dance: made in canada / fait au canada festival (august 14th-18th) presented three works in a program titled ‘Morrison Series’ on Sunday August 18th, 2019. Curation by Yvonne Ng
the world needs more of what dance: made in canada / fait au canada festival’s closing performance offered simply by incubating a safe environment for male artists to share deeply and openly. curated by the festival director herself——award-winning artistic director yvonne ng——and named in honour of the late lighting designer david morrison, nothing in ng’s curation notes makes reference to the fact that each work features all-male dancers exploring the roles men can engage, transgress, and transcend with each other. commenting with intellectual fluency on how each piece “explores the inflection points in our lives”, the series’ most touching theme was perhaps too obvious—or too brittle—to splay over a program. as heart-wrenchingly tender and complex as these varied intimacies between men were, they unfolded only with the most careful choreography under specific tech and atmosphere requirements. like elusive deep-sea creatures that shrink from the light and wilt when dragged to the surface, i doubted that these moments of profound trust and vulnerability would survive outside the proscenium.
we begin with an unexpected introduction to Part+Labour_Danse’s excerpt from La Vie Attend, co-choreographed by david albert-toth and emily gualtieri, and named for a francophone play on the quebecois pronunciation of ‘Leviathan’, political philosopher thomas hobbes’ most widely published work. it’s around his social contract theory——that all human behaviour oscillates between “a desire for power and the power of fear”——that they construct this piece for five male performers with ages ranging from their 20s to their 50s. yet we begin as children, with a barker proclaiming this “visionary” work will “change dance forever” before the men engage in a charming pew-pew battle with finger guns. this becomes an epic sword-fight replete with lines from Braveheart and glorious disembowelment scenes flaring up in the tittering audience. but shortly after the swords transform into lightsabers and we’re most disarmed by the boyish antics, one motionless performer left for dead on stage brings all laughter to an eerie end.
as playground games yields to david drury’s chilling score, we look at five grown men brought to heel by the reality of their playful violence. cycling through scenes that evoke executions, AIDS wards, and holocausts, the excerpt is punctuated by a singularly moving duet between nicolas patry and david albert-toth himself. easily the standout section, the two dancers trade weight back and forth causing the relationship to flicker from caregiver to aggressor to lover, from friend to foe. moving at a painstaking pace, the emotional dynamic between the men is never static, different moment to moment, affecting a riveting exchange that remained constantly in flux. i saw tenderness, disgust, care, sickness, dependency, compassion, and contempt all crest in their own time as toth decays down the front of patry’s supporting body, as one lifts then drops the other, only for them to melt into a new incarnation. how many men did we see that night in the shared contortions of those two? how many friendships and rivalries compounded into a protean intricacy that seemed to shapeshift through the phases of a lifelong relationship? i can’t claim to have seen something that will ‘change dance forever’, but i was certainly unable to look down to my notes even for a split second while gripped by the inescapable emotional kaleidoscope unfurling on-stage.
having little reverence for hobbes’ theories myself, i admit my eye wasn’t searching for political signifiers in the work but instead focused intensely on the intimacy of the dancers and how it soundly disrupted stale taboos about men creating trusted space for each other to experience a full range of human emotion. this, to my giddy approval, turned out to be a running theme for the evening as we transitioned curiously to Danse K par K’s toronto premiere of ‘GLORIOUS FRAGILITY’, another excerpt of a larger work that left me hungry for its full-length. conceived and choreographed by the creator of the wildly popular Osez!, karine ledoyen incubated this piece by interviewing nearly twenty professional dancers to collect reflections on their “lifelong passion for a vocation they must inevitably leave”.
managing all the digital scenic devices that will be used to immerse us in the words of her interview subjects and the bodies of the performers, everything andreé-anne giguère types on a small table downstage right is projected up onto a large upstage scrim. she introduces us to jason martin and simon renaud, the two young men who will bring the words of past dancers to vivid life. already they are more personalized to us than is usual for contemporary performances. giguère holds the microphone to different parts of their entangled bodies, first to martin’s hip, then to renaud’s shoulder, as snatches of interview transcription tell us what the body would say if it could describe a life in dance. she films them on a small camera, projecting an image of two young, working dancers onto the scrim… causing a pang as i realize their youth and vitality will fade someday too until they’re the ones reflecting on their own careers as movers. though all that will remain is this recording, a haunting reminder that bodies don’t keep. ledoyen remarks that the project was less mournful than she expected and more a celebration of dance—and i could hear in these voices that deeply embodied experiences, like the one being filmed, can sustain the retired dancer once their career is past.
after an interlude of deliberately exerting themselves in an aggressive allegro duet, giguère uses the microphone to reveal the sound of renaud’s racing heart. it’s not a recording; we’re listening in real-time to the muscled engine of all dance creation. mine stopped dead for a second when martin rode renaud’s shoulders, balancing, preparing for something we couldn’t see between them, until renaud’s eyes closed and he let the weight of his passenger send him hurtling heavy towards the floor—but martin’s feet hit the stage and his hands caught renaud’s head a second before injury. this trust-fall of the century followed the subtitle “abandon yourself”, immersing the audience in the palpable consoling, protecting, supporting, and empowering that must exist between dance partners to protect each other no matter whose weight is being borne.
an unnamed woman’s voice comes on, describing the “secret dance happening on stage between two dancers” that only they can know. the men engage in a music-free interlude of expressive symmetry and counterbalance where only their heavy breathing can be heard, clearly involved in a secret world we cannot access—until they finish, embracing each other gently, and giguère approaches as sensitively as she can with the camera to magnify the sweat on their scalps and the tears on their cheeks. at first, i felt myself to be an intruder prying into an experience that i hadn’t earned; what had i risked sitting here scribbling to be invited into their ‘secret dance’? but as close as the camera got, as deeply as i was allowed to feel along with renaud and martin, the proximity ultimately served to illustrate the futility that faces performance artists: no matter how immersive, no matter how keen the empathy, no one but the dancer can really know what it feels like to push the boundaries of artistry to their body’s limits. and even then, there comes a point when they must leave the stage and can relive the experience only through retelling.
coming away from perhaps the most vulnerable moment i’ve ever seen between two male dancers, we embark on the final work featuring an all-male cast sharing profound feeling with each other. recipient of the queen elizabeth II diamond jubilee medal in 2012, iranian-canadian artist and researcher sashar zarif went far beyond the call of choreography, actually developing a movement vocabulary—and syntax—for an ancient form of azerbaijani music known as Mugham, or Muğam. the result of over a decade of research, he describes the style as “informed by the sufi and shamanic transformation ritual”, with a result that is as heady as it sounds. even going so far as to play his own music with a drum, a gong, and a set of chimes, zarif also sings—an astonishingly skilled tremolo that seemed as physically demanding as opera.
four dancers are led by this one-man-band, dressed in monk robes designed by zarif much like novices directed by a spiritual leader. a series of tribal gestures unfurled in geometric circular patterns as the quartet chanted and intoned in harmony with zarif, as if responding to guided meditation. the boundaries between ‘performance’ and ‘ritual’ blurred as their mathematical precision built towards a threshold of exaltation and transcendence. at times, the choreography was rudimentary enough that everyone in a village might be able to learn it, but it was also deceptively complex. as the four men repeat a seemingly simple repetition of hand and foot movements while chanting, they slowly shift across the stage while maintaining perfect symmetry with each other, eyes closed, as if they were stencils entirely aware of the math of their movement even while appearing to be entranced.
as the blue scrim behind them shifts slowly to saffron, zarif’s chimes either provoke or release a manic explosion of wild leaps and yelling in each novice that they emerge from gradually. the interplay between chaos and peace is skilfully balanced by zarif, who guides his dancers towards a unified state of consciousness through variations between instruments, each precipitating changes in pace and energy. with a now deep orange background evoking the setting sun, the four dancers affected whirling dervishes, spinning in place while zarif glides through them singing. during their curtain call, the five men bowed to each other before facing their audience, still deeply connected from the ceremonial dance they’d completed. though decidedly distinct from the other two performances—and most contemporary dance, for that matter—for a third time that evening we witnessed profound trust and sharing amongst male dancers.
in discussing the rehearsal process for La Vie Attend, david albert-toth remarks that, “a lot of us men in dance were in dance because we don’t fit traditional moulds for the masculine archetype,” and that it was crucial to explore their relationship to communicating with each other, having been conditioned since boyhood to constantly strategize and edit their authentic experience. while remaining an avowed sceptic of hobbes, i confess that yvonne ng’s carefully curated Morrison Series gave hope to fears i have for male loved ones: fears about their social mobility to express innermost anxieties, fears that they could become emotionally malnourished under the often poisonous strictures of contemporary masculinity. we’re only beginning in the last decade to see these unhealthy restrictions challenged in an impactful way by mainstream media and movements, so i thank the festival director and the dance companies she chose for contributing to this vital reformation. if her series proved anything, it’s that one of the most courageous choices men can make today is to be unashamed of their artistry, intimacy, and emotional complexity.
Emily Trace (www.emilytrace.com)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.