Dance distilled to its essence

Jackie Burroughs is dead & what are you going to do about it

By D. A. Hoskins

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

April 7 to 9, 2016

You might think that a title alluding to the late, great actor Jackie Burroughs might be attached to a dance with strong narrative, dramatic elements. You would be wrong.

Over four years of preparing this show, D.A. Hoskins and his performers, sought to reduce dance to its basics: sound and movement. As Hoskins says, they were trying to isolate the “physical” in “physicality.”

The audience is positioned around three sides of the performance space, on the same level as the dancers and musician. As we take our seats, Danielle Baskerville, Luke Garwood  and Robert Kingsbury, dressed formally, are standing and strolling around, speaking in low voices to each other. It’s as if we’ve walked in on a cocktail party seen through a soundproof glass.

That prelude serves to distinguish life from art. For when the lights come back up on the show, the performers enter in socks, wearing unremarkable T-shirts and jeans. At the corner of the performance space, musician Christopher Willes, crouched on the floor, is surrounded by his electronic devices. The sound accompaniment for Jackie Burroughs is a shell, a literal auditorium, consisting of a steady hum only slightly modulated from movement to movement of the hour-long show.

To go this minimal and demand this much attentiveness from an audience requires disciplined  and accomplished performers.  Baskerville, Garwood and Kingsbury fit this bill and their presence keeps up a feeling of hopeful anticipation as they go their meandering way, expressionless and unconnected for the first portion of the show.

Gradually they dance together, in pairs, and as a trio, whirling occasionally into muscular solos. The choreography is classic modern, contract and release, with a principle of over-balancing informing the folding and unfolding of limbs and torsos. Repetitive shapes, such as a kind of sideways falling arabesque, make patterns we can almost decode. There are some lovely lines and graceful partnering among the intricate combinations , but never any suggestion of a dramatic arc. Eye contact is rare and meaningless.

Dance distilled to this kind of physical abstraction can make its own story and the language here – the flowing movements of each dancer, reaching , straining, collapsing and rising again – is for the most part engaging. Rather as if the statues in the garden came to life under the moonlight.

Hoskins runs the risk of allowing minor distractions to take one’s attention, which the appearance of Garwood’s underwear, the stage lighting staining the face of a spectator or Willes’s tinkering with a mylar sheet and skewers placed in a tin can certainly do.

Worse is the electronic sound itself, sometimes suggestive of water rushing, or a distant avalanche, but mostly irritating, like radio static; for some maybe anxiety-inducing.

This is a show to attend for the exercise it is. An hour in which we appreciate the elements that go into a great performance. Something Jackie Burroughs understood well.

Photo of Robert Kinsbury, Danielle Baskerville and Luke Garwood by Jeremy Mimnagh

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