Moving in every sense of the word

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.

Jusqu’a Vimy

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

Mesmerizing moves

From its opening scene in a living room under constant rearrangement, Factory took me back to big ensemble arrangements of a kind you might see at the National Ballet. Michael Caldwell is a choreographer with classical tendencies.

Give him five outstanding dancers and you get a perfect mix of ensembles, solos, duets, trios all in a seamless flowing movement, and exchange of energies.

Factory posits “the riotous disruption of a hyper-connected society.” To this viewer it looked like a place where people were constantly coming and going, colliding, combining, working together or apart and finally arriving home.

In the room that is being arranged even as we wait for the dance to begin are: a standing fan, a red square carpet, a small table, an old-fashioned radio console, a desk chair. Lori Duncan, Louis Laberge-Côté, Benjamin Landsberg, Kaitlin Standeven and Heidi Strauss are all dressed in clothes you’d expect to see in the workplace or on the street. Laberge-Côté wears a raincoat over dress shirt. Landsberg is dressed like a biker and wears dark glasses. The women all wear outfits office workers might don.

Phil Stong’s outstanding soundscape brings sounds like the ocean, traffic, a factory assembly line, the hum of electricity, the rolling sound at a skateboard park or tranquil music.

The carpet rollout announces the action. Caldwell’s production designer Joe Pagnan has made brilliant use of this prop, which is finally crumpled up against the wall like a sculpture. The shoes they all removed are contained there.

These dancers co-ordinate in a way that bespeaks rigorous rehearsal. An opening solo by Standeven is supported and watched by the other four participants, just as it might be in a ballet. At times, they all move as one unit, striding across the space like creatures on a ship rolling at sea. Sometimes they fall as if victims of a shipwreck.

At moments, a figure will appear like an observer, a chronicler of urban life, then the configuration dissolves and another episode begins. This quintet operates together like the parts of a perpetual motion machine.

There’s peace and struggle, a fight scene and lots of contract-release coupling. A principle at play here is that a soloist will start slowly, then pirouette, then spin out of control. Then it’s someone else’s turn.

Factory has a pleasing symmetry that makes one hope it will return to the stage before too long.


By Michael Caldwell

Sound by Phil Strong

Light by Noah Feaver

Production design by Joe Pagnan

Presented by Citadel + Compagnie

At The Citadel, Toronto, until Sept. 23

Zhenya Cerneacov photo


Pity the poor immigrant

A strange, lost, nervous-looking man wanders around the living-room set of Title and Deed as we settle into our seats, amid tables holding lamps of the kind our mothers used to decorate with. A couple of standing lamps with old shades illuminate the back of the space.

To preserve the premise of the play, suffice it to say that Title and Deed is a 65-minute monologue performed outstandingly by Christopher Stanton. He being the lost, nervous-looking man already on set.

It helped that this nameless character’s repetitive gestures and mock diffidence reminded me of a dear, departed friend, because one of the big themes of Title and Deed is death, and the consequent remembering of whom we’ve lost and what they gave us. Especially our parents.

As a playwright Will Eno has tremendous range and in this piece has grasped the art of the fiction writer, getting inside the character’s head and giving an actor the difficult task of alternately addressing the audience, declaiming for no one in particular and, when all else fails, talking to himself.

Title and Deed had a brief run in November 2015 at Artscape Youngplace. Arnott and Stanton have undoubtedly refined the play, but the tagline still applies: “life as a state of permanent exile.” So you might imagine our monologist as a brother from another planet or a visitor from the past or simply someone who’s landed in the city after growing up in Britain, or some other English-speaking culture.

Our exile refers often to customs, both the entry process at the airport, and the traditions he recalls from his homeland. “ ‘Eyes are the window of the eyes,’ we used to say.”

The journey has put him in a puckish mood. It might be the excitement, or the process of being brought in to a new country (a funny bit of business with lightbulbs on a lampstand, cords pulled to imitate the photographing of one’s retina) or simply new bacteria. He begins to meditate on home, “where the hat’s hanging and the placenta is buried.” He muses on words, and their inadequacy. “Words take a toll.” But, “they do the job.”

He’s a lover of words, including women, both the word and the objects. Two females make their appearance in his meandering talk: Lauren (“her teeth shone in the moonlight”) and the blonde he calls Lisa (“. . .from this vicinity. It sounds so sexual.”)

This man doesn’t want to sound like a complainer. “I assure you, I am a celebrant,” he comments, dramatic soliloquy quickly morphing to direct address, when he asks an audience member if she can hear his jaws clicking. “I grind my teeth at night and maybe I’m doing it now.”

Fascinatingly, Mr. X recalls his own birth: “ ‘It’s a boy’ can sound more like a diagnosis than a piece of news.” But he admits he has no recollection of the conception.

Title and Deed is not all fun and games, sarcasm and uric acid. There are moments of sadness and genuine philosophical insight. Go see it and find out.


Title and Deed

Written by Will Eno

Directed by Stewart Arnott

Performed by Christopher Stanton

Presented by Nightfall Theatrics

At Tarragon Workspace, Toronto until October 8

Trey Anthony does it again

How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Factory Theatre, Toronto, until March 5, 2017

You could take the word Black out of the title of Trey Anthony’s play and it would still stand for the story she’s written. The strengths of How Black Mothers Say I Love You are at once its specificity and its universality, its personal and its political significance.

The play was inspired by the story of Anthony’s Jamaican grandmother who left children behind to seek a better life for them in England. To earn the money to reunite her family she swept the floors of the trains in the London transit system. It’s a familiar story in Canada, where in 1955, the federal government introduced a program to admit domestic workers with a promise of landed immigrant status. Successive generations of children left behind have felt the sting of separation and sense of abandonment.

This very well made play, directed by Trey in collaboration with Nisha Ahuja, runs on the emotional wars between a mother and her daughters, especially her eldest daughter. Claudette (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) won’t let her mother Daphne (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) ever forget the six years when she and her little sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) were left behind with their grandparents while their mother went to Toronto and worked three jobs to give them a better life than the one she’d had as one of nine children living in a shack in Jamaica.

And now there’s another reunion, as Claudette comes home to Toronto from Montreal because her mother is dying of cancer. A new rift has opened between Bible-thumping mother and her eldest daughter, over Claudette’s sinful choice to love a woman. (Daphne to Claudette: “Stop acting like a man instead of trying to get one.”)

Death casts a long shadow in this play, not just Daphne’s imminent demise, but the earlier passing of her youngest daughter Chloe (Beryl Bain), a sickly child she had with a Toronto man after immigrating from Jamaica. The dead sister becomes more cause for Claudette’s resentment; she says of her mother, “she’d rather die and be with Chloe than live and stay with us.” Life is falling apart for everyone in this family – Valerie’s marriage to a wealthy white man is failing – and instead of pulling together, these women are duking it out with each other.

This show is no tragedy, though. Like Anthony’s rollicking da Kink in my Hair there’s much fun, song and dance, rolling out with an opening exchange between Valerie and Claudette about their mother’s obsession over the hat Miss Esme wore in her coffin. She may be refusing medical treatment, but Daphne ain’t going nowhere until they’ve obtained the perfect hat for her to wear at her funeral.

The staging of How Black Mothers, which had a good run last year, doesn’t leave much to argue with. Rachel Forbes’ set, costume and props are echt 80s Toronto. Michael Jackson and reggae discs on the turquoise walls of the teens’ room; Christ portraits and porcelain flowers in the yellow-painted kitchen. Gavin Bradley composed an original score that weaves together scenes that wouldn’t ordinarily occur in the same play: from gospel singing, say, we switch to meal preparation.

The actors are all superb, especially Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Daphne. Her role calls for grief, denial, anger, evangelical zeal, cheekiness and, finally, unbridled love for her daughters. She strikes the right note every time.

Trey Anthony has exceeded her expertise, however, by including dance. Some of the more organically occurring production numbers, such as the sequence of trying on outrageous hats, work. But the interpretative dance bits — the opening scene of women with suitcases and Chloe’s ghostly appearances with a violin bow — are embarrassing. Dancers trying to sing or vocalize can be cringe-inducing. The same goes for actors attempting modern dance.


How Black Mothers Say I Love You

Writer, director, executive producer – Trey Anthony

Actors – Beryl Bain, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Set design – Rachel Forbes

Lighting design – Steve Lucas

Music and sound design – Gavin Bradley

Choreography – Irma Villafuerte

Photography – Joseph Michael

This mutt’s a keeper

Métis Mutt, at Aki Studio Daniels Spectrum through February 5, 2017

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” Sheldon Elter is the living fulfilment of that promise. This 90-minute Native Earth Performing Arts show imported from Edmonton will have you pressed against the back of your seat and engaged to the point you’ll wonder where the time went.

He jumps right into character — “My name is Sheldon Elter and I’ll be your native comedian for tonight” — grabbing the microphone to spew out a series of jokes that increasingly make all in the audience uncomfortable: What do you call an Indian on a bike? Thief. What do you call two Indians on a bike? Organized crime. Switching moods, gaining traction, this natural mimic and fascinating mover keeps several narratives going, dropping one for another and filling in the missing parts as he goes.

Elter creates a character named Sheldon whose life details are pretty much those of the man himself. His father, Sonny, was native. His mother, whose last name he took, was in her youth a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde. Elter has a brother Derek, three years younger. As children they witnessed the beatings, the alcoholism, the raging arguments between parents and lots more that children should never see.

Switching rapidly from one character to another, Elter gives voice to them all: medicine man, drunken dad, classroom bullies, medical specialists. He plays guitar, singing a hilarious homo-erotic composition about the Lone Ranger and Tonto and a ballad called “Self Love” – neither recommended for family listening. Pieced together with lots of comic interludes is the story of a Metis youth who tries to protect his mother and eventually escapes with her to be raised by a step-father, who drinks and does drugs, stops and relapses, but finally finds his calling – and redemption – on stage. Elter is a born showman: he even does a passing impersonation of a Broadway musical performer.

Just when your sides are splitting from a series of one-liners (“my wet-dream catcher”), Elter slips into a heart-wrenching tale of lost youth. There were 11 years when he didn’t see his father at all and when he and a cousin go to visit the dad in a broken-down trailer, Sonny doesn’t at first recognize his own son.  “At least he was sober,” the actor says.

A generous performer, Elter moves like lightning, breaking into break-dance, then singing a Cree song as he takes us to a northern sweat lodge ceremony. All the action unfolds against an ingenious screen, shaped like half of a circular hide drum, on which are projected images to help set the scene. Elter has been working on Métis Mutt for 17 years. The version here is directed by Edmonton’s Ron Jenkins and it is tight as a drum. Don’t miss it.

Métis Mutt

Created and performed by Sheldon Elter

Director: Ron Jenkins

Set and lighting: Tessa Stamp

Projection designer: T. Erin Gruber

Sound designer: Aaron Macri

Photo: Ryan Parker

Dancing up a storm

Infinite Storms, The Theatre Centre, Toronto, through January 29, 2017


By all accounts – including Nova Bhattacharya’s – migraines deliver some of the worst pain humans experience. But headaches, back pain, bowel obstruction, depression, any kind of pain, all have a common effect: they make the sufferer feel alone, watching in agony as everyone else appears to enjoy themselves, or at least function normally.

How such a subject could be effectively explored in a dance and still be called art is amply demonstrated in Nova Bhattacharya’s Infinite Storms.

A thorough and fascinating fusion of eastern and western concepts, dance forms and philosophy, the hour-long piece consists of one reveal after another, the finale the most surprising of all.

As viewers take their seats, four female figures sit in smokey twilight around a central wrapped pillar – a maypole. The saris of three of them are woven into the pole.

Accompanied by the sound of deep, yogic breathing, a fourth, untethered, figure in a sari begins to dance, Bharatanatyam style, playing two hand bells. Gradually the other women unwind their saris, get to their feet and leave their posts, dancing, posing, with modern, balletic and Indian classical gestures intertwined as carefully as the cloths around the maypole. But the pole is actually Bhattacharya, tightly wrapped in darkness up til now and soon looking like a martyr being burned at the stake.

The others – Kate Holden and Molly Johnson, Atri Nundy and Malarvilly Varatharaja – are meanwhile moving, stomping bare feet, swinging arms and making broad facial expressions.

The other thing about pain is that it can quickly turn to pleasure, tears morphing to laughter, or simple relief.

Anyone in the audience could find something to identify with in Infinite Storms and apply a personal interpretation. Opening so soon after the women’s march, this all-female work also evoked the sense of solidarity experienced when one individual in pain connects with another and all find they are not alone, but actually connected in their suffering.

Bhattacharaya’s program notes end on the word “samsara” a Sanskrit term often found in Buddhist teachings to express the circularity and constancy of change in life as we know it. And it is this concept that ties together sound, tabla rhythms, colour changes, dance repetitions and symmetries, in one glorious carnival that ends with a maypole dance and a final, ingenious, laugh-inducing tableau.

Choreographer: Nova Bhattacharya

Collaborator: Louis Laberge-Côté

Performers: Kate Holden, Molly Johnson, Atri Nundy, Malarvilly Varatharaja, Nova Bhattacharya

Lighting: Marc Parent

Costume design: Tina Fushell

Sound/Tabla: Ed Hanley

Handout photo



Flying in the face of ennui

I Forgot to Fly Today

Created and performed by Trent Baumann

Downunderground production

Victoria Fringe Festival, Metro Studio Theatre

Thursday Sept 1, 8:15pm; Friday Sept 2, 6:45pm


For the world premiere of I Forgot to Fly Today, i.e., the first time he’s ever performed the piece, Trent Baumann appeared a little under-rehearsed.  And a little less than captivating. But as the minutes wore on, Baumann got into the rhythm and concluded with a trick that is completely original and truly spectacular.

Baumann, who lists his home as Surfer’s Paradise, Australia, is a veteran of the international fringe circuit. Victoria loves him, and so does Victoria, Australia, his native state. He’s best known for Birdmann, described as 21st-century vaudeville. He’s toured that show around the world and made a hit of it at the top-tier Edinburgh Fringe. It’s now available online as a “live” video.

Like Birdmann, I Forgot to Fly Today is part magic show, part circus act, part mime and part stand-up. The script could use a little tweaking but don’t be lulled into inattention by the repeated platitudes about living your dream and minor musings such as, “Maybe the world is just like life. It has a future and it has an ending, just like life.”

The origami paper-made piano playing, balloon tricks and an audience participation feature done before in Slava’s Snowshow lighten things up, but Baumann’s tendency to embrace the mundane gives way to aimlessness in the middle of I Forgot to Fly Today.

Teetering atop his plastic milk-carton arrangement in his cloud-atlas suit, the performer manages to overcome our ennui at his lame mimes and carries us through with a stand-up routine (“I found myself in a park. I knew I’d turn up one day”) followed by a shedding of his suit.

Don’t be tempted to exit before the end, though, because Baumann’s finale is more than worth the price of admission.