Dance Review: DanceWorks/Hanna Kiel’s Chasing the Path

Photo credit Sam So

The cheers, whistles and standing ovation that greeted choreographer Hanna Kiel’s new work Chasing the Path was heartfelt and profound. Clearly her exploration of the intersection between memory, experience and life had touched people’s very soul. Choosing to choreograph abstract themes can be difficult to convey, but Kiel has been able, in this work, to command the bodies of her excellent dancers to express the inexpressible, as it were.

Photo credit Sam So

Four characters (Luke Garwood, Ryan Lee, David Norsworthy and Kelly Shaw) clearly represent a family unit of some sort. Set designer Joe Pagnan has created a living room whose dated furniture conjures up the past. A doorframe dominates one corner of the set, and it is Lee’s coming through that door that unleashes the memory train. What is fascinating is that the movement dialogue can be interpreted in many ways. For example, my guest and I had very different views of the relationships between the four protagonists. Another intriguing aspect of Chasing the Path is that sometimes the dancers appear to move from being human incarnations to being their own memories, shadowing each other through carefully crafted synchronized movement patterns. The memories seem to bounce back and forth between the past and present as the dancers execute solos, duets, trios and quartets in waves of motion. What is clear is that regardless of their actual relationship or the specific incident that triggered this flood of thought, these are people who are suffering or who have suffered. Lives have been blighted.

Photo credit Sam So

Kiel has a very singular movement signature. Every part of the body is in motion. Her choreographic language is filled with small, intricate, staccato twitches, impulses and out-thrusts that seem to circle around each other. A dancer’s head, arms, legs and torso are forever being tangled together in a St. Vitus dance of electric currents. When two or more dancers perform together the effect is even more charged. Kiel’s dance is alive with nervous energy. The most repeated movement is manoeuvring the head, whether it is a dancer using his or her own arm to twist the head position, or twisting the head of someone else. These headlocks occur in a split second amid a jumble of other movements. but they stand out as a metaphor for the mind and body being held in the grip of a torrent of feelings.

Photo credit Sam So

Kudos to composer Greg Harrison who has crafted an electronic score that is tailored to the many moods of the piece, from sombre reflection to a driving rhythm that is an outpouring of pain. Oz Weaver’s lighting is similarly melded to the ebb and flow of the journey as experience is forged from memory.

Kiel is a dance artist who is not afraid to tackle big subjects. Her movement is meticulous in defining meaning, and taken as a whole, her choreography explores and presents the human condition in compelling ways. Her dance company’s name, Human Body Expression, says it all.

Hanna Kiel’s Chasing the Path, part of DanceWorks’ mainstage series, continues at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Mar. 15 to 17, 2018.










Interview with Elena Lobsanova, Principal Dancer, National Ballet of Canada


Elena Lobsanova, 31, is considered one of the finest purveyors of classical technique in the National Ballet of Canada. Born in Moscow, she immigrated with her family to Toronto when she was four. After graduating from Canada’s National Ballet School, she joined the company in 2004, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2015. Her prowess as both a classical and contemporary dancer was acclaimed when she won the prestigious Eighth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize in 2009.

On March 13, 2018 she will be making her debut as Princess Aurora in Rudolf Nureyev’s much loved production of The Sleeping Beauty. The role of Aurora is considered by many balletphiles to be the quintessence of Russian imperial style classical technique. What makes this performance particularly special is that Lobsanova’s debut as Aurora was supposed to be in 2015, but she was injured just before the season opened, and never got to perform the role on stage.


What was it like being cast as Aurora in 2015?

I was very excited and deeply honoured. Nureyev had created the ballet on the company and a long line of dancers had performed in it through the years, and I was joining that line. The rehearsals were a marvellous time for me, because I had a wonderful working relationship with Karen Kain. She is so beautifully generous and spent so much time with me preparing the role. Just before opening, I tore my Achilles tendon, probably due to overuse. I was crying so hard – all that preparation and I never got to do the role on stage. I used to quip that I had done my Sleeping Beauty shows in the studio. Incidentally, I’ve since become much better at preventing injury.

How did you find out that you were performing in the 2018 revival?

I got an email telling me to report for a photo shoot for Beauty. They put me in a costume so I knew I would be performing. It was a beautiful gesture.

Aurora is regarded as one of the “must do” roles for a ballerina. Were you daunted by her many challenges when you were first cast in the part?

I wasn’t drawn to her initially, although I recognized how important she was. What finally drew my interest and made her more compelling was when I discovered that beneath the grandeur of the ballet as a whole, her character actually has growth. Aurora has three different personas – she is sweet and innocent like Juliet in the first act, as ethereal as Giselle in the second act when she appears in a vision to the prince, and finally, as a glittering technician in the third.

That’s a fascinating analysis of her character. Can you elaborate?

In the prologue, the fairies give baby Aurora the gifts of virtue, which she embodies in the first act. For example, the Rose Adigio represents chastity. She is naïve and virginal, yet vivacious as she waits for the ball to begin. In the second act her sylph-like character represents timelessness and purity. She has to be an inspiration to the prince so he will want to find her castle and awaken her. She is a spirit, a nymph – ethereal, enchanting – nothing about her is grounded. In the last act, she is maturing as a woman and a potential queen with responsibilities. The dancing is more refined. The finale is a statement piece – there is no story at the end, just a feast of showy dancing for the eyes. Taken together, the three acts display a clear stylistic growth. She has a range of temperament, and responds to people differently in each act.

Speaking of the famous Rose Adagio – just how difficult is it to balance on one point shoe, the other leg in the air, and switch hands with four different cavaliers, raising both your arms above your head in between the hand changes?

For me, the shoes are all important. If you have the right pair of shoes, balance is not a problem. The Rose Adagio is just one part of the first act. In fact, the challenge of the act as a whole is more a matter of stamina. There is a fast solo at the beginning of the act, then the Rose Adagio itself which includes dancing with the cavaliers, followed by a longer, slower solo to end the act. Incidentally, Sleeping Beauty is filled with crazy balances.

Could you explain what you mean by the right shoes?

I use Freed of London. Because they are handmade, they are not that durable and break down faster, but they look better on stage. They are also more flexible, but this means there is more to control. It’s the way you use the shoes, work them in, break them down, that determines how you execute technique. The shoes I wear are sensitive. They adapt to my dynamic. I treat my shoes like pieces of art.

Do you generally approach story-telling ballets through character?

Yes. I have to find something that is definite, a hook I can grab on to, so I always do a detailed analysis of a role, even though it takes time. I’m lucky to be around people like Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart and the répéteurs – people who think the way I do. I ask a lot of questions and do research online. Ballet is dead without character or story, which is the reason for technique to be there. Technique is a statement of character.

What is your actual working process?

I learn the steps first, then rehearse in costume. I then add on other layers like how I should acknowledge the other characters on stage, or recognize what signals the music is sending.

What’s the greatest challenge for you in performing Princess Aurora?

In the second act vision scene there are three sets of diagonal bourrées followed by two turns in arabesque and a double turn in attitude. That combination drives me crazy because it is so technical and mechanical, and is quite gruelling out of context. On stage, it is much easier because you hear the music and you’re your body is compelled to keep going, to tell a story, so there is meaning in the moves. The vision of Aurora is calling to the prince to rescue her. (Note: bourré is a series of tiny steps on point; arabesque is balancing on one foot, with the raised leg behind in a straight line; attitude is balancing on one foot with the raised leg behind with a bent knee.)

Your partner as Prince Florimond is Naoya Ebe. Have you performed with him before?

We danced together in Giselle and La Sylphide, so we’re used to each another. I like the quiet power in him as a dancer.

How would you characterize Sleeping Beauty as a whole?

 It is a ballet of many details, lavish in nature with a richness of choreography. Nothing is gratuitous in the ballet. I’ve found that there is a lot of subtext going on, that the mechanics of technique all mean something. Overall it is really lovely dancing.

Do you think that the company has changed during your years in the National?

Yes. The dancers are much more solid in terms of technique.

How would you describe your own personal philosophy of dance?

I would say that I’m most interested in my personal development. I have my own work ethic with my own standards of technique and artistic ability. My motto is that I need to become better every day. Initially, when I joined the company, I felt empty. I felt that there had to be more than just artifice. When I decided that my life’s work was self-improvement, it was the spark that gave dance meaning. I realized that it was up to me to find a way of working, to focus, to create art, to tell a story, to speak a language. I’m happiest when I’m working my ass off.

Is there any dancer you particularly admire?

The Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru who is a principal with the English National Ballet. I watch her videos and say to myself, “That’s ballet!” She is more than just empty mechanics. She makes ballet a language that speaks.

(Elena Lobsanova performs the role of Princess Aurora on Mar. 13. The National Ballet of Canada’s production of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Mar. 17.)















Mini Dance Review: Peggy Baker Dance Projects/Map by Years

Peggy Baker “unmoored”

Peggy Baker’s newest dance show Map by Years is divine. The choreographer/dancer has always had the knack of handing off her work to the ideal person, and veterans Jessica Runge, Andrea Nann and Kate Holden do her proud in vintage Baker solos (Her Heart, Krishna’s Mouth and Portal respectively). Natasha Bakht and Mairi Greig alternate with Nann and Holden at different performances. Baker herself performs her haunting new work unmoored (created with Sarah Chase), a “dance story” about her marriage to the late composer/musician Ahmed Hassan and his struggle with MS. The work is one of total perfection as the heartbreaking text and Baker’s eloquent movement swing back and forth between darkness and light. Also on board the playbill are pianist Cheryl Duvall (Her Heart) and cellist Anne Bourne (Krishna’s Mouth). Baker is one of the most revered dance artists in the country and this show is a quintessential example of why she holds that place in the Canadian dance pantheon. Map by Years is brilliant programming.

I personally would like to add that one of the greatest Canadian dance scores ever composed is Hassan’s Sable/Sand for Serge Bennathan’s 1995 eponymous work for Dancemakers. I bought the CD immediately after the performance and after all these years it still gives me great joy to hear Hassan’s mystical, evocative fusion of Arabic and western musical genres.

(Peggy Baker Dance Projects/ Map by Years, The Theatre Centre, Feb. 21-25, 2018.)

Dance Review – DanceWorks 40th Anniversary Presentation

DanceWorks 40th Anniversary Presentation takes place at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Nov. 16-18.

Mimi Beck

When DanceWorks began 40 years ago, it was one of several presenter dance series in Toronto. Now, as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, it is almost the only game in town, which makes its longevity all the more notable.

One expects tributes to the past on such an anniversary and DW curator Mimi Beck’s program certainly gives us that look back. There are also several premieres, and this old/new viewpoint makes for an enjoyable totality. Pieces from 1981 and 1995 are given new life, while the other three works are brand new.

How good it is to have Learie Mc Nicolls back on a Toronto stage. The dancer/choreographer is another Torontonian who has moved to Hamilton in search of cheaper housing. Mc Nicolls is responsible for two works on the program, and both reflect his quirky approach to movement – those tell-tale, abrupt changes of direction, those short, quick, staccato body impulses, for example. The solo

Learie Mc Nicolls
The Night Journey

The Night Journey has Mc Nicolls as a bold, commanding and dominating presence on stage inspired by a soundscape of Dutch musician Wilbert de Joode’s solo double bass riffs. Judith Sandiford (another ex-Torontonian) is responsible for the eye-catching if moody, grainy live projections of Mc Nicolls, which adds to the mystery of the piece. The excerpt duet from Mc Nicolls’ 1995 Dancing with the Ghost, wonderfully performed by Jennifer Dahl and Robert Glumbek, is a witty girl-meets-guy parody. They go through a physicality of angst before giving up in a “what the hell” attitude of resignation as they leave the stage in separate directions.

Robert Stevenson and Holly Small

Evan Winther
Cheap Sunglasses

Another blast from the past is Holly Small’s 1981 Cheap Sunglasses, but with the twist of gender reversal. Originally, Small danced while composer Robert Stevenson’s sound poetry score was performed by men. This time male dancer Evan Winther takes centre stage (sporting the cheap sunglasses) while a quartet of women (Jocelyn Barth, Minjia Chen, Bea Labikova, Laura Swankey) vocalize the very peculiar soundscape of noises. Small has always had a wry sense of humour and this piece shows that attribute to the max – an individual seemingly at the mercy of the music, but showing a devil-may-care attitude nonetheless. Winther, a York University student, is a most eye-pleasing dancer to watch, at once supple, graceful and crisp of attack.

Joanna de Souza and Esmeralda Enrique

Twenty years ago, kathak dancer Joanna de Souza and flamenco dancer Esmeralda Enrique created their duet Firedance, a smash hit which travelled far beyond DanceWorks. Now the women have added Amalgam to their distinguished careers. What is so delightful about this work is how they move in sync. They perform the same steps, but as a flamenco dancer and a kathak dancer would. Of more importance is that these women of a certain age still have the fire in the belly when it comes to their solos. The fabulous original world beat score, composed by the performers, contains a flamenco guitarist (Caroline Planté), a tabla player (Santosh Naidu), a bass guitarist (Ian de Souza), and the always marvellous and brilliant Arabic singer Maryem Hassan Tollar. This performance by dancers and musicians a like, is a class act.

Moving Parts

The most surprising piece of the evening is Denise Fujiwara’s Moving Parts, a finale that has armies marching, meaning nine dancers, two musicians and a huge choir led by Cathy Nosaty. I say surprising because Fujiwara is Toronto’s queen of the dark, deep and melancholy butoh dance, yet she has come up with choreography that hops, skips and jumps for joy. The score features tuneful pop songs with lyrics proclaiming hope in the face of disaster, culminating in the Parachute Club’s Rise Up, which becomes a community sing.

Long may DanceWorks continue to present Toronto and Canadian dance artists.

DanceWorks 40th Anniversary Presentation, featuring works by Learie Mc Nicolls, Holly Small, Denise Fujiwara, and Joanna de Souza and Esmeralda Enrique, takes place at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Nov. 16-18.








Theatre Profile – Jacquie P.A. Thomas/Theatre Gargantua and the new work Reflector

Theatre Gargantua’s Reflector is showing at Theatre Passe Muraille Nov. 2-18. The production’s wellspring is the impact that photojournalism has on public consciousness, and how information can be framed and manipulated.


Jacquie P.A. Thomas

For 25 years, Theatre Gargantua has defined the term multi-disciplinary with original productions, built from scratch, that are an eye-popping mix of narrative, movement, music, stage design and state-of-the-art technology. The devised play is always about a substantive topic – usually concerning the zeitgeist of the day. At the helm of Theatre Gargantua is founder/artistic director Jacquie Thomas, and it is her unique vision of what theatre should be that underpins the company’s productions in terms of both process and performance.

To hone her craft of devised total theatre, Thomas took workshops with or joined the companies of acknowledged leaders in the field. Leonidas Ossetynski’s Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles. Centre Artistique International Roy Hart, Malérargues, France. The Actors Centre, London. The National Theatre of Greece. Wlodzimierz Staniewski’s European Centre for Theatre Practices, Gardzienice Teatr, Poland. Peking Opera masters. Another invaluable source for Thomas was studying archival videos of multidisciplinary creators/directors at Richard Gough’s Centre for Theatrical Research, Aberystwyth, Wales.

Photo Michael Cooper

TG’s distinctive productions have garnered for the company many awards and nominations in categories diverse as outstanding new play, direction, sound design, set design and lighting design.



 What was the epiphany moment that put you on the course of devised multidisciplinary theatre?

It happened when Don Rubin, my theatre history prof at York, recommended that we see the Polish theatre company Gardzienice at Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival. Throughout the performance, I was on the edge of my seat. In the play there was a half naked actor who performed literally under the falling embers from torches. I knew then that I wanted to make theatre where you could be on fire and not care. It was so different and inspiring.

How did you go about training in this specific kind of theatre?

After the Gardzienice performance, I wondered who else was out there – people making theatre – so I researched directors devising their own work, and then I wrote letters to those I was interested in, asking if I could train with them. That’s what started my journey. I grew up artistically with these directors.

Auditioning for Gardzienice in Poland and becoming a member of the company must have been the dream of a lifetime.

I was with them for two years. We spent one year just developing a show, but it was an insane time politically. It was during the fall of the Berlin wall. Inflation was rampant and it was hard to live there financially.

So you came back to Toronto.

I did get acting work but it wasn’t satisfying. I really wanted to find a group of artists interested in developing a show over time following the European model. New creation companies are very rare in Canada.

How did Theatre Gargantua begin?

I got a $2000 grant from the Toronto Arts Council and a donation from my dad. The first project took three years, 1992-94. It was about the trials of the Templars. I was fascinated by the accusations against these warrior knights, particularly the sensual language of the historical documents. I put an ad in NOW looking for actors, and pulled a group together. The Trials got seven Dora nominations.

TG’s associate artistic director, Michael Spence, was one of the actors in The Trials.

Yes, he joined in the final year, and I broke my own rule about no inter-company dating. In effect, I auditioned my own husband. We have two girls, Meghan, 15 and Zoe, 13.

Michael evolved into TG’s leading writer and designer.

I love set pieces that transform into something else, and Michael figured out how to do that. For our second play, Raging Dreams, he was an actor and designer, but his writing stood out, so he moved into that role. Our company has always given opportunities to actors who have a special interest, even if they don’t have the background.

What were the early years like?

Photo Michael Cooper

For the first ten years we rehearsed and performed at the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, near Kensington Market, but every Saturday night, we had to take everything apart in order to get the sanctuary ready for Sunday. We actually ended up converting the backspace into a church hall – our gift to St. Stephen’s. We still develop our productions there, but as technology developed, we outgrew the church as a performance space. We needed a proper theatre for the sophistication of multiple projectors, for example. Reflector is at Theatre Passe Muraille which is a good space for us because it has height. Incidentally, St. Stephen’s has had a long connection with the theatre. Dora Mavor Moore rehearsed there.

How would you describe your “European model” process of play development? I understand it’s a two year cycle.

I use the skills that I brought back to Canada. We spend the first year creating the show. Initially, the entire conceptual team gathers, both creative artists and the actors. We open it up and invite people we’re interested in. That’s where the ideas start. Our plays always have a narrative, and everything springs from the text that we create. The writing starts collectively, but a specific writer has to ultimately drive the script. Part of the creation is how we blend together all the elements. We cast after the first workshop.

How do you blend the elements?

By breaking them apart. After we have discussions about the initial idea, people do research in the library, and what they bring back is the inspiration for the writing. We develop the story, text, movement and songs separately. The music track grows out of the musical improvs that we record. The movement is an allegorical language. Each show develops its own movement – a physical composition that pushes the narrative forward. The design is also linked to the narrative, and is sculpted to the space. The design, and how set pieces transform, is like another character. We have specific design workshops where we explore possibilities. After each unit is developed, we marry them together. A song goes here, that text goes

there. We throw out stuff as well.

What happens the second year?

Photo Michael Cooper

We hold public work-in-progress performances – usually six – and get feedback from the audience. At that stage the narrative, movement and score are prototypes. The public performances allow us to see what elements need the most work. We then amalgamate everything tightly together to distil the material down to the final show. Works are a living thing which means they are always changing.

How does the Canadian reality impact on your European model?

The impact is economic. In Poland, they did full time development. It was a union job and they came to work every day. We can’t do that financially. My solution has been to breakdown the work into phases. Allow it to sit with the artists. It’s a better mouse trap.

What’s the wellspring of your new piece Reflector?

It started with the photo of the young refugee Syrian boy who was washed up on the beach. It affected people all over the world. It affected the Canadian election. Just one photo galvanized the planet to act on the refugee question. It probably saved thousands of lives. The photo was an iconic image – a moment in time that imprinted itself on the collective memory. How did the phenomenon happen? What made the world stop and look? Those are questions we pose.

Who are the characters in Reflector?

Photo Michael Cooper

The main thread of the narrative is what happens to the conscience of a people – how a picture can affect us. We have four characters, all inspired by real people. We based our photojournalist on the guy who took the picture of the helpless child with the vulture about to attack her. There was a terrible backlash and he committed suicide. The second is inspired by the book The Woman Who Can’t Forget. Hyperthymesia is a condition where a person has total recall and can’t forget anything that happened to them. Their memories are stored in pictures. The third character is based on our daughters and their exposure to hundreds of images on the internet. Fluency on the internet means dealing with an avalanche of pictures. The fourth character is inspired by neuroscientists who study how images are processed in the mind. So the four characters are a psychiatrist and his three patients. The set is a waiting room. All four are reacting to a picture that has affected them.

What does the title mean?

Michael came up with the title. The central image for the show is a camera lens, a lens that can be replaced by an eye. Reflector is an active state – reflecting images that we see in the mind.