FALL FOR DANCE NORTH festival presented ‘Program 2’ featuring performances by: Shantala Shivalingappa, Caroline ‘Lady C’ Fraser, Dancers from the Ryerson School of Performance, and the National Ballet of Canada——on October 4th, 2019 at Meridian Hall (formerly Sony Centre).
corporations can trade this venue around and name it what they will, but whether you’re still calling it the Sony Centre or you’re already used to ‘Meridian Hall’, this venue needs live music to bring it to life. great work can be spoiled here by a recorded track that only reveals how the space has the acoustics of an airplane hanger. mercifully, each of the pieces presented in program 2 of “toronto’s premier international dance festival” featured live music, something i hope Fall For Dance North will continue to prioritize as they move forward from their 5th year hosting dance companies from across the globe.
they opened with what managed to be the most emotive and moving performance of the evening even with only one dancer carrying an entire story in her exquisitely trained form: shantala shivalingappa, a kuchipudi virtuoso who has already worked with giants like maurice bejart and pina bausch. her piece “Shiva Tarangam” soundly lived up to the saint that this form of indian folk dance is named for. surrounded by clean linen drapings three-stories high that gave the stage a sense of simple purity, shivalingappa appeared in a stunning plum ensemble replete with tinkling bells and accompanied by four musicians/singers who have toured the globe with her to widespread acclaim. she may have been slight and dwarfed by her own set, but as a series of songs venerating the god shiva unfolded, shivalingappa succeeded in making the cavernous stage feel far too small for her.
devotional at its core, kuchipudi has roots in the ancient hindu sanskrit text of natya shastra and that textual element is apparent in shivalingappa’s expert story-telling skills. the mathematical precision of her flawlessly controlled limbs framed the highly communicative expressivity of her face and hands: she was coy one moment, challenging the next, cheeky and teasing throughout in a way that captured the playfulness of the god venerated by these devotional songs. though i don’t speak hindi, shivalingappa managed to function as both dancer and translator, animating her musicians’s words with her extraordinary facilities. her dextrous feet gripped a puja thali (prayer plate) which she manoeuvred around the stage as if floating, too holy for her feet to touch the ground and garnering astonished applause.
i’ve observed before that many forms of indian folk dance are among the only that can be compared to the balletic tradition in that they require absolute control while maintaining a sense of upward ease in one’s carriage. shivalingappa is a starring example of this, conveying the particular exacting, ritualized joy unique to hindu devotional practices. every angle she struck seemed sacred in its deliberate positioning, as if these were the precise degrees and lines by which shiva might hear stories sung about him. it resulted in a performance that was both weighted with meaning while remaining light and euphoric to watch. the audience seemed so charmed that they easily broke into friendly laughter when the curtain came down, slapstick, on the bowing musicians while shivalingappa deftly spun to evade it.
a hard act to follow but one i was glad to see succeeded by another internationally renowned female choreographer, caroline ‘lady c’ fraser in a piece commissioned by FFDN called ‘Conversation’, featuring live music by Re.verse. known as a foremost practitioner of street style dance, Lady C’s first fluid movements in front of her own quartet of musicians effectively proved that popping and locking are two distinct skills. aptly named, ‘Conversation’s strongest feature was its exchanges and interactions between the five colour-coded dancers and musicians. this wasn’t surprising, given that fraser is a noted songwriter and vocalist who has released a number of acclaimed singles.
the piece evoked 90s music videos with scenes of friends just killing time, indulging rivalries and reacting to the elation of creating movement stories together. when her two male dancers come into conflict, she settles the dispute by out-dancing both of them in a breezy pantomime of high-stakes dance battles. a light-hearted celebration of one of the only forms of dance that could effectively survive an apocalypse, ‘Conversation’ would have benefitted perhaps from clarifying the relationships it begun to develop in the first half so that it was more satisfying to follow them to the very end. but the responsive physical conversations between dancers and music grounded the work in what continues to make a multitude of street styles so enthralling to follow: how they evolve and adapt in the moment to whatever beats one can find out in an urban neighbourhood.
before we were released for intermission to queue in bathroom lines as long the ticket stakeout for a beyoncé concert, FFDN’s ingenuitive development department brought out four-time figure skating world champion kurt browning. referring to himself merely as “the mean judge” on Battle of the Blades, a dashingly handsome participant of the show as “this ugly young man”, and, memorably, to FFDN’s free master-classes as “dance clinics”, it made for a refreshingly entertaining shill that i hope many in the audience responded to if only to put a twoonie in browning’s outstretched tam o’shanter.
having spotted many principal dancers of the National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) in the audience, my expectations were high for ‘The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” by william forsythe. the name captures its notoriety and allure: it’s known to be an especially difficult piece set to the final movement of schubert’s ninth symphony. but you won’t find many dancers born for the thrill of a challenge than upper members of a ballet company, and the five chosen for this piece certainly attacked it with all the presentational vitality of teenage gymnasts at their first olympics. choreographed the way many ‘show-off’ arias were once composed specifically to display the technical mastery of a diva’s craft, the one and only feeling the dancers are called upon to express in “exactitude”, is pride, rightly earned upon completing such an intricate piece.
one member fumbled a step but proved herself even more a ballerina than she who never stumbles by spinning right back up with a gentle smile as if it were entirely intentional. i couldn’t tell you which of the three female dancers it was given the uniform, sleek, gelato-hued design of former forsythe dancer stephen galloway: each woman wore a lime-green tutu stiff and symbolic of the exactness this piece aims for, with the men in royal purple body suits. i found forsythe favoured the male choreography in his creation process; the women’s solos were certainly feats of exactitude, but only the men got the truly ‘vertiginous’ moments with herculean posturing and leaps that prompted my elderly seat-mate to describe principal dancer harrison james as ‘a greek god’ during egress.
though personally i find little to emotionally respond to or interpret in works that are primarily feats of athleticism and technique, few have made such a strong case for why they belong in company repertoires and mixed programs like this one. there’s something about the pure spectacle of dance that makes no demands upon the soul but sets out to thrill the body’s nerves. the mathematical energy and preening pride of the piece was both satisfying and oddly purifying. like fresh mint, the structured energy of a handful of canada’s most competent, capable dancers cleansed the palette while the NBoC Orchestra’s rich resonance did more to ennoble the hall’s high ceiling than did its architect.
though at this point i was hungry for more choreography and styles beyond what we’ve already experienced in canada, FFDN’s mandate is to combine both local and international programming and as such closed the show with a piece that felt distinctly familiar. “Fiddle Embrace” by anne plamondon featured student dancers from ryerson performing for the first time who were greeted with heart-attack-inducing shrieks from an army of friends in the back rows, and the influence of plamondon’s long-term creative relationship with crystal pite was clear from the start. opening to deep, resonant booms of the first recorded track we’d heard that evening, the bodies of these newcomers were strewn across the stage like bodies on a battlefield as they begin to roll and rise at a torturous pace.
contorting into twisted trios and duos, the dancers were costumed in a-gendered worker clothing that recalled communist regimes, and the ensemble frequently wove in and out of itself with the biomechanical rows and angles of a factory setting. an independent choreographer since 2012, the dna of pite’s company Kidd Pivot echoed in many of plamondon’s choices, recalling the weaving rows of “Emergence” and the insect-precision of “Revisor”. scored with a heavy industrial score that suited the quick, angled choreography more than the recorded fiddle which showed up halfway through, i found that the style didn’t adapt or respond to the shift as it could have. rather than creating tension, the mechanized style and pace felt out of sync with, even deaf to the mournful strings at times. but a trio of women executed a mesmerizing section and an aggressive quintet of men got the blood moving again, ushering in the live piano that was promised, clarifying an otherwise swampy set of interludes.
this was technically strong work, but the way that FFDN hyped it up at intermission didn’t do the student ensemble any favours. a piece featuring first-time performers would have been more generously framed as an opener, with the fresh unformed energy and raw edges of these new movers inaugurating the evening. they suffered no lack of applause or appreciation, but my seat-mate, a prominent dance philanthropist who i’ve seen at countless other shows over the years, agreed that there wasn’t much new or original to excite the senses. what could have been an ideal opener that acquaints canadian audiences with the contemporary tropes we proudly export to the world left me instead wondering when and where i can catch another kuchipudi performance even while applauding.
nevertheless, i heard rave reviews of program 3 and will certainly return to FFDN’s sixth year. accurately describing itself as accessible (with $15 seats) and inclusive, this is a festival that knows how to create a dance audience for the future by appealing to both existing and untapped patron bases with its programming and free workshops. i may have seen too many performances at this point to be specifically wowed by program 2, but it was assuring to see an enormous venue packed to the brim with filled seats and chattering newcomers to the scene.
Emily Trace is a Toronto-based writer of plays, articles, fiction, personal essays and reviews of the performing arts, currently developing a screenplay that will explore queer resiliency and trauma recovery through classic horror tropes. An alumnus of the National Ballet of Canada’s Emerging Arts Critics Programme, Emily works in media with Inside Out LGBT Film Festival and Against the Grain Theatre. She is also an actress and creative associate with White Mills Theatre Company, presently in rehearsals for an immersive production of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' to be staged this holiday season at Spadina House.