When someone suggested to Laurence Lemieux that she make a dance honoring the Canadians lost in World War I, her first thought was for the community where her Citadel + Compagnie is based: Toronto’s Regent Park.
It didn’t take much delving in the mass of war documents maintained in Canadian archives to locate eight men from the Dundas and Parliament neighbourhood killed in the battle for Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Two of them shared the same last name: a father and son who lived on Gerrard Street. One soldier Lemieux discovered was William James Hawkey. “He lived just around the corner from the Citadel in a house that remains today.”
Starting from the specific and the personal has paid off in Jusqu’a Vimy, a title best translated as All the way to Vimy. The through-line in this complex multi-media production is the journey taken by these young men, untrained recruits entering a war of a kind never before experienced.
Making drama has often been Lemieux’s choreographic modus operandi. She knew what she was doing when she picked from the archives the actual soldiers, then assembled her dancers — Luke Garwood, Andrew McCormack, Philip McDermott, Tyler Gledhill, Connor Mitton, Brodie Stevenson, Daniel Gomez, Zhenya Cerneacov and Kaitlin Standeven – assigning the identity of a soldier to each of the men.
“They got to read all the information about that soldier and then we all [including composer John Gzowski and production designer Jeremy Mimnagh] went to France to visit the memorial site and look at their graves,” says Lemieux, who was fine-tuning lighting cues on the eve of opening.
Jusqu’a Vimy is a totally immersive experience, lending access to the emotions and torments of people who lived through a horror 100 years ago. The show is the dance equivalent of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars, which relived the experience of WWI soldiers from just a few kilometres north of Regent Park in Rosedale.
The men are introduced one by one as each dancer advances into the performance space. Blown up on Cheryl Lalonde’s cloth surround, are handwritten documents indicating an individual “killed in action” or “missing in action” or his pay rate. Before the dance has even begun we get stark reminders of the fragility of life.
Jusqu’a Vimy is structured in sections in which the dancer/soldiers, in period uniforms, puttees and boots, move in formation as if on a march, partner each other or make a scrum to carry off a fallen mate. Making friends, they enter battle, bombarded time and again with artillery. Or they shiver in trenches huddled against each other. You get the message, as orange explosions burst on all sides of the screen, cued to Gzowski’s powerful soundscape. One minute that soldier beside you is your pal; the next he’s a corpse.
Kaitlin Standeven enters the scene at intervals, once carrying a paper notice, another time a folded greatcoat, wandering among the soldiers as if they were ghosts of fallen husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.
Mimnagh makes the landscape of the silent Vimy woods the central image, manipulating his projections to show the change of seasons and to create a lasting visual memorial. This is a show that will endure, lest we forget.
Choreography by Laurence Lemieux
Musical composition by John Gzowski
Production design by Jeremy Mimnagh
Lighting by Simon Rossiter
Costume and sets by Cheryl Lalonde
At The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Toronto, from November 16 to 18 and November 22 to 25
Photography by Jeremy Mimnagh