by carl wilson

No Ordinary Love:
"Double Bill #1"

Posting has been sparse lately, partly due to life and partly due to scrambling to get my paper done for the EMP Pop Conference, which will be the subject of upcoming posts this weekend. Before I get Seattle-bound, I want to tell you about a beautifully Toronto-bound event that opens tonight (Wednesday, Apr 9) and runs until Saturday.

"Double Bill #1" is the yield of a "mash-up"-style concept from Dancemakers artistic director Michael Trent: he wants to reach out to other artists to create works in dialogue. Having seen last year's wonderful "Dance/Songs" piece (subject of past Zoilusian praise), Trent chose to invite Ame Henderson of the Public Recordings company as his first collaborator. The parameters they agreed on were simple: They would each create pieces that used the same people, from dancers to music, which would mean each choreographer's process would be bumping and grinding up against the other's.

The results, which I previewed at a dress rehearsal on Saturday before they moved it to Harbourfront's Premiere Dance Theatre, are superlative. I have to single out Ame's "It Was a Nice Party," which, like "Dance/Songs" (which took the skeleton of a rock-club show and draped it in a dance piece, with equal measures of wit, irony and reverence) and her Nuit Blanche piece (which involved large crowds of dancers emerging in and out of the margins of a Kensington Market park, dancing to music from hand-cranked portable radios), is a playful exercise in slow-motion revelation: If you pay attention, a seemingly arbitrary and cryptic set of behaviours is slowly unveiled as a self-conscious game.

( ... continues ...)

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that what the dancers are doing is "sampling" from the party scene of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, in a series of algorithms that's almost an Oulipian set of themes-and-variations that you slowly decode. The byproduct, as Dancemakers dramaturge-in-residence Jacob Zimmer put it to me, is that out of the film scene, the company was able to generate quickly a fresh set of gestural vocabularies that are not at all "dance" vocabularies. (They also tried using a bank-robbing scene from The Thomas Crown Affair and a bird attack from The Birds but settled on the more cheerful-strange ambience of a party - which, bonus points, allowed some of them to pretend to be Marcello Mastrionni.)

Humour and energy spring out of this strategy, all the more so because Ame's preserved the unheimlich grammar of film in the choreography - the dancers keep suddenly dashing across the stage to keep pace with the cuts and crosscuts of film editing, too, so the typical dignity and smoothness (even in choreographed awkwardness) of dance is undercut by the frantic splicing and interruption to which reality is subjected by the camera.

In addition, the ensemble keeps the mood of the piece itself party-like - casual, companionable, conversational, giddy. At intervals, in personae somewhere between themselves and themselves-as-character, the dancers come to microphones at the corners of the stage, to explain what just happened and what's about to happen next: "We're going to do that again, only this time, Kate's going to be over there and I'm going to start here... okay?"

Both pieces are scored by The Reveries, a band I've toasted in the past as one of Toronto music's uncanniest combinations of silliness and sentiment, with their poker-faced techno-peasant routine of playing instruments that are amplified through cellphone speakers lodged in each other's mouths, while they slobberingly deliver the lyrics of love-song standards. The group features local improv luminaries Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli (plus, more recently, percussionist Jean Martin).

For "Double Bill" they presented the company with several CDs featuring dozens of songs they'd be capable of covering, ranging from jazz standards to Willie Nelson to Sade, and let the dancers choose over the course of rehearsal which songs to use. Then they provided recordings of covers of the selected songs as the final soundtrack, which gets played by the dancers from an on-stage boombox.

In both dances, but Ame's in particular, there's some aleatory space left after that, too, as the dancers can choose which Reveries selections to play during the show, which reinforces the party theme ("hey, what should I put on?" "no more Willie, I'm tired of Willie") but also severs dance from music and allows for recombinant effects - they might end up dancing frenetically to a slow ballad, or the song might end before the segment does and leave them dancing to silence. It all helps to free the dancers from what can in dance sometimes seem a slavish relationship between music and choreography - while the movies scene is dictating the motions, moments might fall anywhere on the beat, so it's a new dance every time.

The mood is also struck by the frantic effort that goes into following the movie's kinetic "score" - the dancers are constantly checking video monitors to see what action they should be imitating, so they have a split focus, which mirrors the audience's own effort to watch what's happening at the same time as puzzling out the embedded structure. Viewing it in the smaller rehearsal space, I was particularly conscious that I kept wanting to watch the movie on the monitors (even craning my head around to do it) instead of the real people in front of me - the same trouble one has, for example, carrying on a conversation in a bar while a TV is running in the corner over your friend's shoulder, or the way people you know in real life take on a kind of extra-reality in the microcelebrity of their Facebook pages and YouTube videos. In a way the dancers cannot compete with the film's aura, but their physical presence catches the viewer out in that guilty attraction, and reminds us of the satisfaction and complication the person-to-person encounter can offer. For instance, the dancers use their real names to refer to one another in dialogue, except that there are two Kates, so the second insists on being called "Magenta," after the colour of her dress, which is both an assertion ("I'm the girl in the magenta dress") and a surrender of identity.

Michael Trent's second half, "And the Rest," is a bit jarring after the revelation of the first, in that he turns the company back to a modern-dance physical vocabulary, and there's much less narrative drive. But on the other hand it's here that you get to see these dancers dance, again to the Reveries' wobbly ebbs and flows of song, and things get sexy in a much less ironic and more realistic (and thus more disturbing) way, as themes of dominance, submission and Bartleby-like abstention come into play.

My favourite section was one that went head-on at the sadomasochism of choreography itself, in which one dancer started giving instructions for moves to another and then got caught in a kind of deranged loop demonstrating the ridiculously strenuous motions that were required to fulfill her own orders, while the rest of the ensemble lazily ignored her. The orders she's barking ("put your wrists on your thighs, half-twist, sink to your knees, thrust three times, flutter your elbows twice") are of course exactly the kind that the choreographer must have used to make the whole piece - our pleasure rests on the mnemonic and physical labour of the artist-interpreters, our admiration of their seeming freedom resting on their terpsicordian bondage. The dress-rehearsal crowd laughed familiarly, but for those of us who aren't dance insiders, it was more of a moment in which the emperor stripped off his clothes to reveal that underneath, he was stitched up in a tight, rough corset. The work of the dancer, in those interludes, became its own subject, and its own reward.

In the program, Michael and (in his program notes) Jacob tell us that the piece is about tyranny and change: I wish only that they'd followed Ame's example and put more of those cards on the table in the piece itself. But that might just be that I'm a relatively inexperienced watcher of dance, and its pure physical abstraction (and perhaps its voyeurism) always make me crave more intellectual semaphore, more clues to the content within the form.

A real dance lover might find Ame's piece more frustrating because its whole mechanism stymies the flow of dance, blocking and undermining the performers' skills at each turn. I find that both funnier and more moving, seeming closer to daily life, but since I'd probably be unsympathetic to a similar argument about highly abstract music or painting, I'll offer that reaction with a grain of suspicious-tasting salt.

In any case, the pairing left me with plenty to smile over and think about and I wholeheartedly urge you to get down to Harbourfront to drink it in with your own eyes and ears. Also, check out The Reveries' new CD of Willie Nelson tunes, which was released this week.

Read More | Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, April 09 at 3:24 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson