Fierce and fiercer

Any George F. Walker play, it goes without saying, is going to be a matter of some intensity. Stage one in a space so small the front row viewers could almost reach out and touch an actor and you’ve got a real pressure cooker. Which is pretty much what Fierce is: an hour-long, over-the-top dark fantasy about a crazed drug addict/alcoholic in a court-ordered session with an angry female doctor and counsellor.

As the lights come up and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” fades out, we are in a doctor’s office.

Emmelia Gordon is Jayne, a heavyset character with long, still wet brown hair under a toque, arm in a sling, dressed in prison-issue, dark-green sweats. Marisa Crockett is Margaret (“Maggs” to Jayne) a thin-lipped, hair-pulled-back, uptight, rigid MD whose file folder and notes act as her protective shield.

Injured Jayne has been released from jail after causing a truck to flip when she walked into heavy traffic. Dr. Maggie lost her patience with such patients many appointments ago. Each woman is determined to break the other.

More than a shouting match or a contest of wills, Fierce is wrapped around a tragedy that will only be revealed in the last moments of the show. In the meantime, it’s a wild rollercoaster ride on rails of rapid-fire dialogue that evokes laughter, horror, sorrow and shock in about equal measure.

In the real time of a session with a counsellor, we learn that Jayne is a teacher, a guidance counsellor in fact, who refers to the troubled students she dealt with, including one involved in a murder case audience members will recognize from the news. (“That was one of mine.”) She’s on the attack from the top of the hour.

They squabble; no one wins. “I’m almost certainly right,” says Maggie about Jayne’s situation, “and you’re definitely not.” Jayne is refusing to cooperate with questioning. How did you lose your husband, Maggie wants to know. Jayne answers with thick sarcasm, “We went for a walk in a very dense forest and I lost him.”

Jayne will only comply if she is allowed to ask questions. She’s looked up Margaret’s background and found Margaret has herself been an addict, an orphan and is covering up some serious psychological damage. At one point, Jayne sends the doctor scurrying for the bathroom and takes the opportunity to read Margaret’s notes: “Bullshit! Wrong!,” she shouts, then, shrugging at some comment, “fine.”

Since both characters are conditioned to lie, Walker’s arc is soon found. They will argue, probe, undermine each other, finally drink vodka out of the bottle and share a joint. And before the lights come down they will tell their buried truths.

Fierce, written in 2016, shares themes with Walker’s Parents Night (2014) and The Bigger Issue (2015) and like many of his previous works underscores the effects of poverty and social ills on basically good people.

Days later, Jayne’s agony and her doctor’s sorry state are still with us, proof that Walker has lost none of his momentum.

Fierce

By George F. Walker

Directed by Wes Berger

A Criminal Girlfriends production at Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto, until March 3

Photo of Marisa Crockett (lying down) and Emmelia Gordon by John Gundy

Dance, define, decode, delight

For anyone unfamiliar with, yet fascinated by the vocabulary of bharatnatyam dance, the idea of a decoding wrapped in a performance is a welcome prospect.  

Nova Bhattacharya’s decoding bharatnatyam is both a learning experience and an entertainment. As the choreographer explains, the three works in the show, “investigate the places where cultures overlap – where the influence of Indian dance produces fresh and exciting contemporary Canadian art.” 

Montreal dancer/choreographer José Navas, who has created works on ballet companies, made Calm Abiding for Bhattacharya in 2006. Aptly titled, the dance begins and ends in stillness and draws on bharatnatyam and modern dance modes of expression.

The silver polish on Bhattacharya’s fingernails direct our attention to the hand gestures or mudras of bharatnatyam dance. As with the mimes of classical ballet, the gestures, especially in combination with eye movement, have a narrative significance. So we take note when Bhattacharya’s eyes are closed or open. All is simplicity here, from the dancer’s basic black tunic and capri pants to Marc Parent’s minimalist lighting, signalling the changing sections of the dance. Alexander MacSween’s electronic and acoustic music turns Bhattacharya’s words and laugh into rhythmic repetition. Throughout, we are reminded how any movement in the body of a highly trained dancer can convey meaning at a subliminal level.

The decoding becomes literal in Breaking Lines, a duet that Bhattacharya created with bharatnatyam dancers Neena Jayarajan and Atri Nundy in 2016. Jayarajan, who trained with Menaka Thakkar for more than 28 years, wears a blue hoodie over black pants. Nundy, who learned bharatnatyam over decades with Lata Pada, wears a sari and ankle bells. They talk, they laugh, they join hands and they make fun of each other, in what is presented as a rehearsal. “What are you doing?” asks one of the other dancer, who appears to be picking blossoms. “Putting flowers in my bath,” is the answer.

Nundy and Jayarajan engage in the rhythmic tiki-teki rhythmic recitative that is an important feature of classical Indian dance. Hands on the ground is a greeting to Mother Earth, another gesture over the eyes means a blessing. A raised pinkie finger can be interpreted as a bridge or a lifting of something heavy as if it were light as a feather. We also take note of their feet, which move in heel-to-toe fashion, sometimes while the dancer is in a deep plié position, pounding out the rhythms as if feet could talk. In one amusing passage, Nundy describes the vision of a handsome man, urging her partner forward as if to approach him. They dance to a timer; at 20 minutes the alarm signals the end of the performance.

Lucy Rupert, director of Blue Ceiling dance company, comes from a contemporary dance background. Arriving on stage in Alaap, a piece Bhattacharya created with her in 2013, she wears a long black jumpsuit, with split pants that reveal her legs, ankle bells attached above bare feet. An electronic bubbling sound (music from B1 Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm) accompanies her movement. An ingenious bit of lighting by Noah Feaver gives her shadows in two directions, one lime green, one hot pink, an expression of a divided self coordinated through dance. Striding upright, then sashaying into floor work, Rupert cuts a wide swath across the Citadel stage, circumscribing the space as she takes command of it, one long pinkie finger held high.

decoding bharatnatyam

Choreography by Nova Bhattacharya and José Navas

At The Citadel, Toronto, through February 17

Photo of Neena Jayarajan and Atri Nundy by Ed Hanley

 

Transformational, entrancing dance

Rarely in Toronto does one get the chance to see indigenous dancing from the west coast.  DanceWorks 224 is just such an occasion, featuring the Dancers of Damelahamid from Vancouver performing Flicker. A show commissioned by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 2016, Flicker presents a northwest coast first nations aesthetic in the costumes, the masks, the graphic art and, movingly, in the video running on a scrim framed by the outline of an indigenous big house. These large assembly rooms, which can be found in many coastal communities, are where potlatches are held, at which mask dances are performed on the occasion of a wedding, a birth, a coming of age or a memorial for one who has passed. Families would own particular dances and the masks and regalia that go with them; the dances would be passed on from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.

Choreographer Margaret Grenier, artistic director of Dancers of Damelahamid, grew up in such a family, members of the Gitxsan Nation, whose traditional territory is accessed from the Skeena River north of Haida Gwaii. In her work as a contemporary choreographer and performer, Grenier has adapted for the stage what are basically sacred dances.

The flicker of the title is the woodpecker, whose tail feathers and long pointy beak figure in the design of masks and costumes. The split-U design so common to Northwest coast art, derives from the appearance of a bird’s feathers. Damelahamid uses Flicker as a metaphor for the flickering of light, the changes wrought through the rising and setting of the sun, moon and stars, or the flames and sparks of an energy-giving fire. Transformation is always an element in these dances and the intangible – the spirits of the animals and the trees and mythic creatures – flickers into being as we watch the show.

Dancers Margaret Grenier, Nigel Grenier, Raven Grenier, Rebecca Baker and Kristy Janvier perform admirably, softly stepping in moccasined feet, holding up feather fans like birds, or flapping arms like humans imbued with the ability to fly.

Their movements behind the scrim, especially when one dancer appears in brightly lit-up Flicker wings, headdress and tail feathers, make for some magical moments. The soundscape of singing and drumming and a woman reciting a story in her native language is spell-binding, as it is meant to be.  But it is not until Nigel Grenier, who has been performing as a hunter, comes on and does a powerful rendition of a flicker dance, that one is truly stirred. As he bends and steps to the rhythm of singing and drumbeating, Grenier becomes the flicker, a pencil-like red tongue darting out like an anteater’s from his long beak.

A Haida artist once told me how he’d carved and painted a salmon mask with no idea about the dance that animated it. But once the mask was placed over his head, the dance, thousands of years old, came to him, as if the mask were directing his feet and limbs. That’s how powerful these dances are.

Flicker

Created and performed by the Dancers of Damelahamid

DanceWorks 224

At Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto until February 10

Photo by Derek Dix

Must-see pageant of excellence in dance

An important project, Solo Dance Xchange brings together 22 performers — on screen and live – from a broad spectrum of dance disciplines.

Introduced by producers Karen and Allen Kaeja, the show combines a film in which each of the dancers improvises a dance in the location of his/her choice and a staged segment when the dancers do two-to-three-minute solos accompanied by live music from Eric Cadesky, Laurel MacDonald and Phil Strong.

The outcome? Some predictably fine performances, some merely predictable and a few quite surprising delights.

Allen Kaeja’s 30-minute film, XTOD: Moments in Reel Time, is a nicely edited panoply of 22 dancers doing minute-long improvised solos in locations of their own choosing. Using only natural light, DOP Hernan Morris captures some lovely movement, but the footage lacks the finesse of a studio dance film. By virtue of the subject matter, the HD video reels feels improvised.

Many performers chose water settings, and even long-time Toronto residents will be surprised by the natural beauty found within the confines of Hogtown. Some are romanticized: Jasmyn Fyffe walks a watery concrete pier in a flowing robe; Claudia Moore goes pagan atop the giant rock in Yorkville; Karen Kaeja gyrates on the foredeck of a yacht, the CN Tower looming over her shoulder.

Some, such as Nova Bhattacharya posing on the rim of the fountain pond amid bank towers, opt for high contrast; Delicate-boned Hari Krishnan goes gangsta under an expressway. Two indigenous performers partner with nature, Brian Solomon enraptured in the branches of an old maple tree, Santee Smith, in a long blue gown, dipping into the waters below the Scarborough bluffs. Allen Kaeja charges into a wild tumble off a bicycle down a grassy ravine slope.

As the lights go down on the Streetcar Crowsnest stage, a few dancers, who will sometimes double as stage hands, sit in a row of chairs facing the audience, the trio of musicians set up stage right.

Solo Dance Xchange is in no way a competition, but mastery will out, and can’t help but draw an audience closer to the stage and inside the dancer’s moves, if only we could. The magnificent Peggy Baker in sleek jeans and grey t-shirt grasps a stick like a baton across her upper chest. In a few exquisite minutes, she strikes out with it like a warrior, uses it as a pivot point for a series of graceful floor manoeuvres, crawls hand over hand, then rises up free and strong with her mast held high.

Robert Desrosiers is electric: arms spread or held tight; tiny rapid steps accelerating to the beat of drums, sculpting the air with measured, vocalizing from whispered breaths to almost silent howl.  And Robert Stephen, bare-chested in blue tights, executes a breathtaking pas d’un that is all about virtuosity without showing off.

Others in this category are Bhattacharya, androgynous and fascinating in a barely Bharatanatyam, modern dance progression and William Yong in long black straight hair, holding a daisy, simpering from farce to dignified, balletic beauty. Shawn Byfield taps like a genius in white pants, adding his own rhythms to the tradition of black tap dancers.

Unexpected delights of Solo Dance Xchange include: Esmeralda Enrique, girlish in a short black dress and shocking red flamenco shoes, clacking her castanets along a diagonal path of light; Ben Kamino, in nothing more than his tattoos, comically hefting a heavy folded table like frail, trembling muscleman in need of more strength; and Emily Law, who partnered with her costume, a full-length, diaphanous, kimono-like gown, its sleeves fluttering banners in her stately procession toward and away from us. Also, versatile Michael Caldwell in an Asian pointed straw hat, face obscured to the percussion of gongs and bells, moving with control toward a deliberate crumbling of his own spectacle.

So go see Solo Dance Xchange – tonight’s the last – no matter what you fancy in the way of dance. You can’t be disappointed.

Solo Dance Xchange

Dancers: Mi Young Kim, Roula Said, Robert Desrosiers, Santee Smith, Michael Caldwell, Roshanak Jaberi, Esmeralda Enrique, Nova Bhattacharya, Allen Kaeja, Ofilio Sinbadinho, Jasmyn Fyffe, Pulga Muchochoma, Benjamin Kamino, Emily Law, Karen Kaeja, Shawn Byfield, Peggy Baker, William Yong, Claudia Moore, Robert Stephen, Brian Solomon

Soundscore: SDXtet Eric Cadesky, Laurel MacDonald, Phil Strong

At Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Feb 1 through 3 at 8 pm

Photo of William Yong by Aleksandar Antonijevic; Peggy Baker by Chris Hutcheson; Pulga Muchochoma by Allen Kaeja

Exciting epitaph for Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky makes the ideal subject for a ballet and not just because he was a legendary Russian ballet dancer. His life and career, as interpreted by choreographer John Neumeier, illustrates the eternal artistic pursuit: to forge order out of chaos. Nijinsky, which premiered at the Hamburg Ballet in 2000, gives context and meaning to an artist shattered by mental illness. The tumult that stirred Nijinsky’s heart and mind was mirrored in the Great War, which raged on during the years before the dancer gave his last performance, and would destroy the old order of Europe. Nijinsky’s choreography, just like WWI, heralded the modern era.

The show begins with a recreation of the afternoon of January 19, 1919, when Nijinsky, soon to be confined to a sanitorium, gave his last public performance in the ballroom of a hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Gathered there are family and friends, and the impresario Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s mentor and lover.

What follows, in Act I, represents Nijinsky’s thoughts, memories and hallucinations at the end of a colourful, ground-breaking career. Act II explores his descent into madness, his schizophrenic brother Stanislav’s confinement and death and his wife Romola’s efforts to help him, all against the backdrop of trench warfare.

Born in 1889, Nijinsky entered the school of the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and it was in this company that he was noticed by Diaghilev and recruited for les Ballets russes. In the kaleidoscopic first act, we catch moments from Nijinsky’s best known roles: as a harlequin in Carnaval, the poet in Les Sylphides, the tennis player in Jeux, Petrushka, and most strikingly the faun in his own L’apres midi d’un faun.

Guillaume Côté, in what could be the most physically and emotionally taxing role of his career, soars as Nijinsky – famous for the height of his leaps – and crashes spectacularly. On stage for most of two hours, bare-chested and in the briefest of briefs, Côté takes us to exhilarating heights of joy and the depths of despair. Heather Ogden dancing Romola, who married Nijinsky thereby estranging him from Diaghilev, pulls off the difficult part of passionate wife who becomes the dancer’s protector and ultimately caregiver. As always, she and Côté dancing together approach the sublime.

Evan McKie embodies the dark, passionate genius of Diaghilev hovering in scene after scene.

Neumeier’s dance vocabulary is drawn from Nijinsky’s. The simultaneous side and frontal movement perfected in L’apres midi d’un faun is pure cubism. The right-angled arms and flexed feet, the tangled pas de deux as couples roll over each other, and the asymmetrical ensemble work all evoke the sense of a man and artist out of synch with others. Similarly, the music, from Chopin’s Prélude I in C minor through Schéhérazade and the thundering Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 supply the drama of Nijinsky.

Neumeier’s taste for the melodramatic is not out of place in this story. Neither is the focus on male pulchritude. Nijinksy was a broken spirit contained in a splendidly functioning dancer’s body. His stage persona are beautifully captured: Naoya Ebe is an ethereal Harlequin and Spirit of the Rose from Spectre de la Rose; Francesco Gabriele Frola glitters as the Golden Slave from Schéhérazade and nails the Faun; Skylar Campbell looks like a carefree young lord as the player from Jeux. Jonathan Renna’s Petrushka is emblematic: not just a dancer playing a clown/doll, but a man struggling to express himself. Sonia Rodriguez is sylphlike as the ballerina.

The family story that is so central to an understanding of Nijinsky gets lots of play. Dylan Tedaldi is striking as the schizophrenic brother Stanislav; Jenna Savella as the sister Bronislava and Xia Nan Yu as Nijinsky’s mother bring an element of grace and uncomplicated love. Brent Parolin is a tall, rigid figure as Nijinsky’s father.

Nijinsky is packed with action and visually sometimes overwhelming, but certainly worthy of repeat viewings.

Nijinsky

Choreography by John Neumeier

A production of the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 26

Photo of Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden by Bruce Zinger

Make yourself at home

“I’m terribly sorry. I’m running late. I have to have a shower and there’s no hot water.” When David Danzon, Corpus artistic director, greets you at the door of his house at 8 Baden Street in bathrobe and slippers you know something’s up; you’re just not quite sure what. House Guests is an adventure, a performance in the form of a house party in which the guests/audience can wander at will over three floors and a basement, to follow the antics, games and yes, dance moves, of a motley crew of performers.

“There’s only one house rule,” says Danzon, passing around pairs of slippers and offering refreshments. Guests – up to 20 at a time – are served green tea or vodka. Then stage lights come on around the archway separating living room and dining room, the red curtain is parted and there stand five characters dressed identically in white cotton, hooded robes. As they move about we detect chatter from sound devices in their pockets, along the lines of “Oh what’s that?” ; “very nice.”

A French song comes on from some hidden source, a couple starts swaying to the music,  and the wandering begins. Dancer Michael Caldwell does drag, donning glasses and a black wig. He simpers about, lip-synching on a table top to  Barbra Streiusand’s “The Way We Were.” Actor, dancer and comedian Rob Feetham is hooded for much of the evening, but comes alive as a boxer with a topknot and challenges guests to a match with a pair of mechanical boxers. Indrit Kasapi, actor, director, writer and choreographer, is a silent fellow who, with a change from Arab headdress to bowler hat and bow-tie is transformed into an authoritarian lurker. Japanese dancer Takako Segawa puts on a Japanese wig and kimono and invites guests to play a kind of shell game in which the guest inevitably loses. Later in a child’s bedroom, she does a tea ceremony with a little girl’s toy kitchen set. Dancer Jolyane Langlois dons a blue wig and in a back bedroom offers to paint fingernails dark blue.

You’re never quite sure what to expect, especially as the performers have a knack for disappearing into closets or behind shower curtains and then cropping up again on a different floor. It all seems entirely daft and random, although there is a point when we are all drawn together to watch Langlois and Segawa do a smart duet over chairs and tables.

House Guests goes from weird to weirder – a figure in a long black dress and black net gloves arrives under a tall lampshade that lights up. Later we are herded into the kitchen for a soup supper. You notice a well-read copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de mal on a corner table. The Joris-Karl Huysmans-esque lampshade character was also a clue to the inspiration for this site-specific show: it’s part parlor game, part theatre of the absurd, all very decadent and delightful. Each house guest is likely to get a unique experience, depending on whom they follow and which floors they settle on. All the personal effects of this family are on display such that House Guests also has its voyeuristic element. At evening’s end, guests are invited to stay and chat and possibly venture an idea about what they’ve just witnessed.

House Guests

Created by David Danzon, Rob Feetham, Michael Caldwell, Indrit Kasapi, Jolyane Langlois and Takako Segawa.

Music by Pedro Guirao

Lighting by Claire Hill

Costumes by Carolin Linden

A production of Corpus at 8 Baden Street, Toronto until December 17

Photo of Rob Feetham by Jae Yang

 

 

 

 

Chinese family saga embodied in one talented man

Jeff Ho is a quadruple threat: he can write, he can act, he can compose and he can raise the roof at the piano keys. trace, his one-man show at Factory Studio Theatre, has been in development for two years. The raw materials were easy to come by: his own family’s migrant history, traced through three generations of powerful Chinese women: his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.

Ho impersonates all three women, shifting to the piano to pound out Beethoven or a popular tune as the storyline calls for it.

Fully outfitted in an elegant ivory suit and tropical shoes, Ho enters as an apparently delirious woman entertaining a nightmare vision of rats overrunning her home. This is great-grandma, Kwan Bo Siu, 85 at this time (2001) and living in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong. She calls for her granddaughter, 44-year-old Kwan Miu Chi, known as Ma. “Where’s Ma? When I wake up I want my money and my food. I want my cigarettes.” Ho as great-grandma deftly produces what looks like a lit cigarette from a sleeve and puffs on it. This trick with a cigarette, the piano accompaniment and the shedding of clothes on Ho’s part become the motifs that tie together a 100-year family saga. “I smoke til I one hundred,” says a defiant great-grandma, and we get a measure of the woman who saved her family and set them on a course first for Hong Kong and then for Canada.

She’s the Mahjong Queen who gambles away so much cash her son and daughter-in-law have to take on extra jobs to keep them fed and clothed. But great-grandmother has born unmentionable tragedy and hardship.

“My family sold me for 10 chickens and a horse,” she declares, lighting another cigarette or shouting out Mahjong! She met her husband on the day of their wedding. But luck was not with them. “What a useless soldier,” she crows. He is killed by the Japanese who have invaded China and Great-Grandma arranges to escape by boat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong with her two sons.

One of them marries and this is where Ho’s grandma, Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old at the time in the play) comes in. In flashbacks, Ho shows how hard grandma worked, often frustrated by her mother-in-law’s bad habits and the struggle to keep alive through the war years. Ma, mother of Jeff and his brother Eric, embarks from Hong Kong for Toronto, working terrible jobs, browbeating her younger son to practise classical piano and threatening him with removal of lessons should he start playing songs – as Ho does – like “Can’t help falling in love with you.” In Ma’s mind Jeff should think only of becoming a chartered accountant. Luckily for us, he moves to Montreal and pursues a theatrical career.

Just over an hour long, trace is structured as a piano sonata in five movements with a prologue and coda. But this demarcation does nothing to allow us to follow the story that has been chopped up into pieces that shift rapidly between times and characters. Better direction might have opened the play up some, so that we could pick up the thread of the story and clearly identify each of the three women at any given moment. Better dramaturgy might have shaped the play into fragments that cohere more. While anyone can marvel at Ho’s acting, piano playing and mastery of emotion, one is not entirely sure who’s who at the point at which a family tragedy is revealed.

trace

Written, composed and performed by Jeff Ho

Directed by Nina Lee Aquino with dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy

Set by Michelle Ramsay and Nina Lee Aquino

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Costume by Joanna Yu

A Factory Theatre production in association with b current performing arts

At Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, through December 3

Photo of Jeff Ho by Dahlia Katz