Dance Review – Four at the Winch Quebec (Toronto Dance Theatre)

Christopher House is a smart man. He knows that a choreographer/artistic director needs to stimulate his company with other dancesmiths, so he created Four at the Winch. The series features the TDT dancers performing original works by choreographers that House admires.

This year’s Four at the Winch is a little different because it showcases four Quebec choreographers, and I must say it was most interesting seeing the Montreal aesthetic embedded in TDT/Toronto bodies.

Montreal tends to be less technique/dancey and leans more towards post post modern and/or dance theatre, as influenced by contemporary dance in Europe. Nonetheless, the choreographers House chose for 4@TW, are also all rugged individualists within the Montreal aesthetic. This is how I described them in my “Looking Forward” article in the Globe and Mail.

“Estelle Clareton represents edgy dance theatre with a touch of circus. Lina Cruz is whimsical, experimental and eccentric all at the same time. Deborah Dunn is intellectual and sophisticated, while the risk-taking Jean-Sébastien Lourdais pushes the body to the outer limits.” Suffice it to say, the four were as advertised and collectively made for a very appealing show.

Lina Cruz’s Pop Out Your Apples and Enjoy the View

Cruz is an original. She has a mind of immense imagination, and what she asks of an audience is to put aside your linear hat (aka meaning and intelligence), and just follow along with her off-the-wall musings.

The seven dancers wear Capri black pants, jackets and sunglasses. The jackets are open to reveal brassieres. In fact, until the apples pop out, they are hints of red in the brassieres that we think are part of the costume design. Thus, right from the start, we’re dealing with gender bending and androgyny. The sound score by Cruz’s long time collaborator Philippe Noireaut is suitably cacophonous.

House describes Cruz’s piece in his program notes as an unstable world, inhabited by creatures that exist between human and animal states. I’m not sure that one would pick this up without the note. What one does see are individuals happily, or otherwise, ensconced within the herd instinct.

Cruz’s choreography consists of long stretching movement interpolated by poses. The dancers, in Cruz’s signature loose and lanky style, emulate both humans and animals. One popular body position has the dancers holding their arms above the heads, hands like claws, shoulders hunched and knees bent like a bear. The movement also goes in waves, with one person or couple or ensemble beginning the steps with others following at intervals.

Although couples happen, there is no sexual chemistry between them. They are a group of individuals, all of them caught up in the same fog of existence. There is also an absence of angst. They are automatons, moving without perceived intention.

Cruz’s choreographic statement is always as attractive as it is puzzling.

Estelle Clareton’s Etude sur l’amour//printemps

This piece is part of a series based on love and the influence of the seasons. Spring (printemps) for Clareton is a highly physical exercise of hormones ranging. The piece also contains dancer Peter Hessell garbed in a suit and tie, floating between the dancers as an enigmatic observer. He presents a sexy and satiric image, both at the same time.

In terms of satire, he makes fun of the word “amour” by repeating it with various inflections and meanings. The sex part come by way of his movement. Clareton has him on cruise control, with a little know-it-all smirk on his face. Hands in his trouser pockets, he strolls confidently through the crowd with a been there/done that attitude. Eric Forget’s sound score contains twittering birds which adds to the ironic tone of cliché romance. The electronica music is an appropriate driving pulse.

As for the other eight dancers, dressed in a mix of casual clothes, from underwear to jogging gear, all with hints of red, and all wearing socks, they are in a dither. Coupling, entwining, splitting apart, swapping partners, changing genders, throwing their bodies around, experimenting with positions, twisting bodies like contortionists, playing with degrees of tenderness and combat, pausing for reflection. Sometimes Hessel deigns to interact with them, but he really does represent the outer face of calm, disguising the agony and the ecstasy beneath his suit.

There is a lot going on in this piece, including a lot of surprising physicality in terms of distortion. Clareton has the Greek chorus octet randomly execute their various maneuvres, and because there is no fixed rhythm, it makes their movement all the more chaotic, while Hessell appears all the more as Mr. Smooth.

Deborah Dunn’s Men Come, men go

Dunn was inspired by the death of her father and brother, and her life as an army brat. Her provocative dance theatre work is filled with images of rigid discipline, death, comradeship, and the women who wait, enacted by the three male dancers and two female dancers. One of the women is also dressed in combat fatigues.

Men Come, men go is definitely a meditation on death, as well as the pressures that conformity, patriotism and nationalism place on an individual. There is certainly an antiwar message implicit in the work. The soundtrack consists of voice-over excerpts from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and a live recounting of the presidents of the United States in consecutive order by Kaitlin Standeven. The ominous music is also from the film. We first hear actor Martin Sheen telling us that he didn’t know he was being sent to the “worst place on earth to find Kurtz”. Dunn is clearly wanting to expose the heart of darkness.

Dunn’s physicality is very precise and cleanly executed. The dancers move crisply between images. There is almost a kaleidoscope feel to the piece and they form and reform. There is also a strong hint of the martial arts. The characters they portray also seem to change with the flow of movement.

As a choreographer, Dunn always has a substantive intellectual base for her work. The army here is only a metaphor for the larger picture. The death and destruction rampant in the world today from a myriad of causes is at the true centre of the work, which makes Men Come, men go all the more intriguing as to meaning.

Jean-Sébastien Lourdais’ Etrange

The most anticipated work from my point of view was Lourdais’s Etrange. The choreographer is known for pushing the boundaries of physicality, and Etrange certainly lives up to Lourdais’ reputation. The trio is a mesmerizing experiment of what the body can be made to do. I found Etrange the most impressive on the program.

The piece opens on a body in dim light. In fact, I thought it was two bodies at first. Dancer Naishi Wang was lying in such a distorted position that I couldn’t tell where the limbs began and the torso ended. It wasn’t until he unfolded himself that one human body was seen with clarity, and that was a big surprise.

Lourdais is not afraid to use ugly, human sound, and Wang gives off all manner of grunts and groans as he begins to define himself. Using unbelievable muscle control and muscle isolation, pulses seem to ripple through his body with slow and deliberate speed. In other words, the total body is in play with barely moving a step. When he is joined by Mairi Greig and Yuichiro Inoue, we have a trio of people who can blow themselves up (physically speaking) at will. Strange and stranger shapes inhabit the stage, and Lourdais is the choreographic magician that makes this physical legerdemain happen.  Ludovic Gayer has provided a suitable soundtrack that mirrors the pulsing body.

This is a piece that transfixes the eye, watching the changes in the body that happen from the inside out.

Four at the Winch
Toronto Dance Theatre
Winchester Street Theatre
Feb. 23 to Mar. 3, 2012

Credits:  Choreography by Estelle Clareton, Lina Cruz, Deborah Dunn and Jean-Sébastien Lourdais, (performed by Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Syreeta Hector, Peter Hessel, Yuichiro Inoue, Ryan Lee, Pulga Muchochroma, Jillian Peever, Kaitlin Standeven, Brodie Stevenson, Naishi Wang and Sarah Wasik)