some duets are as short as two minutes, but really difficult. The hardest two minutes of your life."
The dances are such that virtually every movement requires the input of both dancers, a relationship between them, and nearly every dancer switches partners in the course of the piece.
Bérard said it's clear to her why Kudelka seized on Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata as the inspiration for his Duets. "The two players [pianist and violin] in this sonata particularly, somehow communicate. It's not a violin sonata," she said.
It's this intersecting of genres that attracted groups such as Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie to their first project with Art of Time, and keeps mainstays such as Dykstra and Bérard coming back.
"I'm intrigued by it, because I think that's where the arts are going. There's a taste for crossing mediums," Thomson said.
He said that where music and narrative meet in Burashko's arrangement, "something else comes through," and to try to explain what, he turns to a thoroughly Canadian example of merging cultures undertaken by the CBC.
"It's as exciting as the Punjabi guys in Vancouver calling Hockey Night in Canada. When those guys call [the game] it takes two very powerful worlds and wraps them together. ... I think that's a lot of what Canada is. We're taking all these different disciplines - or cultures - and winding and braiding them together and watching the fusion in the middle."
Art of Time has struggled for exposure and is working to shed its status as Toronto's best-kept secret. Burashko called the first five years "a labour of love," with barely enough money to mount the shows and without proper infrastructure or publicity efforts.
"I didn't pay myself for anything, and it was totally disorganized," Burashko said.
Then, five years ago, he shed his other engagements and focused on expanding the ensemble's tiny audience. Two years later, the company took a leap of faith from mounting three single performances a season to four two-night events such as this one. That gamble has paid off. "In the last three years our audience has more than quadrupled," he said.
He thinks the ensemble still has lots of room to grown. Next season, Roy Thomson Hall play host to two programs in addition to the standard season, and Art of Time has a pair of CDs made in collaboration with Sarah Slean and former Barenaked Ladies front man Steven Page due out this year.
For Thomson, Art of Time's progression toward centre stage hinges on the burgeoning acceptance of its model. "You can call this fringe work, but I don't think it's fringe work at all. It's on the leading edge."
Art of Time Ensemble presents The Kreutzer Sonata tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., at Toronto's Enwave Theatre (416-973-4000).