DA Hoskins usually creates busy pieces inspired by sophisticated intellectual inquiry. Elaborate is a good word to describe his epics that employ text, sets, and visual media, all rooted in a deep emotional base that pervades his choreography. Jackie Burroughs is Dead & what are you going to do about it? has Hoskins going back to the basics. Three dancers, an empty stage, and a live musicmaker are the sum total of the forces employed to express this work.
The piece was commissioned by Danielle Baskerville, who was also one of the performers. As I have said countless times in my dance reviews, Baskerville is one of the best dance artists in the country, stunning in both skill and presence. In this work she was joined by Luke Garwood and Robert Kingsbury, two senior dancers of excellence. Hoskins needed three strong performers for this piece because it is naked and unadorned. No bells, no whistles – just dance.
Hoskins explains in his program notes that the commission came at a very fragile time in his life. His mother was diagnosed with the breast cancer that would ultimately kill her, while acclaimed actress Jackie Burroughs, an icon of Canada’s cultural community whom Hoskins admired greatly, died at too early an age. It appears that the very thought of mortality drove Hoskins back to exploring pure physicality. After all, movement is primal and dance expression comes out of the very fibre of our beings. Weighed down by the theme, he needed the simplicity of pure dance.
When the audience entered, they found the three dancers on stage in their “good clothes”, the men in suits and ties, and Baskerville in a dress and high heels. The trio drifted quietly around, engaging members of the audience and each other in polite conversation. In the Q&A that followed the performance, Hoskins revealed that he envisioned the dancers as mourners greeting their visitors. The trio did leave the stage to change into casual clothes to perform the work, and in doing so, they signalled the move from a public world to a private one.
What followed was a dance of quiet reflection. As Hoskins noted in the program, his recent painful experiences dictated that he stay as far away from emotionalism as possible. Apparently, to engage in an outpouring of feeling would be too raw. To call the dance passionless is a bit unfair, but in truth, the dancers deliberately kept their faces devoid of expression. Instead, Hoskins allowed the purity of the physicality to speak of the inner turmoil that was buried beneath.
For example, there were many repetitions within the work, but each time they appeared, the movement was executed with a different tempo or rhythm, and it was these subtle shifts that spoke volumes through their nuance. It wasn’t just a body moving through space, but a body that hinted that the seeming calm and control were superficial. For me, the overall mood of introspection that Hoskins imposed, was in truth, a quest for tranquillity.
The movement was built around constrained torso and arms, distorted positioning and slow tortuous turns. There seemed to be a physical battle between control and balance. This perpetual motion, so to speak, was punctuated by walking and sitting, observing and interacting, sometimes in sync, other times in independent pathways. The three, in their shifting patterns, imbued a restless energy to the dance, although the movement itself was always measured and never forced. Occasionally there would be a break-out, such as throwing the body into a horizontal roll across the floor, but it was tame rather than violent. Although there was intra-gender partnering, in truth, there were ever just three solitudes on the stage, exchanging energy, but always on an interior plane.
Musician Christopher Willes sat off to the side with his various electrified apparatus. One astonishing instrument seemed to be a tin can wired for sound into which Willes put what looked like wooden sticks, with each stick igniting a pinging sound when it entered the can. The abstract noises – drones and buzzes and the like – were as controlled as the dance. Nothing jarred. Together, the soundscape and the movement created a rarefied atmosphere suitable for reflection.
I am not sure, however, that Hoskins’ decision to seat the audience on three sides of the stage, presumably to make the dance seem more intimate, was a good idea. For me, the focus of the dance was splintered. In fact, I felt alienated at times when a dancer was distant from me. The three would have had a stronger impact if there had been a single point of view with the audience grouped together.
Nonetheless, in this work, Hoskins created absorbing physicality that managed to depict both overt introspection, as well as undercurrents of suppressed emotion. This piece ran deep.
Jackie Burroughs is Dead & what are you going to do about it? choreographed by DA Hoskins, presented by DanceWorks, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Apr. 7 to 9, 2016.