The best way to describe choreographer Heidi Strauss’ latest work, what it’s like, is a stream of consciousness about brotherhood. The totality of the piece is brotherhood looked at from very personal relationships to the larger metaphor of a world in chaos. Three charismatic male dancers – Michael Caldwell, Luke Garwood and Naishi Wang (who are listed as co-creators) – move on a random journey with the audience literally following them through their travels. They laugh, challenge, one-up, pretend fight, play games – men will be boys, so to speak – but they also morph into very serious and dangerous situations. Risk is a big factor in brotherhood, it would seem.
The images that are evoked through the organic movement physicality swing from stark reality to allegory. For example, we first see them lying on the floor, heads almost touching in a most intimate way, having a lark trying to win at word games. Later in the performance, they use volunteers from the audience to manipulate their bodies as if they were puppets. These ungainly physical patterns, that began with laughter, then become the diktat when the men move on their own. They are lemmings heading over the cliff at someone else’s command. There is no linear plot. Rather, the audience is swept away on a tide of imagination, and the joy of the piece is being constantly surprised by what comes next in the parade of fanciful vignettes. Over time the men develop key personality traits which seem to carry on throughout in various guises, which makes for interesting personality dynamics. Garwood is the heavy, Caldwell is the provocateur, and Wang is the endearing goofuss.
what it’s like was developed through a residency at the Theatre Centre, and the work certainly shows the loving care that can arise out of a gradual process of development and exploration. Strauss and her design collaborators have divided up the stage and backstage area into different spaces, almost like corners of the mind. Curtains go up, and curtains come down, in the most unexpected ways. The last setting created with criss-crossing laser lights is absolutely both magical and scary. The use of space is outstanding.
Strauss has worked with a gilt-edged design team –Julie Fox (scenic designer), Jeremy Mimnagh (sound and projection), Simon Rossiter (lighting), Alana Elmer (costumes) – with esteemed vocal coach Fides Krucker thrown in for good measure. The production/theatrical values are top of the line. As for her performers, they are at once charming and infuriating.
The best way to enjoy the work is to let oneself be carried away on the flood. One should leave their reason and logic at the door along with their bags and shoes (the audience is naked, as it were). what it’s like is meant to be experienced, and when the audience emerges at the end, and confronts their possessions individually wrapped in plastic, like evidence bags, and piled in the centre of the room, it is both chaotic and familiar – like the world we live in. The time for analysis is later.
Perhaps the most interesting feature is that a female choreographer has taken on exploring a male perspective. Strauss says in her program notes that the piece arose out of her desire to try to make sense of the world. “So what is it about brotherhood?” she asks. Judging from what it’s like, she discovered that brotherhood is both warmth and war.
So Heidi, when are we going to get sisterhood?
what it’s like, choreographed by Heidi Strauss, continues at The Theatre Centre until Oct. 2.