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A dream of a mixed ballet program

 

 

Three cheers for the National Ballet of Canada for bringing Frederick Ashton’s The Dream back into action after 17 years. Sir Frederick Ashton (1905-1988) was an English choreographer whose ballets brought a new quickness, brightness and delight to the form. The National Ballet lists eight of his works in its repertoire, including the audience favourite La Fille Mal Gardée. Even more than most ballet creators, Ashton let the music dictate the shape of his work.

The Dream, set to music by Felix Mendelssohn arranged by John Lanchbery, is a fine example of Ashton’s craft. The violin section that heralds the appearance of dancing fairies leads us into the one-act dance as if we too are enchanted.

Ashton boiled down William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to its essentials: three sets of lovers out of sync with one another. He re-imagined the play, set in ancient Greece, as a royal court in Victorian times, the place being an English wood where fairies rule.

Jillian Vanstone is a regal Titania, queen of the fairies, well matched with a noble Harrison James as Oberon, her king. Their struggle concerns ownership of an Indian changeling boy, whom Oberon would have as his servant. Aramis Gonzalez in a heavy courtier’s costume melts hearts with his every appearance as the Changeling.

Ashton placed the fairy Puck at the centre of The Dream, as he should be. Puck, sprinkling the flower dust that makes his victims fall in love with the first creature they see upon awakening is the change agent who drives the plot and initiates the fun. Skylar Campbell is dazzling in a role that calls for a deft touch, speed and a bit of craziness. He fairly flies across the stage. Second soloist Joe Chapman has a particular challenge as Bottom, the worker whom Puck transforms into a donkey. He must dance in point shoes; Chapman manages, going from delicacy to slapstick with wit and precision and bringing a bit of dignity to the role.

Tanya Howard stands out as Helena, the most sympathetic of the wronged women. She is ultimately to wed Lysander; played by Ben Rudisin, who enters stage right as a comic fop. Chelsy Meiss is a fetching Hermia. She is finally married to her Demetrius, a nimble Giorgio Galli, from the company’s corps de ballet.

Paired with The Dream on this mixed program is Guillaume Côté’s Being and Nothingness, a stark contrast to Ashton, but not without its own sense of play. Appointed a principal dancer in 2004, Côté is also the company’s choreographic associate and has added significant works to its repertoire. Drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical manifesto of 1943, Côté explores ideas of selfhood, free will, the individual versus the crowd and the meaning of sexual congress in some razor-sharp contemporary ballet combinations.

Pianist Edward Connell gets equal billing with the dancers for playing the brilliant score made up of Philip Glass pieces, including Metamorphosis No. 4. The music comes up from the orchestra pit, so the dancers appear to be performing in silence or acting out what’s running through their consciousness.

Côté also dramatizes an opposition of subject and object. Being and Nothingness is structured in seven parts: The Light, The Bedroom, The Door, The Sink, The Living Room, The Street, The Call. The spaces are designated with a door, a bed, a bathroom sink, and a telephone on the wall, perhaps indicating a higher, determinist power. The Street is represented by 11 dancers in men’s suits and hats, as if they’d been borrowed from Joe, Jean-Pierre Perrault’s monumental 1983 ensemble piece.

Greta Hodgkinson, centred, controlled yet emotive, anchors the piece. Rolling through on the repetitive Glass piano arpeggios, are a series of duets, solos and ensembles, illustrating aspects of Sartrian existentialism. Most notable is Siphesihle November, the South African dancer who joined the National Ballet last year. He is shaving at the sink and whirls into a muscular solo. Côté’s work is very physical, but what strikes one most about Being and Nothingness is the grace and fluidity of the movement and how it all flows into a satisfying experience.

The Dream

By Sir Frederick Ashton

Being and Nothingness

By Guillaume Côté

A National Ballet of Canada production at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 25

Photos of Greta Hodgkinson, Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James by Aleksandar Antonijevic

The Monkey Queen springs to life in a new drama

The story of the Monkey King is probably the best known legend to come out of China. Like many such stories, it is about transformation. For The Monkey Queen, playwright Diana Tso switches the gender of the shape-shifting mythic monkey and simultaneously tells the story of how a Canadian-born girl finds her Chinese roots.

Hong Kong-born Canadian dancer/choreographer William Yong directs a show that is equal parts dance, storytelling, acting and singing. He is also listed as dramaturge, choreographer and scenic designer.

Young actor and recent theatre school graduate Nicholas Eddie plays opposite Tso, more or less mastering ballet moves he was never trained for.

The 65-minute show, staged in the small space at the Theatre Centre, is surprisingly easy to follow, given all the roles that Tso and Eddie must shift in and out of.

The Monkey King, the warrior Sun Wukong, grew out of legend and is the hero of a 16th-century epic novel, The Journey to the West. According to the novel, he was born from a stone, possesses supernatural powers and is a trickster. The warrior monkey  demonstrates Taoist practices, fights off demons and is imprisoned by the Buddha.

Tso loved the Monkey King stories and always wanted to play him but would never be cast in a male part. So she made her own adaptation. Monkey Queen, like her gender opposite, is a warrior of immense strength and is equipped for speed; she skips continents in a single somersault.  Born in Canada, she travels east to China to discover her origins.

Yong remembers the Monkey King stories as cartoons on Hong Kong TV when he was a small boy. In partnering with Tso, he drove her to expand the performance possibilities of her play.

First you need a set that can adapt to worlds only imagined, as the characters move through time and space, legend and reality. This is done with a zig-zagging catwalk above the stage floor, so that the players are either flying or sinking below earth level.

The warrior queen’s travels take her to a shaman woman. Eddie dons a wig to impersonate this spirit guide. He also plays a demon and the Buddha. Exceedingly tall this young actor is also pliable, so he can lift Tso and move like a dancer.

Tso, alternating between the queen and the girl growing up in Canada, prances with lightness and grace, all the while telling her story.

The frequent transformations mean conveying the image of a carp in the bottom of a lake, a blue heron and a polar bear. The allegory here refers to a threatened natural world. Lighting designer Rebecca Picherack and sound composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia greatly assist in the more than usual willing suspension of disbelief required to enjoy The Monkey Queen.

The Monkey Queen

By Diana Tso

Directed by William Yong

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, until Dec. 2

Photo of Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie by David Hou

Now you see it, now you don’t

“Poetry in the flesh,” said my seatmate at the end of Humans, an artful act from Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus, performed for one night, November 9, at Toronto’s Sony Centre.

Under the artistic direction of Yaron Lifschitz, Circa is a Brisbane-based company established in 2004. That its 10 performers are Olympic-level gymnasts and skilled acrobats, tumblers, trapeze artists and contortionists is a given.

But Humans is no mere circus act. It’s a 70-minute highly choreographed show with no props, other than a swing and ropes, no scenery, no costumes: just briefs and tee-shirts or bras.

These sturdy men and women are not what we’ve come to expect from champions of the mat or dancers at the barre. Built like discus throwers, they are nevertheless lithe, agile and move like quicksilver.

Never mind the contemplative description of the show: “what it means to be human and how our bodies, our connections and our aspirations all form part of who we are.” Humans is sheer joy from beginning to end.

As we take our seats in the theatre, we see the acrobats getting out of street clothes and into skimpy dance gear; one woman hunched under her coat and trousers like a land tortoise, extricates herself in a funny bit of contortionism.

Soon they are coming and going, each on her own path, entering the stage and exiting and entering again, in a musical and yes, poetic, flow set to tunes as disparate as Blixa Bargeld’s “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground,” Astor Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria,” Andy Williams’s “The Impossible Dream” and a nostalgic accordion tune, “Waltz for Jb.”

Moving, leaping, tumbling, erecting themselves as human totem poles, spreading across the stage in weird poses that would stymie any yoga expert, Circa calls for maximum attention spans. Stunning highlights stick in memory: one man shouldering five men and women joined in a chain. Bridges made of standing acrobats are walked over, as if heads were river stones. Bodies are wrapped around torsos like so much dead, pliable weight. It may be called “extreme acrobatics,” but Humans, to this watcher, was everything a dance can be, to lift the spirits and take us beyond the flesh.

 

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.

Factory

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