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Eastend, Saskatchewan

 

“The river is important in my memory for it conditioned and contained the town. What I remember are low bars overgrown with wild roses, cutbank bends, secret paths through the willows, fords across the shallows, swallows in the clay banks, days of indolence and adventure where space was as flexible as the mind’s cunning and where time did not exist.” –Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

 

Eastend, Saskatchewan is one of my favourite places anywhere, anytime. In the valley of the Frenchman (formerly Whitemud) River, surrounded by some of the most beautiful of the Cypress Hills, the town of 500 permanent residents remains pretty much just as Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) described it in the 1950s, when he returned to his childhood haunts.

Today, Wallace Stegner House, the one the Iowa-born writer occupied as a boy, operates as an artists’ retreat. Writers, visual and performing artists can apply to spend one to three months there. Poet, fiction writer and editor Seán Virgo (Dibidalen; The Eye in the Thicket) once stayed in the Stegner house and Eastend has been his home for more than two decades. I first visited him in late March about 12 years ago, when the farms were covered in snow and the lands where cattle graze displayed white patches.

June or July is a different story. With rain, which came this year, the hills and trees are draped in many shades of glorious green. But in drought years, the summer hills are a dusty shade. Precipitation, or the lack of it, is the crucial factor in this farming community. Whether they’re raising Angus cattle or growing canola, mustard, wheat or alfalfa, Saskatchewan farmers can never be certain what summer will bring.

What draws travellers to Eastend is the landscape; Scotty, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered there in 1991; and the local culture. In the footsteps of a guide like Virgo, you can take in the surrounding country from a bluff in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, noting a Hutterite community in the distance. The trees are mostly pines, the hills steep enough to raise the heart rate on a walk to the top. Nearer to Eastend, the Cypress Hills are rolling, showing bands of white clay where the groundcover has been washed off in the spring melt.

Ninety minutes south and east of Eastend is Grasslands National Park, where at the right time of day you can see bison gathering in the coulees and at any time you might spot an antelope, a coyote or hundreds of prairie dogs poking out of their burrows to chirp a warning to their fellows. On the ground, the prickly pear cacti, surrounded by blue gramma and needle-and-thread grass, show pale orange flowers.

Northwest of Eastend, about 24 km on Grid 614, you can see a point on the Continental Divide. North of an imaginary line, the creeks and rivers flow northeast to Hudson Bay, 1,808 km away. South of the line, creeks and rivers, including the Frenchman, flow south, 2,768 km to the Gulf of Mexico.

Coming from the Medicine Hat airport, as I was, you drive south from the TransCanada Highway, and enter Eastend across an old iron bridge. Just before the bridge, you’ll see signs pointing up the hill to the T. rex Discovery Centre. A beautiful structure embedded in the grassy slope, it houses the world’s most massive T. rex skeleton. The discovery of the skeleton, 65-million years old, occurred on August 16, 1991. An Eastend chemistry teacher named Robert Gebhardt, invited to a dig site by lead paleontologist Tim Tokaryk, came upon the fossils of the base of a tooth and a vertebra, sticking out of the bedrock. It was three years before paleontologists could start removing Scotty, named after the bottle of Scotch used in a toast by the digging crew. The skeleton, found 65 percent intact, was reconstructed and is 13 metres long and as high as a two-storey house. Scotty’s oblong skull is nearly two metres long. Visit the centre, open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to view a film about Scotty, some amazing exhibits and the workspace where paleontological research and reconstruction continues.

Just before you cross the iron bridge to enter Eastend, you’ll see a farmhouse brightly renovated in with red vertical slats. It belongs to Stephen Langton Goulet, a BC-born artist and jack of all trades. On his acreage on the banks of the Frenchman River, Stephen is practising regenerative agriculture, attempting to replenish the topsoil. Some of his “rockatry” sculptures – impossibly balanced stones that look like inukshuks – stand on the property, also sculptures made of found metals such as barbed wire. Look but don’t trespass.

Upon entering the main street of Eastend, you’ll see a big sign for White Mud Clay, the studio and home of Stephen Girard, an Eastender by birth. He shapes and creates glazes for wonderful pottery made of local clays. Another Eastend potter is Nick Saville, son of a local rancher, who makes mugs, bowls and such, glazed in bright, almost neon colours. Not the only other artist in town, but a notable one is Grieta Krisjansons, sculptor of a horse in the market square, made of found metal elements, such as bicycle chains and tractor parts.

Writers, whether visitors or part-time residents, continue to flock to Eastend. Maureen Elder, a poet and foodie, lives part-time on farmland outside Eastend with her husband, musician and composer Shaun Elder. Maureen’s privately printed Honey Cumin Saskatoons; Cooking in a Special Place, is a compendium of delicious vegetarian recipes and poems, such as “Geologic”: “I recall this sea of grass / once sea of water: seen so, / my own few years seem / little matter.”

Barbara Klar, a Saskatoon writer who once planted trees in the Cypress Hills, is now a fulltime resident of Eastend. Her 2019 title, Cypress, is a gem. Here’s the opening of “South Benson Trail, The Stone Road:”

To walk uphill keep your eyes on the ground.

Stones distract from the work of climbing, show you

Their pace, the lung wish, the getting there

Not winded.

References:

Dibidalen, short stories by Seán Virgo, Thistledown Press; Eye in the Thicket, an anthology of nature essays, Seán Virgo, ed., Thistledown Press

Cypress, by Barbara Klar, Brick Books

T.rex Discovery Centre https://www.royalsaskmuseum.ca/trex

Eastend Historical Museum, https://saskmuseum.org

Grasslands National Park https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/sk/grasslands

Whitemud Clay https://www.facebook.com/whitemudclaypottery

Stephen Goulet https://www.facebook.com/rockatier

Nick Saville Pottery https://www.nixavl.ca

Photos, clockwise from top left: Grieta Krisjansons’ horse, Stephen Girard pottery studio, the iron bridge over the Frenchman River, Scotty, Stephen Goulet’s rock sculptures

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Up and down the Mekong Delta

 

For anyone captivated by the idea a tropical river cruise, a trip on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta doesn’t disappoint. On board the vintage, wooden-sided Bassac II, I was channelling Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.

The Mekong Delta, end point of the 4,500-kilometre-long river that has its source in the mountains of Tibet, is known as Vietnam’s rice bowl. The Mekong here is called Song Cuu Long, the River of Nine Dragons, for its many branches on the vast delta. The two main tributaries, watery highways for serious freight transportation, are the Hau Giang (Lower River) or Bassac River, and the Tien Giang or Upper River. My daughter Jenny and I elected to take the day cruise up to Can Tho and back down on the Bassac, boarding at Cai Be, a bustling port that’s a four-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City.

The delta is a populous part of the country, both on and off the water. We grew used to the sounds of karaoke voices pumping out from villages behind a wall of thick jungle greenery as we steamed upstream over lush outgrowths of water lilies. In the towns on the delta, people inhabit stilted houses on the river banks, or they ply their wares at floating markets, as tourist cameras flash. Thirsty? You can order up a fresh coconut cut and served by the lady who poles her launch between larger craft offering onions, potatoes, greens, fish, meat, whatever. The floating merchants live on their boats too.

Our guide Anh took us ashore to walk a short path into a village where homes were surrounded with pens for pigs, ducks and chickens. Fruits cultivated here include bananas, jack fruit, mangoes, papaya and much more. Along the way we learned how Vietnamese growers in the south can get three harvests of rice out of the huge paddies that cover the delta. It’s women’s work, we heard, as Anh pulled no punches about life in the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Women here in the south also raise the children and keep house.

Throughout Vietnam these days, it’s Mammon over Marx. Despite a roaring economy, with annual GDP growth of more than 6 percent, the average citizen must work very hard to make ends meet. There are no government pensions, no medicare and those who wish proper health care and education for their children must pay for it, sometimes in bribes to insure proper care in hospital. The hoarded-up (prior to Tet celebrations) huge statue of Ho Chi Minh in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City became a symbol of how far this communist state has strayed from the ideals established by its first leader. Ho Chi Minh, who served as president of North Vietnam from 1945 to 1969, died before his country achieved victory in the American War and reunification of the north and south parts of the country, which didn’t happen until July 2, 1976.

Amid the buzz of construction and commerce – universal in Vietnam – there is room for peace and prayer in some spectacular temples on the delta. Most unusual for this part of the world is in the Cao Dai temple in Cai Be. Decorated in an Eastern rococo style, the Cao Dai temple is dedicated to a religion unique to Vietnam. A fusion of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also displays elements of Christianity and Islam. Its monks and nuns all wear white and the most prominent symbol is a single eye, signifying an all-seeing divine power or God.

In Can Tho, a city with a population of 1.52 million, three outstanding temples are evidence of  the return of religion to the centre of life in a country where the communist government once banned all religious observance. The biggest and most typical of Vietnam is Pitu Kohsa Rangsay Pagoda, a massive edifice featuring huge statues of the Buddha and four levels of worship. On the top floor, the carved wooden monks, gathered as if attending the last supper, add a human touch.

A helpful young monk took us on a brief tour of the Khmer pagoda called Pitu Kohsa Rangsay, radiant in its gold leaf covering. The abbot invited us to rest, drink tea and invited questions on the practice of Theravada Buddhism, practised mainly in Cambodia. He delineated the major differences between different strands of Buddhism practised in southeast Asia. Their objectives don’t differ and when followers from different countries meet as a group, he said, “we converse in Pali, the language of the Buddha.”

Our last stop in Can Thu before reboarding Bassac II was the Chinese Ong Temple, facing the Mekong and easily identified by the Chinese characters and iconography decorating its front. Inside, disciples keep incense burning around the clock and tend to altars to different deities and local heroes. The temple was built in the 19th century for worship of Kuan Kung, a deity associated with intelligence, honesty, confidence, virtue and faithfulness. Many offerings were piled up in front of the Goddess of Fortune and the Kul-Am Buddha.

Getting There: to book a Bassac tour, go to http://www.travelvietnam.com

Photos from top left, clockwise: a Bassac touring boat, Cao Dai temple, incense in the Ong temple, a monk and law student at Pitu Kohsa Rangsay temple, a merchant hawks her wares near Can Tho

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Three days in Hanoi

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In a city of contrasts, a tourist visiting Hanoi can in the space of a few hours experience the sacred and the crassly commercial, the high anxiety of negotiating anarchic traffic and the splendid tranquility of a walk around an inner-city lake.

On this second visit to the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, having already taken in the mandatory sights of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and museum, the Imperial Citadel and historic sites such as the Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war, I got dropped off at the tiny, perfect Den Ngoc Son temple across a picturesque bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Amid the bustling preparations for the lunar new year, Tet, to come, visitors and worshippers flock to this legendary location. In the 15th century, Lê Lói, who became emperor and founder of the Lê dynasty, was on this lake when he received the magic sword, Heaven’s Will, from the Golden Turtle god, Kim Qui. Thus did Vietnam gain independence from China. Later Lê Lói returned the sword to the turtle god, giving Hoan Kiem its name, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

Next stop is the Temple of Literature, not exactly what an English major might expect, but a complex of courtyards, monuments and temples dedicated to Confucian teachings and scholars. Explanatory panels in the central courtyard present archival documents and photographs of the French occupation of the city, which started in 1873. Within 12 years, the Concession was complete and the ancient capital, first established by the invading Chinese army in the seventh century as the Red River fort, was a mirror image of a 19th-century French capital. Vietnam, forever conquered and then repelling invaders including the Chinese, the French and the Americans, or ruled over by authoritarian royal families, presents a perfect case study in the nature of power.

The Women’s Museum, on a main street in the Hoan Kiem district, earns its reputation as the best museum in the city. Outstandingly curated displays on four floors, take us through centuries of female influence from marriage and family, to women’s participation in war and revolution, to the development of women’s fashions. Most inspiring is the history of Vietnamese women’s involvement in combat from 1945 to 1975. A typical heroine is Kan Lich, who directed a female guerilla force against American troops at 18 and was honoured in 1968 as a Hero of the Nation for participating in 49 battles and bringing down an American Dakota plane.

Beyond the centre of Hanoi and well worth the short taxi ride is the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, where detailed reconstructions of minority habitats and customs give the visitor a very clear picture of the Vietnamese population. Fifty-three ethnic minorities, divided into five main groups, make up the contemporary population of Vietnam. The majority, Viet or Kinh peoples, account for 87 percent of the 95.5 million population (as of 2017). The arts and crafts and traditional lifestyles of minorities such as the Red Dao or the Black Hmong are all on display here, but are best appreciated with a visit to their homelands, mostly in mountainous regions of the country.

Strolling through the old quarter of Hanoi in January you’ll quickly get a taste of what a huge occasion Tet is. The coming Year of the Pig, will be very lucky for those born in such a year, and as you wind your way through busy, narrow streets some of them specializing in the sale of silver, silk, stationery or flowers, you can feel part of the celebrations. And after a day of dodging scooters and cars on the streets of Hanoi, no better place for a final stop than at Body and Soul spa, where I experienced the best massage ever.

From top: Den Ngoc Son temple; Temple of Literature; Yao family relic, Museum of Ethnology; Kan Lich, Women’s Museum

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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

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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

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Mapping lives in dance

Map by Years is a feast for Toronto dance fans. Peggy Baker has assembled an all-star cast of dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers to present three of her stellar pieces from the past and to perform herself in a solo dance story created with Sarah Chase.

The outline of windows on the rear wall of the Theatre Centre space turn it into a salon, an intimate private space to experience virtuosity.

Jessica Runge is a wonder in “Her Heart,” a piece Baker made on herself in 1993 and revised in 2005. It is one of the earlier instances in which Baker performed with a live musician, choreographing both performers.

Here pianist Cheryl Duvall plays the four sections of the Johannes Brahms Intermezzo in tandem with Runge, who appears to ride the music. The music is in her, leading her, as it is in pianist Duvall. Runge, with her incredible fluidity, wearing the blue velvet long A-line dress designed by Caroline O’Brien, makes “Her Heart” her own, leaving with a look of peace and hope, as if she were giving us a piece of her heart.

Andrea Nann, another of Baker’s well chosen legacy dancers, revives “Krishna’s Mouth” (2003) in her inimitable style. The lines of the narrative are choreographed to repeat as Nann (Natasha Bakht performs on alternate nights) speaks/dances and cellist Anne Bourne keens and plays Karen Tanaka’s “Song of Songs.” As a child, Krishna the Hindu god of compassion and love, puts a clot of earth into his mouth. When his mother investigates she “sees the entire universe in her baby’s mouth.” Nann, hair braided in a long pigtail, wears a translucent tunic over top and square-cut pants and engages in very geometric moves, sweeping across the stage, crouching low, lying down and rising up, the energy driving her from her core. Musician and dancer are balanced; both are a vehicle for expression of the music. Acoustics may need some adjustment as there are moments when the women’s voices and the music overwhelm each other.

Baker created the silent solo “Portal” (2008) with lighting designer Marc Parent. Kate Holden (Mairi Greig on alternate nights) embodies Baker’s notes: “I was forced to consider the edges of time and space at the brink of death.” Holden appears in a cone of light that makes a lit square just big enough to accommodate the performer. She wears an expression of sadness, almost defeat. But the dance defies death, the movement and the breath making all the necessary music. The stage goes black and Holden reappears in a new space of light, bare arms windmilling, each half of her body appearing to act independently of the other, strong and under control.

“Portal” makes a natural transition to “unmoored,” Baker’s second creation with Sarah Chase. The two first made “The Disappearance of Right and Left” in 2003, based on 102 stories Chase asked Baker to write, two for each year of her life up until then. But Baker omitted an important tale, that of her marriage to musician and composer Ahmed Hassan. Last year she came back to Chase, ready to tell that story.

Out of 30 pages of Baker’s writing, done in a room near the Mediterranean in Bogliasco, Italy, Chase has shaped a performance that Baker speaks, sometimes reading, sometimes reciting, raw in its emotions and polished in its performance. Two chairs, a table and a music stand make three stations among which she moves. What we see in our mind’s eye are the rooms Baker describes, from apartment to nursing home to hospital, where her long-time husband died, age 55, after living with multiple sclerosis for many years.

There’s a principle, it seems, fundamental to all choreography – you can see it in ballet, in bharatnatyam  and in modern dance – that makes the spine the centre from which all else moves. In Baker’s work, this full-frontal first position is often seen; as if her spine, running through neck and torso, were the driveshaft for the movement.

In black shirt, belted black jeans and low-heeled boots, Baker faces us, very erect, then moves through her story extending her arms to give it to us, accompanied by the vocals of singer Maryem Hassan Tollar, Ahmed Hassan’s sister. Everyone is moved, including the dancer.

As an artist Baker needed to make this dance story, for it marks the renewal of creativity, going forward with undying love on the wings of a poem by Rumi.

Map by Years

Works by Peggy Baker|Sarah Chase

Produced by Peggy Baker Dance Projects

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, through February 25

Photo of Peggy Baker (top left) by Aleksandar Antonjevic. Clockwise: Andrea Nann and Ahmed Hassan

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Older, better and timeless

The 40th edition of Claudia Moore’s showcase of dance, Older and Reckless, might easily be named Older and Better. It’s hard to think of the 15 professionals working in top form as older, but a few would be considered elderly in dance terms. And a flock of volunteers, some not so old, in Peter Chin’s Tell Everyone are not dancers at all but make a wonderful team.

Chin’s huge ensemble work features Dan Wild, Bonnie Kim, Susie Burpee, Marie-Josée Chartier and Francisco Carrera leading 20 community recruits in an intricately patterned dance as Chin plays percussion instruments, including a big skin drum, on the side. The piece is a tribute to Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, a man of 23 who was knifed and killed in May on public transit in Portland, Oregon while defending two Muslim girls against a white supremacist. His last words as he lay dying in the arms of a woman bystander were, “tell everyone on this train I love them.” What the world needs now is more love and connectedness and this very east Asian, foot-stomping dance, to traditional Tibetan songs and recordings of the Bosavi people of Papua New Guinea, showed us what might happen if we all just reached out to one another.

A moving duet based on the struggles of the mentally ill, Ils m’ont dit is performed by Jane Mappin and Daniel Firth. Mappin choreographed this tender yet muscular piece, conveying a story of longing and misunderstanding in abstract movements set to a score by Erich Kory: whispering voices lead into  balladic strings with some staticky electronic sound. The couple’s pure, clean lines and complex partnering, drawing in and then repelling each other, make a love song in dance.

Heidi Latsky has been seen before on a Harbourfront stage as a partner with Lawrence Goldhuber, both of them formerly dancers with the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane company. On her own since 2001, she created Countersolo in 2013. For Older and Reckless, she does a section from it, Solo One. She arrives under a murky light, appearing to walk on water. As the lights grow more intense, so does her dance speed up. This solo is short and swift and arresting.

A curious coincidence on the program is that after the colourful panoply of Chin’s Tell Everyone, every performer that follows is in all black or white.

Ric Brown and Darryl Tracey wear black pants and black shirts with white buttons, like cowboy shirts. The video backdrop looks like a desert where cowboys might roam. Lesandra Dodson choreographed In Two Days a Man Can Change, a piece from 2010. These guys might have stepped out of Sam Shepherd play, except they are more funny than grating. One goes into plank position with opposite arm and leg raised and then collapses. “What’s wrong? Not enough core strength?” teases the other. A contest ensues: the bigger guy gets down and the other one taunts him: “hold it lower.” There is talk of nemesis and heroes, meeting your dark side in a mirror-image of yourself and fun with fake mustaches and noses, as befits a dance whose title is drawn from an Elmore Leonard text about a change of character (“just like a rope pulling you into it”).

Sashar Zarif’s solo The wound is the place where the light enters you is a gripping meditation on memory and life cycles, the title inspired by the poetry of Rumi. This is a mature solo from a dancer steeped in the dance and spiritual practices of the near east and central Asia. His slow build-up to a whirling trance-like movement winds down again to a slow journey. He keeps our attention with his refined moves; walking away from us, a hand trembles slightly behind his right flank. Zarif is definitely on a positive trajectory as he grows older in dance.

The final slot on the program is an elegant solo created for veteran ballet star Evelyn Hart by Matjash Mrozewski. Hart starts from a seated position, then stands up in a long elegant ivory dress that exposes only her arms. There is something pure in Abiding, a simple statement in sweeping, flowing gestures that says not older, but timeless.

Older and Reckless #40

Produced by Claudia Moore MOonhORsE Dance Theatre in association with Harbourfront Centre

At the Harbourbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto through November 11

Photos by Tamara Romanchuk. From clockwise: Tell Everyone, Evelyn Hart, Ric Brown and Darryl Tracy, Jane Mappin and Daniel Firth