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.

 

El Médico cures what ails you

The musical running at Teatro Nuevo Apolo in Madrid’s theatre district makes quite a contrast to West Side Story just up the hill from it. That’s because El Médico El Musical is totally home-grown. Iván Macías composed the tremendous score. Félix Amador wrote the libretto. José Luis Sixto directs.

The show is adapted from the American novel The Physician, by Noah Gordon. The book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and is particularly popular in Spain, where in 1999 booksellers voted it one of the 10 most beloved books of all time. Noah Gordon’s son Michael Gordon, a Barcelona-based literary agent, acted as consultant to the project.

El Médico El Musical has been running to full houses and standing ovations (rare in Madrid) since it opened on October 17. No surprise: this is a good, old-fashioned musical, in which the music and voices dominate, stage technology notwithstanding.

The hero of this quest story, Rob J. (Cole), grows up poor and orphaned in 11th-century London—the Dark Ages by any measure. Rob apprentices to a barber-surgeon, called simply Barber. (Barbers at that time treated the poor and were snake-oil salesmen. Physicians, with a little more medical knowledge, served only the rich.) Rob has an edge on others: he’s always had a strange ability to feel impending death in the sick or injured. When he is 19, he learns from a Jewish physician about Avicena, an advanced doctor in Isfahán, Persia, who heads up a teaching facility called the Madrasa. Rob becomes a wanderer, leaving the British Isles to cross Europe and travel to the Middle East. Along the way he meets a Scottish lass, Mary, in a caravan crossing the desert. Travelling with Jews, Rob takes on their identity, because the Madrasa would not admit Christians, and upon reaching Isfahán, is befriended by the Shah.

Rob eventually meets and studies with Avicena, but not before enduring war, plagues and other obstacles to love and happiness.

El Médico’s 33 performers, accompanied by a 20-piece orchestra under composer and conductor Iván Macías, are a treat to watch and hear in Teatro Nuevo Apolo, a 1,160-seat opera house—intimate by North American standards. Everything in El Médico devolves from Macías’ composition. Drawing on traditions from classical opera to show tunes to popular and Arabic music, his score dictates the direction of the play.

A rotating series of young male and female singer/actors take on the role of the young Rob J. The one I saw was a lively boy with a quick step and a hearty voice. Barber is a lusty, crafty character, embodied wonderfully by Spanish singer/actor Joseán Moreno, singing the first scene’s “El barbero ya llegó” (the barber has arrived), in which Barber and his apprentice pull teeth and charm and cheat the local yokels. It’s odd to see these medieval characters in choreographer Francesc Abós’ kick line, but the scene works.

Madrid-born Adrián Salzedo is the grown-up Rob J. He’s a musical artist who’s appeared in Spanish productions of Beauty and the Beast, Dirty Dancing, Aladdin and Madagascar. He makes a terrific match with Mary, played by Sofía Escobar, who toured in the international production of West Side Story and was Christine in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera over multiple seasons.

These two bring home the romance in some lovely harmonizing in Act II. The Shah is a multi-tasking Alain Damas, a Venezuelan who performed in Madrid productions of the operas La Celestina and Lady Macbeth. Andalusian-born TV, stage and film actor Ricardo Truchado projects gravitas as Avicena, the Persian physician.

The show boasts a terrific ensemble of singer/actors on a minimalist stage that rotates and is re-set to depict desert dunes or the shah’s palace thanks to the stage designs of Alfons Flores and the sound creations of Olly Steel.

El Medico makes for a great night in the theatre. Would that an English translation is in the works, so that Noah Gordon’s North American readership can see it.

El Médico, El Musical

Based on The Physician by Noah Gordon

Music composed by Iván Macias

Libretto by Félix Amador

At Teatro Nuevo Apolo, Madrid

Photo with Victoria Galán as young Rob J and Joseán Moreno as Barber by Nacho Arias

The Royale gets you with a one-two punch

“This is the time for this fight,” says Max, boxing match promoter, to Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a fictionalized Jack Johnson. And this is the time to put on this play, for the issues explored in The Royale, set in the early 20th century, are as urgent as ever. The Royale is a story of black pride and white prejudice.

American playwright Marco Ramirez, who has written for TV series Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy, based his play, premiered at Lincoln Center Theater two years ago, on the story of Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson was the first African American to earn the heavyweight boxing title. He beat a Canadian named Tommy Burns. Caucasian Americans were outraged and the search went out for a “great white hope,” to recover the heavyweight title. In 1910 James Jackson Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson before a crowd of 25,000.

Ramirez’ play is about much more than a fight. Under the excellent direction of Guillermo Verdecchia, The Royale takes on multiple meanings and is nimbly choreographed to run us through six rounds that recount the lives and the struggles of the different characters, including Jay’s sister Nina. All of it takes place in a boxing ring. (Soulpepper is selling tickets to patrons who wish to sit ringside.)

Dion Johnstone is a heavyweight in size and acting ability. He plays Jay. Christef Desir, equally fit, plays Fish, Jay’s sparring partner. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design has them move to the clap-clap-clap or stomp-stomp-stomp rhythms of hands and feet, urged on like flamenco dancers. They don’t actually box each other.

We see them, punching and gripping each other, but separated, facing the audience, it’s as if they’re shadow-boxing. One is thrown against the ropes; the other places a deadly punch and we hear their inner thoughts, as in Fish’s utterance, “watch out for that hook.”

Verdecchia deftly manoeuvres the characters and the narrative, signalling round’s end with a blackout. Michelle Ramsey’s lighting design includes a double row of klieg lights that flash at us, as if to alert us to something alarming.

And Nina and her story are certainly that. Sabryn Rock as Nina wears a stern look to go with her prim outfit of high-necked blouse and long skirt, her straightened hair wrapped up on her head. Nina enters the ring to surprise Jay, who hasn’t seen her for a while. She brings with her memories of the past, both his and hers. Rock’s performance is open to several interpretations; there’s a possibility that Jay was her protector and laid out Nina’s husband.

Diego Matamoros as Max the fight promoter is often our story guide. He operates as a referee, as Jay’s manager; he’s also a carny, gathering an audience for the big fight. Max wants Jay to fight a retired heavyweight champ named Bixby. But Max opposes the deal Bixby offers: he wants 90 percent of the box office. Jay has no problem with that. Wynton, Jay’s coach (powerful performer Alexander Thomas) lets us know that Jay might have confronted Bixby for free.

Wynton also gives us the reason for the play’s title. The Royale was a bar where a brutal fight took place; Wynton was part of it.

True to the dreamy flow of The Royale, Bixby is boxed but not seen. He’s a ghost. The outcome of the fight is unclear. All this occurs in a very short 90 minutes.

The Royale gives us theatre as it should be: poetry in motion, demanding all that our imaginations can embrace.

The Royale

By Marco Ramirez

Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia

Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 11

Photo of Diego Matamoros as Max and Dion Johnstone as Jay by Cylla von Tiedemann

The Men in White bowls us over

Cricket is a hard sell in Toronto – that much was evident in all the empty seats at Factory Theatre for last night’s performance of The Men in White. But you don’t need to care about cricket – God knows most of us will never understand the rules of the game – to like this play. Philip Akin directs the Factory production of  The Men in White, written by novelist Anosh Irani, who had it first produced in Vancouver, where lots of people care about cricket. The outstanding cast of eight actors – several of them with comedy backgrounds  ̶  give authenticity to a show that earns lots of laughs from lines that are meant to contrast with, but not obscure, some very dark truths.

Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) is a poor, uneducated chicken cutter in Dongri, a Muslim neighbourhood of Mumbai (Bombay). He’s employed by an older man called Baba (Huse Madhavji), who is a surrogate father to the young orphaned man as well as his boss in the chicken store. When the lights come up on the Dongri half of the stage, Hasan is trying to make a case for a fan because he can’t bear the flies that surround him on the butcher block. Baba looks up from his newspaper long enough to argue with him. Their repartee is rapid and at first it’s hard to catch every word – dialect coach Isaac Thomas has done his job well – but it’s along the lines of this:

Baba: You want but you don’t know what you need. You need a girl.

Hasan: You’re just an old man who doesn’t want me to succeed.

Baba represents the traditional ways. Why, when he was a young man it was understood, “We did our work; we ate; and then we died.” Hasan in love is very awkward and the running gag about him is his failure to charm the young Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani), whom he adores from a distance. Baba has to nudge him in the right direction, but every time Haseena appears at the shop, Hasan puts his foot in it. Explaining his need for a fan, Hasan says to Haseena, “I wasn’t complaining. Only girls complain.” He’s mortified by his own clumsiness, but can’t seem to get out of his own way.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver – the other half of the stage is the locker room of an amateur cricket team – Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh) is offering a solution to the team’s losing streak. He will bring Hasan, a fantastic player, over from Dongri and they will start winning. Randy (Sugith Varughese) is open to the idea. That’s why he’s called a meeting, attended by Doc (Cyrus Faird), an immigrant who self-identifies as a Zoroastrian, Ram (Farid Yazdani) and Sam (John Chou), the incongruous Chinese member of the team. The repartee between Ram and Sam has the same quality as the Hasan/Baba exchanges. Ram says to Sam, who is nervously banging his shin pads with his cricket bat. “Why are you even playing? You’re Chinese.” Sam, who is better integrated into North American society than some of his teammates, claims to love the game. “That’s not love, that’s fear,” Ram retorts.

Two subplots are carefully integrated into each side of the drama. In Dongri, a menacing biker named Mendi (never actually seen) guns his Harley outside the chicken shop, apparently in pursuit of Haseena. While in Vancouver, Doc gets really nasty with Abdul because Doc hates Muslims. Randy tries to show Doc that his bigotry has no place on this team, a microcosm of multicultural Vancouver.

It’s in the progression of the main plot and the merging of the subplots that a truly shocking denouement occurs at the climax of the play.

Akin has staged The Men in White with aplomb, and the actors infuse their characters with very credible personalities. It’s too bad as good an actor as Huse Madhavji has to be made up to look old, which he isn’t, because he’s otherwise a very credible Baba. He and Randy act like the consciences of the other characters. Steve Lucas’s set and lighting are effective as is Waleed Abdulhamid’s sound design.

You won’t know anything more about cricket than you did when came to see
The Men in White, but you’ll have learned a lesson in the complexities of exile and adopting a new homeland.

The Men in White

By Anosh Irani

Directed by Philip Akin

At Factory Theatre, Toronto, until November 4

Photo by Joseph Michael. From left, Huse Madhavji as Baba, Tahirih Vejdani as Haseena and Chanakya Mukherjee as Hasan

A dance back from the brink of hell

On any sensible list of performers you must see before you die, Akram Kahn would figure prominently. And if, as he’s said, Xenos is to be his last solo creation, then Torontonians may feel some urgency to see the show, running through October 21 at the Bluma Appel theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre.

Xenos (a Greek word meaning stranger), a complex collaboration of the kind that has earned Khan’s company kudos for innovation, is a tribute to the 1.3 million troops from colonial India who fought, with little acknowledgement of their sacrifice, in World War I.

The 65-minute piece, which has Kahn performing with musicians and vocalists, is spell-binding; it transcends the language of kathak and contemporary dance and words spoken in Hindi or whispered English, to go straight to the heart. Such is the power of Kahn’s expressive and taxing performance.

The subject matter becomes a container for themes of memory, loss and belonging. Xenos is history as it might have been written by the foot soldiers instead of the generals.

Kahn’s character is emphatically alone, confused, battered and bruised but as Xenos unfolds, he becomes a universal figure, a man or a woman, a father, a son, a brother, connected to all other beings, alive or remembered or persisting on a spiritual plane.

Vocalist Aditya Prakash and percussionist B C Manjunath are playing on stage as the audience gathers. It’s as if we’ve entered their salon and their ease has the effect of lulling us before the onslaught to come.

Akram Khan, born in London in 1974, to Bangladeshi parents, has been a Kathak dancer since he was seven. His unique style of dance seamlessly fuses Kathak and contemporary technique, but in Xenos we see him first in long white tunic, rows of ankle bells wrapped below his calves, doing what looks like pure Kathak – erect, confident, mesmerizing.

The dancer, pulling a long thick cord, like the rope that holds a big ship at anchor, begins to unwind, symbolically untying the ankle bells and attaching them to other ropes lying coiled upon a steep ramp that could be a hill or the slope of a trench. All this to the sound of bombs blasting and the overheard words, “this is not war; it’s the ending of the world.”

He is a man confused, swirling in a psychic tumult. There’s a blackout and when Kahn next appears he’s in a short soldier’s tunic, heavily soiled by the earth that has been sliding down the ramp at him.

A huge metal horn of what could be a gramophone, a megaphone or the speaker of an old radio, beckons, emitting scratchy sounds after the dancer links rope to rope to get a current flowing.

Kahn struggles, climbing, crawling, prostrate, supine, desperately gathering up dirt in his hands – a man abandoned by his culture, embroiled in the war to end all wars.

A violinist (Clarice Rarity), a double bass player (Nina Harries), a saxophonist (Tamar Osborn), percussionist and  vocalist appear in a rectangle of dim light suspended above the ramp. They play and sing and will ultimately serve as a heavenly chorus. Below them, the soldier struggles in a rising crescendo of battle sounds. Kahn is now stripped to the waste, covered in dirt, wasted.

It would be a shame to give away the spectacular finale. Suffice it to say this unknown soldier, this formidable dancer, has created an indelible memory.

Xenos

Directed, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan

Presented by Canadian Stage

Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, October 18 to 21

Photo by Jean-Louis Fernandez

 

Sensational dance compels attention

Tightly choreographed yet sprawling, replete with narrative elements but hardly episodic, RUBBERBANDance Group’s  Ever So Slightly feels like a work in progress. Which is not to say disappointing, for every one of its 75 minutes is filled with sensational dancing.

With so much talent on stage – in dancers Amara Barner, Jean Bui, Daniela Jezerinac, Sydney McManus, Dana Pajarillaga, Brontë Poiré-Prest, Jerimy Rivera, Zack Tang, Ryan Taylor and Paco Ziel – this show’s strengths are also its weakness: an overabundance of dance ideas.

Billed as a demonstration of “behavioral mechanisms, reflexes we develop to face aggression and the constant flow of annoyances bombarding us every day,” Ever So Slightly is set on a bare stage with all the lighting and tech apparatus exposed. Musicians Jasper Gahunia and William Lamoureux and their instruments, laptop and turntable are positioned on a platform to the side. It looks like a warehouse, an impression reinforced by the appearance of the dancers, who are all wearing workers’ coveralls.

They begin slowly on the floor, rolling and scissoring to a kind of serenade from stringed instruments, gradually getting upright and picking up the pace. As the music introduces an element of discord, the ensemble, working in precise unison, begins to fall apart.

Soon we are witnessing what looks like an update of West Side Story, menacing moves of rivals undermining the power balance. Their bodies concealed by the coveralls, the dancers are barely distinguishable as male or female; all become combative. And now when they move together, in ever more aggressive ways, it looks like mob rule.

These performers are driven by forces both external and internal – equally misunderstood and uncontrollable. It’s only when they’ve stripped down to skimpy underwear, after pulling off each other’s clothing, that we can appreciate their technical mastery. Urban dance moves slide into balletic lifts and arabesques; martial arts grappling becomes exquisite partnering. Rough and howling one moment, they grow calm, silent, tender. To the pounding of liturgical organ chords, they bow in reverence. Then it’s more combat and a scene that looks like soldiers tossing bodies into a mass grave.

Meaningful stares are exchanged; the dancers fall into momentary relationships. Then one or two break out – a female with a shaved head runs laughing around the stage, like the girl at the party whose drink was spiked with Ecstasy. A lithe young male is wracked with spasms from some psychological breakdown, like a man possessed by demons. The others look on helplessly. They are bathed in blood-red light, as the soundscape turns ominous.

For a while there’s a discernible arc to the show – from unity of purpose to Lord of the Flies pandemonium to reunification. It’s when the dancers turn their coveralls into headgear, striding or partnering like blinded Elephant Men, that you start to feel as if Ever So Slightly is going madly off in all directions. With more performances, this show will evolve into something more coherent. As it is, RUBBERBANDance choreographer and artistic director Victor Quijada has rallied some amazing movers and set them in very compelling scenes that demand our whole attention.

Ever So Slightly

RUBBERBANDance Group

DanceWorks 227

October 11 and 12

Fleck Dance Theatre, Toronto

Photo by Mathieu Doyon

Fall for Dance North kicks up a storm

 

There’s huge bang for your dance buck to be had at the Fall for Dance North festival. Fifteen dollars gets you a seat at any one of three brilliantly orchestrated programs presented at the Sony Centre and Ryerson Theatre, while a noon-hour interactive dance performance from Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard today at Union Station is free for the watching.

First up in Program 1 is Red Sky Performance with Adizokan, a show made in collaboration with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that premiered last October. With the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra playing a composition by Eliot Britton live in the pit, the show combines indigenous dance, song, drumming and musicianship with contemporary non-native music and sky-high video projections in celebration of First Nations’ art, culture and spirituality. Most impressive are the elaborately costumed grass dancers, who swirl to the rhythms of Nelson Tagoona’s throat boxing, a hybrid of hip hop beat boxing and throat singing. At times there is too much going on, with either the symphonic music or the video projections overwhelming the dance, choreographed by Jera Wolfe and Sandra Laronde. But Adizokan clearly conveys a message of spirit and earthly beings in harmony with one another.

The extraordinary dancers from Compagnie Marie Chouinard perform excerpts from Chouinard’s Radical Vitality, Solos and Duets, a precis of her work, going back as far as 1991. These short pieces display the choreographer’s hallmark animalistic, sexually charged – and often humorous – theatrical tendencies. In Love Attack #2, Clémentine Schindler licks and nips at Scott McCabe, like a lovelorn puppy, as he voices a parody of a mating call. Eroticism is the thread that unites these bits, as shock gives way to joy, especially in Finale, where nude dancers wearing baby face masks make an arresting display of innocence acting out in provocative ways.

The Cuban company Los Hijos Del Director presents an excerpt from La Tribulación de Anaximandro, choregraphed by artistic director George Céspedes, a high-energy display of power plays and rough and tumble that looks like a martial arts class on steroids. Male and female dancers don shirts that obscure their gender differences, so attaining gender equality in tightly ordered combinations of creation, destruction and re-creation.

The Soweto Skeleton Movers arrived on the world’s concert stages from the streets of the South African township where they developed their unique form of “pantsula” a fusion of breakdancing, acrobatics, contortionism and sleight-of-hand hijinks. Junior Hlongwane, Jabulani Manyoni, Topollo Ntulo and Molefi Rakitla all appear to have more moving parts than the typical human body, as they perform tricks, such as levitating a spinning hat, or forming themselves into bicycle, that ends the program on a high note of joy. Program 1 runs once more on the Sony Centre stage at 7:30 tonight.

Program 2, opening Friday at the Sony Centre and running again on Saturday, presents Toronto’s Asah Productions performing Obeah Opera 2019, an all-female theatrical piece created by Nicole Brooks and based on stories from the Black diaspora. Jiri Kylian’s Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) is performed by the Netherlands company Introdans with the Mahler score played live by 10 musicians and mezzo-soprano Georgia Burashko. The National Ballet of Canada dances Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, an homage to his youth in southern California. Compagnie Hervé Koubi from Cannes, France will do an excerpt from What the Day Owes to the Night. And Montreal’s La Otra Orillia takes flamenco in a contemporary direction with RITE/ a flamenco ceremony.

The final performance of Program 3 goes up tonight at the Ryerson Theatre, with performances from Anne Plamondon and Emma Portner in a piece commissioned by Fall for Dance North called Counter Cantor. Ballet Kelowna performs Mambo, billed as “sweet, silly, sensual and sassy.” And Introdans does Canto Ostinato, a contemporary ballet piece choreographed by American artist Lucinda Childs.

 

Fall for Dance North,

October 2 to 6

Sony Centre, Ryerson Theatre, Union Station in Toronto

Co-presented by the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts

Photos from top left, clockwise: Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Asah Productions’ Obeah Opera 2019, Anne Plamondon + Emma Portner and Soweto Skeleton Movers