Thursday, November 18, 2010


The current re-mount of Toronto Dance Theatre’s Severe Clear, currently running at the Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront, is a frequently exhilarating and elegant romp through a series of very impressionistic stories about the Yukon. After a visit in 2000 choreographer Christopher House came away with the inspiration for the show. House has crafted some fine dance/theatre segments through the use of spoken narrative that complements beautiful evocative physicality. In its finest moments Severe Clear utilizes this double-edged technique with extreme grace and power, at one point thoroughly engaging the audience as we follow a bird-like dancer and her ‘water-bearer’ through a harrowing battle with turbulent rapids and a final plunge into an ensemble whirlpool at the end of the scene, or so it seems. The narration that sets the tone for this segment, like all of the spoken narrative, has a crisp, broadcaster quality that provides a very uneasy contrast-cum-connection to the movement that follows. Voiceovers seem only indirectly connected to the dance stories, making it difficult to know whether the brief tale one has just been told is in fact related to the movement that follows.

The bird in the water narrative, describing a migration route from the Yukon to Antarctica and back again, with frequently fatal stops at the edge of Niagara Falls, is perhaps the most explicit and exciting coupling of word and movement, but even this element is somewhat obtuse regarding the merging of dance and spoken text. And despite many moments of exciting choreography, this is the general problem with the piece. It doesn’t cohere, and the attractive but overly playful set and costumes do nothing to aid these struggling stories as they awkwardly blend with accompanying sections of prolonged choreography.

Moments of softer, elegant movement occur from time to time, but there is so much lifeless filler wherein faint gestural movement lapses into static sections of prolonged wandering that one cannot help but wonder whether a thirty minute version would have been sufficient. One moment of empty bravado happens when the bewildering, inflatable, transparent, playground-like set pieces meant to look like huge chunks of ice are placed in a heap to one side of the stage for no apparent reason, and then a dancer inexplicably leaps into them. This exemplifies the times when the movement becomes almost childlike in a distressing and alienating way, doing nothing to further the sense of dance and storytelling that is introduced at the outset.

All of the dancers are in fine form as they commit themselves fully to this uneven mixture of choreographic narrative. There are early moments of great energy and frolicking twists, leaps, and turns that re-occur throughout, complimented by some truly lovely moments of subtler gestural motion perfectly coupled with the elegance of the musical segments of Phil Strong’s sound design and Roelof Peter Snippe's layered background lighting. Unfortunately, as a whole this re-mount does not gel into a fluid piece. Perhaps this is partially the result of the choreographer’s impression of a part of this country's landscape that is simultaneously elegant, calm, frigid, welcoming, alienating and explosive, like a Lawren Harris painting. Clear skies and severe temperatures coupled with raw monumental terrain make up the gorgeous overwhelming landscape of Canada’s Far North. However, in Severe Clear the elements of storytelling combined with the jarring sound quality of poorly delivered spoken stories make the overall experience hard to follow, and at times impossible to engage with. Narrative that appears to represent elements of some forms of aboriginal storytelling employs an awkward simplicity that belies the delicacy and power of the source material.

Nevertheless, coming in at 62 minutes, the show is well worth the price of admission for the opportunity to see artists engaging in a series of fine, gorgeous moments of severe, clear choreography that could have been stripped of some the unevenly conceived narrative connections and triumphed in a less cluttered and disorganized dance/theatre space.

Severe Clear runs at the Fleck Dance Theatre

Harbourfront Centre, until November 20th

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