Concert Preview: Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Introduction to Unsound Toronto Does Halloween

Two extraordinary concerts are taking place at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Fri. Oct. 27 and Fri. Nov. 3, which marks the third incarnation of Unsound Toronto, the brainchild of Unsound Festival artistic director Mat Schulz and executive director Malgorzata (Gosia) Plysa, based in Krakow, Poland.

Those first two ground-breaking manifestations took place at the derelict Hearn Generating Station in 2015 and 2016 as part of the Luminato Festival. They created a sensation with their unique sound and light show that included experimental music and innovative visuals. The 2017 edition continues with the same sort of brilliant programming.

Halloween High (Oct. 27) features live music with dance and film. The program opens with a screening of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi thriller and cult film, Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, based on Michel Faber’s unsettling futuristic 2000 novel. Academy Award-nominated composer Mica Levi’s original soundtrack is played live by the Unsound Toronto Ensemble led by rising star Canadian conductor Evan Mitchell. The second part features revered American electronica musician Jlin playing her original score for Autobiography Edits, a new dance piece by acclaimed British choreographer Wayne McGregor, associate artist at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The movement is inspired by McGregor’s DNA and the sequencing of his own genome.

Halloween Hangover (Nov. 3) is all about international, cutting edge new music and mind-blowing visual technology. Poland’s legendary Ksiezyc (which means “Moon”) kick-starts the evening. The five-member experimental group performs a mysterious and haunting combination of ancient Slavic music, minimalism and psychedelia soundscapes using a bizarre mix of instruments and vocals. American Emmy Award-winning composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (from the Austin, Texas-based band SURVIVE) perform their eerie, original, synthesized music written for the hit Netflix TV series, Stranger Things. This sequence includes a specially commissioned lighting installation /stage design/video projection environment created by acclaimed German visual artists MFO (a.k.a. Marcel Weber) and Theresa Baumgartner. Influential German minimalist techno artist, Wolfgang Voigt, closes the concert with GAS, his unique ambient symphonic score inspired by the dark forests of his homeland.

The Interview

Unsound executive director Gosia Plysa was reached in Krakow, Poland via Skype.

What’s the background of the Unsound Festival?

It began as a small annual new music festival in Krakow founded by Australian writer Mat Schulz and a friend in 2003. The emphasis was on electronic music, a keen interest of Mat’s, which was virtually unknown in Poland. It sort of had a DIY ethos. I came on board as a volunteer in 2006. At that time everyone was a volunteer. In 2008 we got extra funding which meant we could grow the festival to include smaller touring versions we call Dislocations. We also were able to establish cultural exchanges, co-presentations, and satellite festivals all over the world. Our big international breakthrough was the incredible success of Unsound New York in 2010. Besides the yearly flagship festival in Krakow, this year Unsound is taking place in Toronto, Adelaide and London.

Where did the name “Unsound” come from? I think it’s really clever given what the festival entails.

I’m not sure. I think it was suggested by Mat’s brother in Australia.

How did Unsound move beyond being just an avant-garde, electronica music festival?

The heart of Unsound has always been artistic risk-taking and experimentation, so it was a natural outgrowth to connect new music with other art forms. We began by setting up collaborative projects, even putting people together from diverse geo-political backgrounds. We see Unsound as facilitating creative collaboration. We love pushing artists into new formats, and doing things for the first time. For example, musician Jlin had never composed music for dance before working with choreographer Wayne McGregor.

The piece that McGregor recently premiered at Sadler’s Wells is called Autobiography. What is Autobiography Edits that’s being performed in Toronto?

It’s a condensed touring version of the piece using less dancers, but it still captures the intense essence of the original. Jlin’s driving rhythms underscore the restless movement that represents the continual evolution of the human body.

Unsound is now also known for an eclectic range of new music, as well as state of the art visual technology – in other words, eye and ear grabbing light and sound shows.

That’s true. We are very conscious of the development of contemporary music and what new sounds are coming from the latest technology. Unsound concerts can feature electronica, acoustic instruments, improv jazz, club music.

One of your earlier concerts took place in a Polish salt mine. Your first two events here in Toronto transformed the Hearn Generating Station into a mind-boggling audio/visual palace. Now you’re performing in the traditional seated Bluma Appel Theatre. Does a traditional venue cramp Unsound’s style?

 We certainly love adapting challenging spaces and creating new environments in abandoned post-industrial venues. By the same token, we also like to play with putting unexpected sounds in traditional theatres. Each context has validity, and our aim for both is to attract new and different audiences.

How important is the home crowd to an Unsound concert?

 Very. For each satellite festival, we connect with the local scene, like the musicians making up the Unsound Toronto Ensemble accompanying the film Under the Skin. Everywhere we go, we are building networks.

I know that each Unsound festival you present, whether at home or abroad, is built around a theme. This Unsound Toronto is clearly inspired by Halloween.

 Both line-ups convey Halloween in different ways. They’re both dark or even spooky, but sit together in unexpected combinations. Halloween High includes Under The Skin, a sci-fi/horror film which has an utterly mesmerizing score by Mica Levi. The double bill also features a show by Jlin – one of the most hyped electronic musicians of the year – with dancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Together they perform Autobiography Edits – a work that tonally, I think, will intersect with Under The Skin in an interesting way, but will leave the audience on a high.

Halloween Hangover features synth musicians Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein playing live music from the hit horror TV series Stranger Things, which very clearly fits the Halloween vibe. The second season will even be launched on Netflix for Halloween! Alongside this is an A/V show from legendary German electronic composer GAS who plays ambient music, often with a deeply submerged techno beat, while the visuals take the audience through dark, almost hallucinatory forests. It’s a very intense experience. Also on the line-up is the Polish band Ksiezyc, channelling ancient Slavic music to create a show that is very otherworldly, even mystical. This is a powerful trio of shows that I think will leave audiences with a mix of contrasting and vivid impressions.

Finally, how would you compare the two concerts?

The second evening is darker – more mellow and mystical. The sounds reflect horror and witching.

Unsound Toronto is presented by Unsound, Civic Theatres Toronto, and the Luminato Festival.

(For tickets to Unsound Toronto: Call 1-855-872-7669 or visit http://bit.ly/UnsoundTix.)

Dance Review (Reprint) – Wayne McGregor|Random Dance/Entity

This review of Wayne McGregor’s Entity originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Feb. 8, 2011. The performance took place at the Grand Theatre in Kingston ON before moving on to Ottawa and Montreal.

Entity is back in Canada, appearing at the Fleck Dance Theatre as part of Harbourfront World Stage, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, 2012.

England’s Wayne McGregor, and his company Random Dance, produce works of immense depth, and his fusion of dance and technology have made him one of Europe’s hottest choreographers. McGregor’s intriguing full-length piece Entity (2008) is currently on a three-city Canadian tour, and contemporary dance doesn’t get more sophisticated than this.

Entity is a quintessential example of McGregor’s intellectual and artistic inquiry. On one hand, he’s fascinated by dance as science, or how the mind and body work together to produce movement. On the other, cold experimentation goes hand in hand with images of stunning beauty.

McGregor sets his thesis right from the start with a grainy movie of a running dog, which looks like an experiment from the work of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. The dog is an entity, a body viewed in the abstract, and so are the bodies of the 10 dancers that follow. Through a series of solos, duets and ensembles, they are entities moving through space. The way McGregor works the body, and combinations of bodies, however, is a fascinating process.

But Entity is not just cool science. Abstract though his movement is, little stories seem to be happening to individuals, to couples and to larger groups of dancers. The humanity of the entities cannot be suppressed. The movement is also living sculpture, beautiful in its conception and striking in its visual impact.

McGregor’s signature is a body that seemingly has no rigid interior structure. In the Q&A that followed the performance, words such as double-jointed, boneless and extreme were used in an attempt to describe McGregor’s physical calling card.

The basic McGregor body, with a nod to Bob Fosse, has the shoulders back, the chest and pelvis thrust forward, with the deep concave arch of the spine raising the buttocks to almost impossible heights. The limbs pivot through the sockets at unbelievable angles. Movement travels through the body as fluid waves. No matter how distorted the position, the body is always limber and supple. Nothing jars the lyrical flow.

In terms of partnering, bodies combine in such convoluted ways that often, one can’t discern which limbs belong to which dancer. In trios and larger groupings, the individual actions of the dancers become almost impenetrable. The quicksilver physical changes are a kaleidoscope that moves too quickly to allow the eye to rest on one detail for any length of time.

Hand in hand with the movement are the visuals. The digital video of Ravi Deepres is projected on a curved mesh screen designed by Patrick Burnier. Burnier’s costumes begin as unisex white T-shirts and black briefs. In the latter stages of the dance, the men are bare-chested while the women wear black halters. This increased exposure of flesh becomes the landscape for Lucy Carter’s arresting lighting.

The mostly black and white videos are fleeting abstracts of algebra equations, bar codes, DNA spirals and microscopic cells. Numbers hurl by at dizzying speed. Mathematical calculations and laboratory specimens are superimposed upon one another to blur the focus. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of body parts. The tools of hard science have been rendered into video art that is beautiful in and of itself.

The original music by Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins is very dramatic, more cinematic soundscape than dance accompaniment. Whether edgy electronica, melancholy strings, lyrical pastorals, or nerve-wracking scratchings, the score is always atmospheric and evocative.

In the finale of the dance, the image of the running dog returns, but this time we look at the entity differently because of McGregor’s choreography. We can isolate the rippling muscles, see the gorgeous symmetry of the legs in motion, and be aware of the effortless beauty of a body pushed to the extreme.

(Wayne McGregor|Random Dance appears at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Feb. 28 to Mar. 3, as part of Harbourfront World Stage.)