Anatomy of a performance artist


To anyone who knew him or watched him, there was never any doubt that Keith Cole was born to perform. A trained dancer, Cole, like most dancers, resorted to other means to pay the rent. Whether it was going on stage in Pride Week as one the Cheap Queers or hosting events such as a burlesque night or a public debate, Cole, six-foot-four and often in highly mascara-ed drag, could be counted on to do something entertaining, outrageous or even instructive. His most remarkable performance was a run for mayor, complete with well attended rallies, in 2010: he placed eighth in a field of 80 candidates.

At a certain point, Cole, who holds a BFA from York University, decided to go back to school and in 2012 earned an MFA from OCAD University in performance art. His reasoning: “It seemed as if dance didn’t have any new ideas, theatre didn’t seem to be going anywhere and I thought, if you want to know where things are going, look at the visual arts.”

For his graduating project, Cole built a “big huge gay performance art vehicle,” from an abandoned wide-seat wheelchair he found, a platform with a sail fashioned from a shower curtain and a shopping cart. For six days, he pulled the contraption around Toronto, occasionally stopping to do a little tap dance on the platform that doubled as a bed when he pulled over to sleep at night. On the seventh day, Cole wheeled his vehicle into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto and disassembled it. “I took it apart, so there was nothing left but a bit of detritus to sweep up. . . It was as if it had never existed,” he says.

In performances such as this one, Cole not only reinvented himself, but was re-fashioning performance art. In the 70s’ and 80s’ performance artists staged their work in art galleries or artist-run centres. And while the works of artists such as General Idea, Tanya Mars and Joanna Householder were often ephemeral, but documented, the context meant their work was treated as any other kind of visual art. And usually these performances were scripted.

At the juncture of old and new is FADO Performance Art Centre. Currently run by artistic and administrative director Shannon Cochrane, FADO has been the home for performance artists since 1993. Cochrane has provided support to Cole and collaborated with him on his book club project on the Jacqueline Susann novel Valley of the Dolls that concluded in January, with a mock graduation ceremony at 401 Richmond and a screening of the Valley of the Dolls movie.

Cochrane had announced she was interested in performance art projects that worked on the concept of a salon, an academic course or intellectually based club. This was made-to-measure for Cole, who as a sessional lecturer at York University and Seneca College, had been toying with the idea of teaching as performance. So he put up the idea of a book club that would run for five weeks. Participants got a free copy of the book, but were expected to read the entire novel, do homework and turn up for every session prepared to discuss topics outlined in the course syllabus. The whole thing worked even better than Cole had anticipated.

Inspired by the bedroom scenes in the Valley of the Dolls movie, Cole, who dressed the part of professor, held the book club sessions in a downtown hotel at Richmond and Spadina where people could sprawl on large king-size bed. Only one participant questioned the idea of reading “this shitty novel.” Cole was working off the legitimate notion of re-evaluating work in a new cultural context. “We just focused on the book. The book and the movie are quite different. The ending is completely different.  We would have sessions where we would talk about the nameless characters in the book,” or they would discuss the opinions of a bestselling book and popular movie as they are taken up by later generations of readers and viewers.

Cole’s master stroke was to persuade novelist and performer Kristyn Dunnion to pose as an academic giving the keynote address to the graduates. Posing the question, how many come from small towns? Dunnion delivered her lines: “We have this in common: aspiration, desperation, desire. We abandoned local expectation to enter into a magical place – urban, fictional, where we could become someone completely new. Or completely Gay. Just like us, the main characters come from shitty little towns to The Big City. So far, how is this different from our own stories?”

Following Dunnion’s speech, Cole, wearing a Harvard graduate’s majestic gown, handed out certificates to those who’d completed the course and then we watched Valley of the Dolls (1967), starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward. Even if you hadn’t sat in on the book club sessions there was much to appreciate in this finale.

In 2016, Art Gallery of Ontario curator Wanda Nanibush, invited Keith Cole to do a piece for her show, Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989, specifically to pay tribute to the work of the late David Buchan (1950-1993) who was a multi-media performance artist whose works often commented on advertising and pop culture. This was the opportunity Cole needed to do his Tom Thomson drowning piece. He’d originally planned to put it on in the city-run Owen Sound gallery that houses some Tom Thomson works. But when the curators there discovered Cole’s take on the mystery of Thomson’s death was that the artist was gay and perhaps killed by one of the many women who lusted after him, Cole’s proposal was dropped.

Now he had the Signe Eaton gallery at the AGO in which to give three five-and-a-half-hour-long performances, that consisted of Cole, wearing a wig he’d made himself out of colourful fishing line (Thomson was found with a line wrapped around his ankle) repeatedly dunking his head into a canoe filled with water, and tossing his fishing-line tresses back until all the water was out on the gallery floor.

For those following the storyline of performance art in Canada, this was full circle. Cole had brought his brand of performance art back to back to a visual arts space to be performed for an audience of visual artists and viewers.

With typical cheekiness, Cole titled the October 2016 performance, “#Hashtag Gallery Slut, A three-way performance . . . featuring The Spirit of Tom Thomson, The Spirit of David Buchan and Keith Cole.” The book that came out of this show will be launched on July 9th at the Gladstone Hotel. Who dares predict what Cole will show up in?

Photos clockwise from top left:  Keith Cole performance at the AGO; Cole does the spirit of Tom Thomson; Valley of the Dolls book club participant Ken Moffatt with Cole and Kristyn Dunnion; photography by Henry Chan

Morphing in amazing ways

The scenes you see in Metamorphosis span the planet and are at once devastating, in the record they provide of global warming’s destruction of the environment, and heart-lifting, in showing the ways that the human imagination drives survival.

Metamorphosis is the term for a biological process — an animal’s growth and maturation — during which time the creature’s physical structure can radically change; from egg to butterfly, for instance. Velcrow Ripper and his co-director and life partner Novi Ami, gave that name to their extraordinary film, now on the western leg of its Canadian launch, because when they started thinking about this film, they were inspired by the life cycle of a monarch butterfly.

Their documentary, shot on a grand, cinematic scale, charts the ways in which humans and other life forms are adapting to their changed environment and undergoing a kind of metamorphosis.

“We can move this paradigm,” says Ripper, speaking of losses due to climate change. “But we have to figure out how to live in a symbiotic relationship [with changed conditions on earth]. And part of that shift is a cultural shift, a psychological and emotional shift and artists are part of that shift.”

Scientists, thinkers, writers, artists and architects became their collaborators and provided the narrative heard in voiceovers.

“Something going from one state to another that you couldn’t have anticipated,” says Sue Halpern, author of Four Wings and a Prayer, about metamorphosis. “We actually have a choice about what that metamorphosis looks like.”

Robert J. Lifton, psychiatrist and author of The Climate Swerve, reminds us we are capable of redirecting our imaginations to confront climate truths, thus replicating a form of metamorphosis in the service of human evolution.

On a budge of just under $1-million (“We use our resources wisely,” says Ami), the couple embarked on the project as co-writers and directors around the same time their son Phoenix was conceived. Now three-and-a-half years old, the little guy accompanied his parents through some of the most challenging shoots of the project.

With curiosity as their guide, Ripper and Ami made some amazing discoveries, as they travelled from the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan had struck, killing more than 6,000 people, to Milan, Venice, Toronto, where Alpha school students were working on a project to provide plants for migrating butterflies to stock up on, to several locations in North and Central America.

In the American southwest, they met Dennis McClung, founder and CEO of Garden Pool. He and his helpers are converting swimming pools that no one can fill anymore because of drought, into backyard biospheres, where with the right tweaking, plant and animal life can thrive.

“We wanted to offer the film as a poem,” says Ami. Seamlessly integrated into the film, is the work of artists such as Jean-Paul Bourdier, photographer, painter and performance director and creator of an arresting scene near the opening of the documentary, shows painted bodies on a sandy beach.

Sculptor Jason DeCaires Taylor sinks his statues in the ocean, so they become the sites of coral gardens and other marine life colonies.

Michael Reynolds, a New Mexico architect, is interviewed at the site of one of his Earthships, passive, self-sufficient, solar houses, designed to look as if they grew out of the earth they sit on. “If we could make it so that every human on this planet has everything they need, without anything centralized,” he says, “. . . . all of a sudden, stress is gone. Humans would morph into their next phase of evolution.”

Metamorphosis opens with a caterpillar (“we’re like that,” says one commentator, “eating everything in sight”) and then we see the chrysalis, the emerging butterfly. At the end of the documentary, some very tricky photography captures the thousands of monarch butterflies at the end of their winter migration to Mexico. The words of Homero Aridjis, Mexican poet and environmentalist, are subtitled on the screen. Layered one on top of another on a big tree trunk, the butterflies, he says, “are like a single organism,” trembling with life.

Metamorphosis screenings with Nova Ami and Velcrow Ripper presenting:

June 20, Globe Cinema, Calgary; June 22, Metro Cinema, Edmonton; June 24, Cinecenta, UVic, Victoria; June 26, Vancity Theatre, Vancouver

Photo of work by Jean-Paul Bourdier courtesy of the National Film Board



David W McFadden October 11, 1940 – June 6, 2018

Nowhere is it recorded what David McFadden’s first words were. But I’m willing to bet his earliest utterances would have been a wisecrack, a haiku or a rhyming couplet. McFadden’s inventiveness, his verbal agility and his wit were constants, no matter what challenges life threw at him.

I first met him in the mid-70s. As a cub reporter for the book trade journal Quill & Quire, I had taken it upon myself to write profiles of some big-name poets. McFadden lived in Hamilton, where he was born October 11, 1940. He and his wife Joan and their daughters Alison and Jenny lived in a tidy bungalow on the mountain. “I’ll meet you at the bus station,” Dave had said on the phone. Sure enough, he pulled up in a VW van – one that features in The Great Canadian Sonnet, a collaboration between McFadden and his artist friend Greg Curnoe – and drove me to his home.

Joan was at work and the girls were in school. McFadden, a pretty adept interviewer himself, gave an  impressive show-and-tell. He took me to the basement to show me where he worked: at a desk beside the big old furnace. He lived a quiet life. He was a good family man. The neighbours had no complaints, although at least one of them had asked whether Mr. McFadden was ever going to get a job.

As I recall (it seems I never actually wrote him up for Q&Q), his most recent collection of poetry at the time of our meeting was A Knight in Dried Plums, published by McClelland & Stewart. He was maybe 35 years old and this was his umpteenth publication. McFadden’s output was phenomenal. Poetry seemed to pour out of him and the small press books were notable for titles only Dave could have come up with: The Poem Poem (1967), Letters from the Earth to the Earth (1968), Poems Worth Knowing (1971), Intense Pleasure (1972), The Ova Yogas (1972), The Poet’s Progress (1977), The Saladmaker (1977), I Don’t Know (1978) and my favourite title, My Body Was Eaten by Dogs (1981).

Apart from the occasional arts council grant, teaching position (one at Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC) or writer-in-residence term, McFadden lived by writing alone. And like any creative writer in Canada, he was a poor scrivener. Quill & Quire was very lucky to get him as a columnist in the 1980s. In those distant days before email and the Internet, one communicated by telephone or written letter. As his editor, I delighted in our correspondence as much as the columns themselves. One continuing narrative I recall was about road trips taken by David, David, David and David – him and his friends with the same first name.

McFadden’s ventures into fiction began with the Great Canadian Sonnet, published by Coach House in 1974, but the books that brought him a wider readership than he’d had before — A Trip Around Lake Huron (1980), A Trip Around Lake Erie (1980) and A Trip Around Lake Ontario (1988) established McFadden in a prose genre all his own. The trip books were travelogues with a difference: notebook in his pocket, hands on the wheel, Dave/Dad let his tours take him wherever his imagination led him. The encounters he wrote about were real, but the narrative form was akin to fiction or memoir. Here’s entry 14 from A Trip Around Lake Huron:

“A year earlier I took my little family on a motoring trip from Point Pelee to Tobermory . . . We got lost in Sarnia. At one point we were parked on the side of the road in Point Edward, a Sarnia suburb . . .. parked in front of a church . . . . There was a sign out front saying that the Rev. Orlo Miller was the pastor. That was a coincidence of the first order because only a week earlier I’d been reading a book by the same Orlo Miller, The Day-Spring, all about pre-Columbian European influences on the Americas. I’d forgotten that Miller was a Point Edward clergyman.”

He then goes on to discuss the relative merits of a book by Miller on the Black Donnellys. This chatty, digressive style – where the digressions take centre stage – served McFadden well in a series of travel books he wrote, beginning with An Innocent in Ireland and continuing with the Innocent’s visits to Scotland, Newfoundland and Cuba.

Davey, as some of his friends called him, was one of the most learned persons I ever met. He had no post-secondary education, but he was a big reader and was skilled editorially; having worked as a proofreader at the Hamilton Spectator, he often helped out at press time at Coach House. He had a system for reading: he entered a list of books into his computer (he was an early adopter) and programmed the list to spit out titles at random to determine what he’d read next. His friends sometimes joined him in reading projects, but no one could keep up with McFadden. Just for fun, for instance, he’d re-read all of William Shakespeare’s plays. As a poet he practised his craft assiduously; he could easily define a trochee or a spondee. His mastery of meter is demonstrated in the 1987 book that earned him a Governor General’s Literary Award nomination, Gypsy Guitar; One Hundred Poems of Romance and Betrayal.

Living alone in Toronto in the 1990s, McFadden made do in some not very suitable accommodations. For a time, he lived in an office in a downtown building. The office served as bedroom and workspace. For his ablutions, there was the men’s washroom down the hall. The winters were harsh and by the early 2000s, the poet’s health began to fail.

In 2009 McFadden was invited to a party that changed his life for the better. There he met Merlin Homer, an artist and a widow who found her match in David. They married in 2011 and the smile on McFadden’s face in the wedding photos makes him look like the happiest man in the world. By now David had been diagnosed with two terminal diseases, lymphoma and a rare form of Alzheimer’s that causes aphasia. Even very common words might sometimes elude him. McFadden kept on writing. Merlin supported him all the way.

As Stuart Ross, his editor at Mansfield Press, points out, David simply adapted to his neurological reality. “The lines became shorter,” Ross told CBC Radio. Some quite remarkable books of poetry came out of this period in his life, including What’s the Score? (2012), which earned McFadden the 2013 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.

Here’s a poem from Shouting Your Name Down the Well; Tankas and Haiku, published by Mansfield in 2013:

On Government Street

Some con men try to sell me

Hare Krishna books.

“I’m already enlightened,”

I say. So they ask for cash.

David William McFadden will be missed by many, but with his words he is ever with us. He leaves his wife Merlin Homer, his brother Jack McFadden, his daughter Jenny, grandchildren Benny, Chloe and Amy, and great-granddaughter Lila.

Photo by Paul Orenstein


A recognition and a resurrection

The man who sits tied to a wooden chair under a harsh light speaks the words of the doomed, the cocksure talk of one who boasts of his crimes to suppress his own fear. He sits on the third tier of a wooden platform, presented to us, like a sacrifice. He is surrounded by 23 thickly braided ropes hanging in the darkness. “I raped 23 girls. . .I don’t care for the world much . . . I didn’t mind killing . . . I don’t know why.”

This is Stetko. In the original productions of Colleen Wagner’s 1995 play The Monument, he was a universal soldier-rapist, inspired by the playwright’s shock and outrage at the many civil wars, the ethnic-cleansing and the rape and killing of women and girls at the hands of armed combatants.

Restaged by director Jani Lauzon in the context of the thousands of Canadian missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, The Monument takes on a new immediacy and urgency and opens up a space for accountability, a resurrection of the forgotten and nameless victims and an opportunity for reconciliation.

In this production Stetko refers to himself as a gang member. After a few minutes of his manic confessional, a figure emerges from the shadows. This is Merja, dressed like the female prison camp commandant in Lina Wertmueller’s Seven Beauties. Stetko takes her for his executioner. But, Merja announces, “I’m your saviour. You have to do everything I say, you must obey me for the rest of your life.”

From this point on the two characters inhabit a conceptual space, in which both must travel to a new understanding of what kind of healing, if any, is possible. Tamara Podemski’s Merja is fierce; she seeks revenge, harm, power over Stetko, who becomes her slave and is treated like a dog, humiliated and tortured with reports of his own girlfriend’s rape and murder. Augusto Bitter’s Stetko learns abasement, is offered a rabbit to give him something to care for until it is cruelly removed. He faces his own crimes: “It’s easy to hate and it’s easy to kill if you hate enough,” he says

Merja finds that none of this assuages her pain; she takes Stetko, whom she calls Stinko, to the forest to unearth his victims, the ropes are lowered, festooned with red ribbons to represent the brutality of their deaths.

The language of the play is not profound and Stetko’s repeated references to obeying a soldier’s orders don’t make sense in the new context, but it is not the text that makes Monument worth seeing. The play works on a symbolic level, asking the question if these missing and murdered women could speak what would they say? Podemski’s powerful performance gives the answer: demand their humanity and be recognized for the daughters, mothers, sisters that they were — loved and cherished and put in harm’s way through no fault of their own.

The Monument

By Colleen Wagner

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set designed by Elahe Marjovi

Lighting design by Louise Guinand

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until April 1

Photo of Tamara Podemski and Augusto Bitter by Joseph Michael

A thrilling spectacle to stir the heart

The Sleeping Beauty, jewel in the crown of the National Ballet of Canada’s classical repertoire, boasts more bravura dancing per square meter per minute than one could ever hope for in any other ballet. Not to mention enough brocade, velvet, feathers, ermine and sparkling jewels to furnish a Liberace concert.

Sumptuous visually, musically and balletically, the Tchaikovsky/Petipa grand ballet, first performed in the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1890, is the ultimate showcase for the highly accomplished classical ballet dancer. In 2006, artistic director Karen Kain restaged Rudolf Nureyev’s opulent 1972 production for the company with refurbished set and costumes; The Sleeping Beauty made the company’s spectacular entrance on to the stage of the newly opened Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. At the same time Kain upped the ante for the dancers, giving the audience a continuous round of high-octane, dazzling variations en pointe and en aire.

Yet drama is not sacrificed to athletic spectacle. Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s libretto provided Tchaikovsky with a poetic interpretation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, inspiring the composer to create what he considered one of his best works, meticulously crafted and arranged to express in dance the powerful themes of the conquering power of love over hatred and envy, innocence and joy over corruption and power-mongering. (Vsevolozhsky also specified the ballet be set in the opulent – to the point of decadent — Versailles court of Louis the XIV.)

In 1890  Marius Petipa placed Princess Aurora at the centre of the ballet, to present the virtuosity of the Italian prima ballerina Carlotta Brianza. When Nureyev choreographed his production of The Sleeping Beauty, he created a more elaborate role for Prince Florimund, inserting himself as the melancholy prince prominently into Act II. But the central storyline remains that of Aurora, whose transformation from 16-year-old innocent full of joy, through ethereal, romantic ideal in the vision the Lilac Fairy presents to the prince, to mature womanhood constitutes the drama of the ballet.

Heather Ogden’s Aurora makes this fairy tale journey come true, in her spirited embodiment of a girl’s blossoming as if lit from within. She is sublime in the famous Rose Adagio, when the princess is presented to her four suitors (gallant Félix Paquet, Nan Wang, Peng-Fei Jiang and Ben Rudisin), balancing elegantly on the tip of one pointe shoe for the culminating moment, like Botticelli’s Venus Rising.

Guillaume Côté, once out of his velvet jacket and over-the-knee boots, which seem dated and too preening for the romantic hero Prince Florimund, arrives with such attack he seems to fly across the stage in his Act II solo. He and Ogden make a formidable pair in the grand pas de deux, the culmination of many fine set pieces —

including the diamond pas de cinq in Act III performed by Chelsy Meiss and Diamond Man Jack Bertinshaw — rising on rounds of applause in the balletic expression of a rebirth after a century’s journey into the darkness.

The performance of the Variations in Act I are no mere warm-up for the grand pas de deux to come. Hannah Fischer is particularly brilliant in the solo First Variation, but all six performances are stand-outs, highlighting the beauty and the symmetry that brings order amidst the chaos sown by Carabosse with her evil curse to eliminate Aurora and bring down the kingdom. Alejandra Perez-Gomez’s Carabosse is a deeply malevolent force, close to the ground and pagan, pitted against Taya Howard’s radiant Lilac Fairy who floats across the stage as she casts her spell to put the court to sleep for a hundred years.

Jonathan Renna brings a delightful curve of the calf to the dancing he’s afforded as King Florestan to Sophie Letendre’s Queen.

This production preserves the high-camp elements that, along with the pussycats in Act III bring an element of comic relief in the form of outlandish headgear, overly abundant male wigs and the over-the-top evil obsequy of Carabosse’s slimy attendants and the caricature witches, who preside over the birthday party like a black cloud. Such details are reminders of what happens in worldly realms when excess and inward-looking vanity leaves room for rot to set in. And they set off the grace and joy expressed in the many-splendored, stiffly tutued, flawless ensemble dances, such as that of the maids of honour and their pages, that take us through scene by scene in this thrilling feast of a ballet.

The Sleeping Beauty

Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Produced by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa

Staged by Karen Kain and the artistic staff of the National Ballet of Canada

Set and costume design by Nicholas Georgiadis

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through March 18

Photo of Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté by Bruce Zinger.







Made in Canada a mixed blessing

You have to wonder whether the choice of “made in Canada” as the selection criterion for the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program was somehow forced upon the company. For this homegrown program is decidedly mixed and not entirely in a good way.

Toronto-born Robert Binet, choreographic associate at NBoC since 2013, has in a short time created an impressive number of works for the company and for several European companies including the Royal Ballet. The Dreamers Ever Leave You, a co-production of the ballet and the Art Gallery of Ontario, was created in 2016 as a response to the exhibition The Idea of North: Paintings by Lawren S. Harris as a piece of “immersive dance.” In other words, while the dancers performed, presumably in close proximity to the paintings and the piano on which composer Lubomyr Melnyk played his trademark Continuous Music, the audience members were free to move around observing the dancers up-close and personal. But transferred to the huge Four Seasons stage and seen from a great distance, the pianist in the pit, Dreamers leaves its audience behind. In place of the changing perspective afforded by the viewers walking about the dancers, we get slowly moving, sometimes obscuring abstract panels, stand-ins for Harris’s arctic mountain peaks, and some chilly shifting lighting. Melnyk’s rapid and difficult sequences (in the 70s in Paris he composed music for modern dance) bears no apparent relationship to the choreography and comes off as monotonous, lulling us into indifference. Were it not for the staging, we might well have appreciated much more the outstanding performers in this piece, among them Hannah Fischer, Heather Ogden and Harrison James.

Particularly well made in Canada might be the headline for James Kudelka’s The Four Seasons, first performed in 1997 and often restaged but never failing to excite. The 45-minute piece became the signature dance for Rex Harrington on whom Kudelka created the role of A Man, placing him at the centre of the Vivaldi composition (1720-23) inspired by the landscape paintings of Marco Ricci. The sublime four violin concerti, with their accompanying sonnets in tribute to the spirit of the seasons, have attracted quite a few choreographers. But Kudelka’s genius is in matching the intricacy of the music with very complicated steps and partnering while turning up the passion and the drama of a man for all seasons — in the stages of love, in maturity and finally dogged by Death. Guillaume Cote here achieves the balance of emotion and technical mastery required in the role of A Man. Jillian Vanstone is spritely as Spring and Greta Hodgkinson somehow sexy, sultry and majestic all at once as A Man’s Summer partner. Xiao Nan Yu in Winter is similarly a strong presence, in the role of accomplice to the other side, with the promise of rebirth contained in the achingly beautiful music. The inspired costumes designed by TRAC, adding layers to the dancers with the passing of the seasons, are integral to the drama, as is the extraordinary lighting design of David Finn, bathing the dancers in rich projections of ever-changing shades of green, red, yellow and blue.

Emergence, the 30-minute dance that closes the mixed program, is a piece commissioned by NBoC from Vancouver-based choreographer of well-earned renown Crystal Pite in 2009, relatively early in her career. Pite took a scientific approach to the challenge of creating work on the hierarchy of a ballet company. As she said at the time, “I wanted to look for a parallel in nature, at a hierarchical structure that creates amazing complex structures.” Looking at beehives, ostensibly a top-down structure ordered by the Queen, she discovered the swarm – the hivemind — an intelligent being that operates on a complex system of consensus-building. Which is what we see in the powerful ensemble dancing of nearly 40 dancers, the women dressed in black-widow leotards for needle-like point work and the men bare-chested with powerful legs and arms like enlarged, menacing insects with a common purpose. Owen Belton’s soundscape of electronic high-pitched humming, marching sounds and cricket-like communication gives shape to the swarm that emerges – a collective unconscious that operates like a secret language. Seen in the light of Pite’s more recent work for her company Kidd Pivot, Emergence appears underdeveloped; she had only a short time to create the piece. But its revival serves as a taste for better things to come, as Pite will create a full-length piece for the National Ballet’s 2019-2020 season, something to be richly anticipated.

Made in Canada

Mixed program of the National Ballet of Canada

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, through March 4

Artists of the Ballet in Emergence; photo by Bruce Zinger.

A dancey, entrancing Dream

A barefoot Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Chekhov Collective is more akin to dance and performance art than to conventional theatre. But this show’s cast, adept at physical expression, are also well-trained in Elizabethan utterance and wring new meaning from the comedy’s lines.

What they achieve is a rollicking, laugh-out-loud funny version of the play that exploits the sly humour in Shakespeare’s spoof of the acting world and the mix of magic, make-believe and nonsense that is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Lines drawn from a speech by Theseus, the Athenian duke, about lovers, fantasies and madmen are given to actor Natasha Greenblatt to introduce the play: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” In other words, we’re going to see where our imaginations can take us in mounting a play with the barest of props, costumes and set design amid a soundscape of vaguely Celtic period music.

Director Richard Sheridan Willis makes a comic virtue of the necessity to double up on roles, with a cross-dressing cast of seven making a multitude. Only Zach Counsil, a scenery-chewing Bottom, gets a single role, and he has three parts to play in it.

Welsh-born actor Paul Amos is Theseus, affianced to the noblewoman Hippolyta, performed by Rena Polley. As the play opens, he is trying to sort out a trio of lovers, to the satisfaction of Egeus, another nobleman, who is asking the duke to intervene in the matter of his daughter Hermia, who is smitten with Lysander. Egeus, played by Elizabeth Saunders wearing a man’s overcoat, is determined that Hermia should marry Demetrius, whom Hermia loathes. Greenblatt’s Hermia, looking teenaged in jeans and white blouse, is feisty in love; she conspires with Lysander (Jesse Nerenberg in a young professional’s white shirt and blue/green tie) to meet at night in the forest, from whence they will run off to his dowager aunt’s and marry.

Demetrius (Michael Man) is meanwhile the object of unwanted affection from Helena, played by Christina Fox, an obvious beauty in a lacy, frumpy dress who speaks oxymoronically of her own lack of appeal. Helena overhears Lysander and Hermia’s plans and vows revenge by sending Demetrius into the wood to chase down Hermia before she makes off with Lysander.

Enter Peter Quince and his band of players, tradesmen who will perform the story of “Pyramus and Thisby” as entertainment for the Theseus/Hippolyta nuptials. Michael Man, the benighted Demetrius, is now the smug, smiling Quince, with his satchel primly held by a strap across his chest – reducing one to helpless giggles every time he comes on with his scruffy band. Greenblatt is Snug, the tinker. Quince is constantly interrupted by Nick Bottom, the weaver, who feels he’s the last word in showmanship. “If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some measure,” he says of his intentions for playing Pyramus. Remaining quick-change artists are Nerenberg as Francis Flute, the bellows mender who will be Thisby; Fox as Robin Starveling, who gets to be the wall, holding up too fingers as the chink between which the lovers whisper to each other.

Much brisk stage business takes place as players under bobbing lights like stars or fireflies  move in and out through gauzy curtains that make a scrim.

A long green patchwork, velvety throw with pillowy knolls rolls out from behind the curtains to serve as the wood where the fairy king Oberon (Amos with a mossy stole over his black suit jacket) rules with Titania (Polley in a spangled gown). A nimble, shape-shifting Saunders is Oberon’s eager fairy assistant Puck, charged with bewitching, by herbal means, Titania to fall in love with Bottom, now transformed into a braying ass. Puck is assigned too to drug Demetrius so he falls in love with Helena, but gets it wrong, so that both Athenians are now entranced with Helena and Hermia becomes the rejected one. All this is accomplished with a sleight-of-hand tossing about of miniature red lights that spring from their fingers.

The minutes whiz past in this Shakespearean, clownish romp. Minimalist in its set design, but rococo in its acting and physical comedy, this Dream is a dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Richard Sheridan Willis

Sound design by Rob Bertola; set and costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle; lighting by Noah Feaver; magic design by Zach Counsil; movement by Melinda Little

Presented by The Chekhov Collective

At The Citadel, Toronto, through March 11

Photo of Zach Counsil, Natasha Greenblatt, Michael Man, Jesse Nerenberg and Christina Fox by Racheal McCaig