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.






Fall for Dance North Festival, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 – Backgrounder

ffdn5Toronto used to be awash in national and international dance, but over time, financial problems led to the demise of key dance series. That is why Fall for Dance North is one of the best things to happen to the local dance scene in years.

FFDN is modelled after Fall for Dance, the storied series launched in 2004 by New York City Centre, the legendary home of performing arts in the Big Apple. With the idea of developing dance audiences, the premise is simple. Create programs with top-notch diverse dance companies, and charge only $10 a ticket, whether the front row of the orchestra or the last row of the balcony. Although the ticket price in New York is now $15, the format remains the same. Currently, the festival mounts five different programs over 10 nights. It is always an instant sell-out.

ffdn6Fast forward to Toronto, 2015, and Fall for Dance North. The visionary behind FFDN is 35-year-old, Turkish-born Ilter Ibrahimof who began his career in New York as an artists manager/agent before becoming a producer/presenter. In fact, for the last two years, he has been a curator – meaning helping to choose companies – for City Centre Fall for Dance. When Ibrahimof started his own management/presenting company in 2004, he relocated to Montreal (spurred on by a bad romantic break-up). By sheer coincidence, as of a couple of months ago, he now lives in Toronto because his life partner was accepted into law school here.

So what is the genesis of the northern version of Fall for Dance? Ibrahimof says it was sheer impulse. “I felt that Toronto was ripe for this kind of festival mode,” he relates. That impulse also coincided with a 2013 meeting with Mark Hammond and Madeleine Skoggard of the Sony Centre’s programming department. The encounter took place at a booking conference in New York; the Sony duo were looking for talent, and Ibrahimof was there as an agent selling talent. Ibrahimof’s idea of a Toronto version of Fall for Dance fell on willing ears, with Skoggard making it a pet project. Ibrahimof then came to Toronto to check out the Sony Centre, liked what he saw, and knew he had a venue. Fall for Dance North was incorporated as a not-for-profit company.

ffdn8What is quite astonishing is how Ibrahimof and Skoggard got FFDN ready in just two years, particularly since Ibrahimof virtually knew no one in the city. “I had to start by getting the dance community onside,” he explains. “You can’t drop a dance festival in the middle of a city and ruffle feathers. You need their support.” That meant starting at the top and approaching the National Ballet first. With Karen Kain giving the National’s seal of approval, Ibrahimof and Skoggard had to then create a board of directors. They also met with the various arts councils and funding bodies to explain what the festival was about, which was followed by the onerous task of writing grant applications. Most of the $650,000 budget has been raised, but to help cover a $50,000 shortfall, Ibrahimof has come up with a great plan – sell 20 of the best seats in the house for $500 each, which includes a tax receipt, backstage tour, and a signed, framed poster.

ffdn7FFDN’s tickets are $10, and there are two programs over three nights. Future festivals will be half Canadian and half international, but this festival debut is slightly more Canadian. The statistics are impressive – eleven companies that run the gamut from contemporary ballet and modern dance, to capoeira, flamenco, tap, South Asian and Aboriginal; two companies making Canadian debuts and one a Toronto debut; two world premiere commissions; and six performances accompanied by live music. The shortest piece is a three-minute solo, while the longest is a 32-minute ensemble for 19 dancers. Ibrahimof chose 90% of the repertoire, knowing exactly what he wanted to see on the stage.

ffdn4Education is an important component of FFDN, and is also a concrete way of involving the dance community. Dance Collection Dance, a Toronto group whose focus is dance history, has put together videos of Canadian dance performances which are being shown on flat screen TVs in the Sony lobby. The house programs, in partnership with The Dance Current, contain a dance guide to the whole Toronto dance season, as well as comprehensive notes on the performing companies and repertoire. There are also master classes and artists’ talks.

ffdn3Says Ibrahimof: “My dream is to have Fall for Dance North run four nights, with three unique programs featuring 15 to 20 companies – two programs at the Sony Centre, and one more adventurous program at a smaller theatre. This tried and true format attracts young audiences which is exciting. Any audience member in their twenties will not have experienced an international dance series in Toronto in their lifetimes. It is the right festival, at the right time, for the right city.”

ffdn1Program 1 (Sept. 29, 7:30).

The National Ballet of Canada (Ballet)

Toronto Dance Theatre (Modern)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (Contemporary)

Nrityagram (Toronto Debut/Classical Indian Odissi)

Inter-Hoop (Festival Commission/Aboriginal)

Atlanta Ballet (Canadian Debut/Contemporary Ballet)


ffdn2Program 2 (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 7:30).

Ballet BC (Contemporary Ballet)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (Contemporary)

Dance Brazil (Capoeira)

Peggy Baker and Sarah Neufeld, violinist of Arcade Fire (Festival Commission/Modern)

Dorrance Dance (Canadian Debut/Tap)

Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company (Flamenco)



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)