Dance Preview: Catching up with Matjash Mrozewski – the choreographer/director has two premieres

Introduction to Matjash Mrozewski

The next two weeks feature two Mrozewski premieres. Future Perfect Continuous, created with Anna Chatterton, (ProArteDanza, Nov. 1-4), and Abiding, a solo for Evelyn Hart (Older & Reckless, Nov. 10 & 11).

Mrozewski graduated from the National Ballet School in 1993. During his career as a dancer, he performed with the National Ballet of Canada, Le Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Early on he had shown a penchant for choreography, and his promise was revealed in the widely acclaimed A Delicate Battle created for the National Ballet of Canada in 2001. That year he stopped dancing, and given his enormous gifts as a dancesmith, it was expected that he would launch a successful international career. The proof lies in his creations for over 13 ballet companies that span the globe. He also choreographed for films, flash mobs, galas, classical music concerts and musicals. The road ahead seemed very clear – a lauded career as an international choreographer.

While the dance pathway is still very much in his life, Mrozewski has also added a new skill set. In 2016, he graduated from the two-year York University/Canadian Stage MFA program, whose focus is large-scale theatre direction. Subsequently, he has directed Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors in High Park, and Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire, which won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Production, and netted Mrozewski an Outstanding Direction nomination, which joins his two Dora nominations for Outstanding Choreography.

Mrozewski’s world premieres for ProArteDanza and Older & Reckless, which debut over the next two weeks, reflect both his choreographic and theatrical hats. (Note: in the next few months, he also has new dance and/or theatre pieces for Ryerson University, George Brown Theatre School, the George Randolph Academy, and a Secret Shakespeare performance.)

The Interview (where upon Mrozewski, now 41, talks about his MFA and his two new pieces).

Let’s begin with your going back to school. That was a big bite of two years out of your life.

I had been a dance professional for 20 years, but at that point, I felt I needed to take stock of where I was in my career. I needed different challenges. I had a hunger to learn something new – to step away from the obvious track. A lot of needs were colliding together, and the MFA program seemed to provide a solution.

Why stage direction?

I had always had an instinct for text, and I felt that this MFA course would put me in touch with the tools I needed to work with language and dramaturgy – to develop my theatrical side. It would also open doors to the worlds of theatre and opera. My main motive was a desire to become an opera director – it still remains a strong interest.

How different was it to work with actors?

I love working with actors, because I really enjoy analyzing text. With dancers, you guide them from the outside. With actors, you give them clues to manifest ideas internally. Words are concrete and can get to the heart of things, while movement deals with abstract states. When I started the MFA program, my eye was strong but my ear was weak. The greatest lesson I learned was how to lift the text off the page – to develop a point of view about what the playwright is trying to say. I was clear in my mind on the “why” of the text, but I had to learn to articulate these thoughts in words.

Your ProArte piece, Future Perfect Continuous, is certainly text driven, which is a departure for the company.

Artistic director Roberto Campanello wanted to push his dancers in new directions, and he thought they were ready for that kind of stretch – the marriage of text and movement. In truth, the performing arts are all playing in the same zone. The walls are blurring between the disciplines, and I had been moving in this direction. A recent work I did for the National Ballet School included a long spoken monologue, while a new piece for Ballet Kelowna used the dancers’ voices.

How did you come to work with playwright/librettist Anna Chatterton on Future? She’s a really creative force in both the theatre and opera worlds.

A mutual friend suggested her, and I saw her work Quiver at Buddies. She’s certainly very versatile. We met for dumplings and really got along. In our first workshop, it was inspiring to watch Anna toss around language and text.

What is your point of departure for the piece?

Anna and I started with a discussion about the future – what in our lives were we most concerned about? For both of us, the question was, how do hope and optimism cope with denial and ignorance? We discovered that the place of hope was high in both our lives. It was important, however, that we not make the work a lecture. The dancers are not on a soapbox. We wanted to leave room for the audience to reflect on the subject, to relate to the dancers in their feelings of frustration and inadequacy, to think about the concerns we raise. Things are not tied up neatly.

 

Just how much text do the eight dancers have to deal with?

 

It’s 35 minutes long, and contains about 25 minutes of spoken word, which includes monologues and conversations. The dancers are really meeting the challenge of moving and talking. The audience is going to need their ears opened as much as their eyes to catch what they’re listening to.

What’s the choreography like?

It’s not classical dance, but there is still formality in the structure. It’s very physical – ritual-like gesture, floor work, contact partnering. It’s fluid, responsive and quite earthy.

What about Anna’s text?

The dancers are seen working out their frustrations about the future in both rage and hope. As the size of the problems facing them grows, the text descends into doubt and vagueness and incomplete sentences. It’s very human. It’s about life. There is also humour, which is one of Anna’s trademarks.

Did you fit in music with the text?

The underscore is an orchestral version of songs by the alternative British rock supergroup Minor Victories.

Let’s talk about your Older & Reckless piece for the great ballerina Evelyn Hart, although in terms of dance, she’s a senior citizen.

Claudia Moore, O & R’s artistic director, wanted Evelyn on the program, and she thought of me as choreographer. Like Evelyn, I’ve had the experience of ups and downs. The solo is a character study of a woman of a certain age, which utilizes Evelyn’s remarkable skill as a dramatic actress. I’ve set it to a luminous Handel aria.

Is Evelyn still a perfectionist? She used to demand a lot from her choreographers and dance partners.

We spent ten hours in a rehearsal room, meeting once a week. Dancers are trained to make choreography work, but with Evelyn, if something didn’t fit right, we fixed it. She’s very organic, quiet, delicate and powerful. Abiding is about her in this moment. Because it’s a piece for Older & Reckless, time has a bearing.

ProArteDanza, Fleck Dance Theatre (Nov. 1-4); Older & Reckless #40, Harbourfront Centre Theatre (Nov. 10 and 11); both shows are part of Harbourfront’s Next Steps Season (www.harbourfrontcentre.com/nextsteps).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Addition to the Website – Interviews

I’ve now introduced interviews into the mix on my website. The first interviewee is Harbourfront’s Tina Rasmussen, artistic director of World Stage. Please click on Interviews. Tina was most gracious in talking about this all important international theatre and dance series.

I feel the interviews give the right tone of gravitas to the website. They are also wonderful backgrounders to Canada’s performing arts.

Enjoy!

Review of Everything Under the Moon (Harbourfront Centre World Stage)

Just in time for Family Day, World Stage kicked off with, Everything Under the Moon, a collaboration between Toronto visual artist Shary Boyle and Winnipeg composer Christine Fellows.

You know a show has hit the mark with children when they are absolutely quiet, and both the younger and older members of the sold-out audience sat in rapt attention. On the other hand, the little girl behind me asked her father: “What are they flying off to find?” In other words, Everything Under the Moon has a lot to recommend it, but there are also problems in clarity.

Told through song and shadow puppets, the story is about Idared, a honeybee, and Limbertwig, a little brown bat, and their joint quest for a way to save their species. (The story is ripped right out of environmental headlines. Apparently both honeybees and brown bats have been disappearing since 2006.) Unfortunately, because the ideas are expressed in song, the message of the plot is muddy. I didn’t have problems following the stages of the quest, but I did have trouble as to the why of it. There has to be an introduction of some sort to state the case, as it were.

Fellows’ music is charming and gentle, with beautiful harmony. The composer (keyboard, ukulele) did most of the singing, supported by Alex McMaster (cello, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, keyboards) and Ed Reifel (percussion, vocals). Fellows does not have the best voice in the world, but it is pleasant and heartfelt nonetheless.

Boyle’s images are a delight, whimsical and humorous by turn. They employ all manner of shadow puppetry –stick, projected images and human body etc. – against a riot of colour. This variety lets the imagination fly, and the characters that the honeybee and bat meet on their quest, including a chain-smoking Inuit trapper, a woolly mammoth, and an ancient Inca sacrificial child, are never clones. Each has its own look. However, the performers (including Boyle’s two assistants, Emma Letki and Amy Siegel) were decked out in some kind of indeterminate creature costume by Heather Goodchild that had no definition.

Alas, there was no director, and the performance could have used an outside eye to help with comings and goings. Fellows, for example, would disappear behind a monitor from time to time. We heard her voice, but didn’t see her, which made no sense at all.

There is certainly a show in Everything Under the Moon. It just needs refinement. It is clear, however, that the children were entranced by the visual images, and lulled by the pretty music.

Everything Under the Moon, created and performed by Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows, Harbourfront Centre World Stage, Enwave Theatre, Feb. 18 to 23, 2012.

An Interview with Tina Rasmussen

Tina Rasmussen is director of performing arts, and artistic director of World Stage at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. In the latter case, she walks a fine line programming Canadian and international artists for one of Toronto’s premiere series.

Calgary-born, Rasmussen graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton with a degree in theatre, winning the prestigious Faculty of Fine Arts Gold Medal. She worked at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre and Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company before coming to Harbourfront. Independent of Harbourfront, she runs Culture Shark, a small artist development and special projects atelier. Rasmussen is a frequent member of international arts juries and panels.

With the opening of World Stage on Saturday, Feb. 18, paulacitron.ca sat down with Rasmussen for a wide-ranging discussion including the raison d’être behind her WS programming.

Your first job put you right into the big league.

That’s right. I joined Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre both as an actor and a general management intern. Iconic director Robin Phillips was head of the company and it was exciting times.

How did you get to Toronto?

At the Citadel, I met Albert Schultz. Albert needed an assistant to help out with his various projects so I drove across Canada in 1994. When I arrived in Toronto, I didn’t know anyone. I helped Albert and the other 11 charter members to start Soulpepper. I always said that there were really 14 founders of Soulpepper, with me and producer Diane Quinn being the extra two. We were in the background, but we did a lot of work. It was a tumultuous experience.

But you left Soulpepper a few years later.

Albert was a one-man show. It was Diane who encouraged me to get out from behind his shadow. I joined Harbourfront in 1999, and I haven’t looked back. At first I was on a six month contract, but I became full time in order to assist Don Shipley, then manager of performing arts. That included working on World Stage 2000. I also helped Bill Boyle, Harbourfront CEO, to produce World Leaders: A Festival of Creative Genius in 2001 which honoured 14 cultural icons such as Harold Pinter, Pina Bausch and Bernardo Bertolucci. You could say I was at the right place at the right time.

There was a lot of disappointed when Harbourfront dropped the international dance series.

Dance was one of our signature series, but it was a matter of money. The performing arts are very expensive, particularly when tickets are subsidized to keep down the cost. We ultimately decided to merge dance into World Stage. Harbourfront is an entrepreneurial enterprise. It was a way of tightening our belts. Remember, in 2005, we lost the du Maurier money when tobacco advertising was banned.

The World Stage that exists now went through various phases.

Yes. When the crisis of 2005 happened, we did a SWOT analysis – that means an in-depth look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats –  to determine the future of World Stage. In the meantime, we mounted a bridge festival in 2005 called Flying Solo featuring one-person shows. That was the last of the original format World Stage that was strictly theatre and tightly programmed. The new World Stage that emerged in 2007, modelled after BAM’s Next Wave festival, was a multidisciplinary season that ran from September to May. Now it runs from February to May. In experimenting with the model, it was decided that the shorter season was better in terms of marketing. It’s now an international performing arts series, much like Festival d’Automne in Paris, or London’s Barbican Bites.

You were appointed director of performing arts 8 years ago. What special qualities do you bring to the job?

I have an incredible love of artists. For me the performing arts are all about the artists and their work. I understand their struggles. I also realize that Harbourfront is a big institution with a brand, so I see myself as bringing the two together – Harbourfront and the artists.

But love of the arts is not enough to hold a prestigious performing arts position.

That true. You need other assets. First, I’m not resistant to change. Secondly, I am culturally curious. I’m always on the look out for the new and the different. I travel to see a lot of shows, and I also search the internet. In a way, I don’t have a life outside the job. I’m known for sending my staff emails at 4 in the morning.

What is your mantra in terms of programming?

I don’t believe in themes. I compare programming to building with fragrances, and World Stage is an amalgam of perfumes. I’m interested in work that starts a conversation, that’s stimulating for both audiences and artists, with a judicious balance between theatre and dance. I also have to work around our specific facilities. I choose local and Canadian companies that are ready to be programmed within an international cultural context. Commissioning original work is also important. Programming is not just taking pieces at will. I’d say our choices are thoughtful and considered, but not mainstream. We exercise out muscles here. We take chances.

I understand that World Stage is more than just performance.

That’s right. Because we are a permanent site, we can have a long-term relationship with artists. That’s one of Harbourfront’s strengths. There is a lot going on behind the scenes in terms of nurturing and mentoring. Besides working on development of local talent, we invite presenters to Harbourfront so that Canadian artists can create an international profile through touring. We can change their lives.

How would you describe World Stage as a totality?

Inviting. Cheeky. Personal. Evangelical. And conceived with love.

(What follows is Rasmussen’s rationale for choosing the eight shows that make up this year’s World Stage. As she says: “There is so much choice, that it’s exciting to create the program.”)

Everything Under the Moon, Canada (Feb. 18 to 23)

This was designed to be a family show and is a wonderfully imaginative cross-discipline collaboration between visual artist Shary Boyle and composer Christine Fellows. We’ve had an eye on these artists and their magical works for a while. This was a Fresh Ground new works commission.

Entity – Wayne McGregor|Random Dance, England (Feb. 28 to Mar. 3)

McGregor is one of the hottest choreographers in the world right now. The National Ballet had a huge hit when they first presented Chroma, and the fact that they are remounting the piece this season is a real help to us. We’re catering to the sophisticated dance audience with McGregor’s full-length Entity.

The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carré, United States (Mar. 28 to 31)

Toronto and New York have a strong connection. Wooster Group is a company that deliberately put aside the well-made/proscenium arch play to become one of the most influential and experimental theatre companies in the U.S. Director Elizabeth LeCompte has taken a very radical approach to Williams.

Ajax & Little Iliad, Canada (Apr. 4 to 8)

This is a world premiere performed by local artists. Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell have taken on the epic Greek format of Sophocles to create a political arena where art meets war. It’s also a dialogue about citizenship, and everything that the word means.

Paris 1994/Gallery – The Dietrich Group, Canada (Apr. 25 to 28)

Toronto choreographer D.A. Hoskins is ready for the next plateau.  His works are all about risk and vulnerability. His visual arts components are as good as anything out there. He should be better known. We’re helping him rework his website and do follow-ups with presenters.

Agwa/Correria – Compagnie Käfig, France/Brazil, (May 2 to 5)

Algerian/French choreographer Mourad Merzouki has elevated hip-hop to high art. He does evangelical work which is right up my alley. For this piece, he went to the shantytown favelas of Rio and found 11 dancers. The program represents a perfect fusion of ethno-cultural diversity and contemporary expressions.

The Shipment – Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company, United States (May 9 to 12)

Lee is a rising star of American theatre – a young woman who riffs on the Afro-American experience by talking about uncomfortable things. What she has to say about race borders on scandalous, but she is very brave, protected by the safety of theatre.

Dance Marathon – bluemouth inc., Canada (May 18-19)

We commissioned this piece for the 2008-9 season through Fresh Ground new works, and it has gone around the world, which is a great payoff for us. We’re bringing it back as a fun way to end the season. It’s participatory theatre as the audience becomes the contestants in a dance marathon. It’s a high for both the dancers and the viewers.