with thrilling range and dancers that move as both wave and particle, Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre staged five enchanting works with an ensemble of promising young students. featuring two world premieres and recent hits from five diverse choreographers, these works examine contemporary issues such as toxic masculinity and ancient preoccupations like achieving higher consciousness and communion with the unknown through live performance.
opening the program with a piece strong enough to function as a finale, “Alien Grace” was choreographed by CCDT’s own artistic director deborah lundmark. practically a dissertation on the relationship between musician and dancer, between sound and movement, the costumes by krista dowson and angel wong gave us five dancers distinguished by a coloured element and an ensemble of eight in black. also boasting an on-stage performance by the renown electro-violinist dr. draw, the prickling pizzicato evoked shudders and spasms from the dancers, mimicking the immediacy of emotional conflict that can only be resolved with wild bursts of energy. effectively exultant and electric, each dancer had her turn untangling the ensnaring tension of an excruciatingly sustained note on the violin. ending with haunting eye contact reminiscent of a charmer entrancing an adder, the final dancer’s collapse when the melody resolves and releases her, evoked a communal exhale from the spellbound audience. known to set the nerves aflame, this marks an unmissable performance for fans of dr. draw or anyone addicted to the original asmr of string instruments.
as difficult to follow as this may be, independent toronto artist and dance teacher ryan lee did far more with “Less” than might be expected. the only choreographer billed without the resources of a personal dance company and working with just three dancers in simple street clothes, lee arguably did the most with the least, telling a visceral narrative that immersed the audience in the violent experiences of boyhood.
a savage visual poem on the pressures young men grow up with, “Less” threw the viewer palms first onto the tarmac of a harshly lit stage immediately reminiscent of a basketball court. the three boys swaggered forwards, muscles unnaturally tensed--almost in the manner of drag kings--their every gesture brutally exposed in the glaring light. gesture was the currency by which each dancer survived this stark environment, mirroring and expanding upon each other’s performances of masculinity. but there’s no West Side Story camp in the stylized dance-fighting; the intensity by which the boys prowl and throw themselves backwards as if punched carries the energy of real violence. lee described this piece as a meditation on his memories of being “unable to mirror the images of men in my life”, and the desperate focus that these young dancers move with strongly communicates the dangers inherent in failing to mirror his peers.
after a ruthless, combative arrangement set to a threatening musical beat composed by vladislav delay, we find one young dancer alone on the stage with his movement still reflexively echoing the other two boys until a riveting feminine gesture punctures the alpha intensity. no single gesture in the entire program was more skilfully earned than the two or three femme flourishes of jeffery lapira’s wrist. but this moment of joyful, sensuous exploration has a cost and consequence when the other two boys stalk threateningly back on stage, their eyes trained on the friend who has exposed himself as prey. as they close in on him, preparing for a violent exile from the pack, lapira surrenders to his fate as if the few moments of true self-expression were more than worth it.
beginning with two pieces that had such clear, well-crafted themes might have put the two technique-focused works that bracketed the intermission at a slight disadvantage. but a range of focuses is one of the unique attractions for a program like this, and the return of roderick george’s 2018 premiere “RESET” certainly staked its place on that spectrum. described with dense brevity as “a sardonic riff on pop culture” and “a reset of just who is in charge here,” this intriguing thesis became a touch quixotic without more clarity of vision. the piece opens with restrained undulations from nine skilled dancers, their ritualistic ensemble movement recalling Balanchine’s departure from narrative ballet. george employs a compelling combination of styles and influences, from modern to balletic with refreshening industrial styles of movement that take inspiration from contemporary festival culture. however, the piece became unmoored, casting around for impetus and urgency that it didn’t ultimately find. it’s possible that the diaphanous silvery costumes distracted from what could have landed as strong choreography, since in the shifting light they tended to resemble disposable maid of the mist rain coats. george uses a satisfying range of his dancers’ technical capability in several stunning solos, but each individual departure from the ensemble felt unmotivated without the motifs building satisfyingly towards an arc. this meandering pace didn’t quite facilitate the cathartic ‘reset’ one might have expected from the promising description. it might be helpful to see this piece in the context of george’s other work for his berlin-based company kNonAme Artist; other pieces on their website ground “RESET” in a consistent choreographic vision that we’ll hopefully see more of.
following the intermission was a world premiere by nicole caruana, founder of buffalo company UANA Dans. the title “Lacrimosa” promises tragedy, but the journey of her three-part work is ultimately celebratory, transitioning from opera to harpsichord to latin dance beats by gabriel yared. describing it as “a testimony of resilience”, caruana’s intent seems to be to show the path of recovery from past traumas. with four women and two men costumed in the colours of playing cards, they open with balletic vocabulary set suitably to a lachrymose opera selection by goran bregović. boasting superior musicality in their performances, the dancers move somewhat abruptly to the second section where the motifs are well executed but again don’t have a clear sense of evolution. though all three parts of this work are stirring with charming notes of humour towards the end, it was difficult to find a through-line connecting the experience of lamentation with triumphing over it. but strong choreography choosing to focus on technical explorations often resonates very differently than works telling a story or expressing a concept.
dance-lovers sometimes favour one or the other, but the final work was a masterclass in putting technique fully into the service of communicating an immersive human experience. with the program’s most demanding and disciplined use of the ensemble, jennifer archibald’s confidence as a choreographer radiated from every precise and pristine movement. artistic director of Arch Dance Company, graduate of the Alvin Ailey School and an acting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama, archibald has built an unshakable foundation from which to tackle ambitious concepts. the world premiere of “BYTIYE”, meaning ‘a higher state of being’, boldly delves into the high mystery of music and dance: their capacity to awaken the artist and audience to a greater spiritual consciousness. opening in dappled lighting reminiscent of a jungle and featuring the second standout costume collaboration between dowson and wong, this piece declares a standard of excellence it will only build upon in the first perfectly synchronised tribal gestures from the ensemble. out of the five, one could surmise that archibald led the most rigorous rehearsal process.
dispelling the myth that achieving a higher state of consciousness is only a wild act of abandon, “BYTIYE” earns that transcendence with burning, adamantine focus. the build towards a state of ecstasy is unflinchingly intentional, and challenges young scene-stealer lola rose jenkins to execute her most jaw-dropping work out of the four pieces she was cast in. audible gasps undercut a chilling didgeridoo moan as she rose towards a state of ecstatic surrender, executing the kind of preternatural leaps and spins you’d only expect to see in a ceremony deep in a rainforest where ayahuasca grows wild.
if only for this moment of awe, the kind all dance-lovers wordlessly hope they’ll witness when purchasing a ticket, Light Years earns its space and audience by commissioning one of the most powerful transformative voices in contemporary dance today. fortunately, it takes us the full distance of contemporary dance’s diverse spectrum.
Canadian Contemporary Dance theatre presents Light Years at the Fleck Dance Theatre until may 25, 2019.
emily trace is a toronto-based writer of plays, articles, spoken word, fiction, personal essays and reviews for the arts. educated at the University of Toronto and a graduate of the Emerging Arts Critics Programme, she is also an aspiring director and dramaturg.