It isn’t entirely clear how the neologism in Peter Chin’s Returning Empathis (empathy/emphasis) plays out in the work at hand. But never mind. We get the references to deep listening and empathy. Five dancers cluster around a throne-like chair to listen and watch as soloist Naishi Wang performs a tremendously articulate dance, all hands, limbs, sharp emphatic gestures – as if speaking to them.
When we watch dance we are practising a form of empathy, dancing in the dancers’ shoes, as it were. And we go into the dance and out of it, as do the watching dancers here, entering the empty space — the space of awareness — breaking into duets, quartets and solos, almost signing with finger gestures in their harmonic arrangements. Each entry onto the stage is a reinvention of oneself, akin to a reincarnation. Cheryl Lalonde’s costumes in the colours of Tibetan monks enhance the understanding of Eastern forms of thought. Chin’s marvellous soundscape, a haunting surround of chants from Tibet, music of Burkina-Faso and Madagascar and the ascendant choir of voices singing Thomas Tallis’ O Salutaris hostia provides the other chamber for this dance of ever-cycling life and death. Along with Naishi Wang, performers Alana Elmer, Yuichiro Inoue, Pulga Muchochoma and Jarrett Siddle make wonderful music together.
The Asian elements to the piece are a reminder that dance began in temples, in sacred spaces. It is a shame Chin’s piece couldn’t have been performed in a wide open white space, sun streaming in at a side angle. As it is, the bare, scarred walls of the Winchester stage, with its armature of industrial lighting equipment make a distraction requiring a very willing suspension of disbelief.
Speaking of which, Susie Burpee’s Making Belief (OR Seven Stages for Transformation, as played by a Willing Character) is a charmingly manic discourse on what it means to put on a character, go in and out of character, reveal the trickery behind the curtains and generally romp about in a swirl of artifice. Naishi Wang puts on a sad-face mask and white wig, while Pulga Muchochoma, his comic opposite, strides in like a loopy, vaudevillian Mr. Bojangles, grinning and manipulating Wang’s geriatric, tentative sadsack to perform — damn it. The metaphors get a little mixed as the rest of the company joins them, alternately role-playing as audience and back-up ensemble. A muscular Jarrett Siddall does deep breathing and holds his breath as if it was an athletic feat: maybe a sly jab at the tendency of some performers to overachieve on stage.
In any case, it’s a whole lot of fun, and to see Toronto Dance Theatre in all its current diversity – culturally, physically and stylistically – is to imagine we could have watched them dance all night.
Making Belief. From left: Danah Rosales, Christianne Ullmark, Megumi Kokuba, Naishi Wang, Alana Elmer, Nathan Todd
Photography by Ömer K. Yükseker.