Dance Review: Toronto Dance Theatre/Christopher House’s Persefony Songs

Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Christopher House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, is one of Canada’s more cerebral and intellectual choreographers. Throughout his career, he has made it a point to keep challenging himself. For the last three years he has been engaged in the Reimagining Repertoire Project where he goes back to an original piece, and builds a new work based on elements in the old.

The last of House’s reimagined repertoire is Persefony Songs, inspired by Persephone’s Lunch (2001). The wellspring of the original was the structure and stories of The Odyssey. The choreography of this new piece would appear to be based on classical imagery. The piece is dominated by still poses taken from Greek statuary, vases and friezes. The main movement elements also have classical references, particularly a long sequence devoted to scenes of combat. Also referencing classical imagery is a festive ritual-like dance, filled with lyrical swinging steps, joyous jump turns, and touching of palms. I’m not keen about the beginning, however, with the dancers leaping on and off the stage to perform their initial simple poses. It is too much movement that is quite distracting.

All in all, if memory serves me right, Persefony Songs seems to be a less complex work than its predecessor. Nonetheless, this new piece has its own fascinating structure, particularly how House builds from simple, single poses, to duos and triples, with images from the latter feeding into highly physical movement. The shifting classical imagery is not only lovely to watch, but compelling in its scope. At one point, all twelve dancers repeat their poses at different points on the stage, at different times, in a whirlwind of stillness and motion. Persefony Songs is like a history of ancient Greek art writ large.

Anchoring the piece are images from Persephone’s Lunch, and it is a clever touch that works, mixing the old with the new. The hanging pallets, or slatted wooden crates, give a rustic feel to the piece. One senses the olive trees and vineyards of rural Greece. The dancers on sheepskin seating mats, surrounding the pomegranate-laden dining table is redolent of paintings of The Last Supper, touching on Renaissance art, but with a Greek motif. (Design by Steve Lucas and Simon Rossiter after James Robertson). The costumes are casual shirts, shorts and pants in shades of beige and tan, that are changed into richly-coloured, blood-red apparel midway through, which gives a burst of energy to the stage picture, as well as picking up on the theme of the pomegranate as a harbinger of spring and regrowth. (Design by Jennifer Dallas after Anna Michener.)

Photo by Ömer Yükseker

The absolutely brand-new element in the work is the incredible original score by Bernice, which is not a woman but a six-member indie band who usually make their own “cracked version of pop music”, according to the program notes. As music-makers, Bernice may be eccentric, but they were on the coveted Polaris Prize long list in 2018, so we’re not talking chopped liver here.

The band has come up with a score built around medieval and Renaissance music, underlayered by electronica drone and vibrant percussion. It sounds strange, and is strange, but it is absolutely astonishing to hear the three singers negotiate through counterpoint and other early music conventions, yet sounding so modern at the same time. The singers even help the dancers change into the red costumes, singing all the while.

In Persefony Songs, you have a music score that touches on the new and the old, and choreography that does the same, as the classical imagery is rendered into the now by the energy of modern dance, executed by an array of talented dancers. All in all, an intriguing combination.

Toronto Dance Theatre, Persefony Songs, choreographed by Christopher House, Fleck Dance Theatre, Mar. 5 to 9, 2019.