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

Saturday, November 6, 2010


"A small man can be as exhausted as a great man."

Death of A Salesman, one of the most acclaimed American plays of the 20th century, ran for 745 performances in 1949 and won the Pulitzer Prize later that year. Comprised primarily of flashbacks chronicling the downfall of a sixty-three year old man struggling to keep his career alive, the script is a relentless, melancholy exercise in the American Dream gone terribly wrong. Playwright Arthur Miller crafted a semi-linear, intricate narrative that defies the laws of naturalism by skillfully writing scenes that move seamlessly in and out of dialogue depicting family drama, corporate greed, and the escalating dementia of the title character, Willie Loman. Unable to let go of his flawed, supercilious belief in personable charm as the measure of a good man, Willie never fully recognizes his utterly fictional claim to fame as the ever-popular New England representative for a New York company. His two sons, Biff and Happy, become traumatized side-effects of his lifelong delusion, while wife Linda occupies a stalwart, altruistic position as the ever-loving spouse unable to say a single negative thing about her dear demented hubby.

The current Soulpepper ensemble takes this lengthy script and manages, under the direction of Albert Schultz, to create a moving and energetic two hours and fifty five minutes in the theatre - never lapsing into the drudgery of non-stop, abject emotion for a moment, finding the humour and the pathos necessary to a successful production of a play that could easily become bogged down by the never ending tragedy of the text. Nancy Palk plays the role of Linda with genuine affection, and the power and dignity necessary in order to render the famous “attention must be paid” speech with absolute conviction. Palk’s husband, Joeseph Zeigler, in the role of Willy, employs immense emotional range and impeccable timing as he shows his muddled brand of love for his onstage wife with the intrusive, overlapping, bickering dialogue that characterizes his abusive rhetorical gabbing during the heyday of his tragic downfall. And this is perhaps the true strength of the Soulpepper production. Director Albert Schultz has wrought, from a diverse palette of glory and ghastliness, the sense of a man and a family blinded by glory and bogged down by illusion. The cast and director have created a believable family of actors who understand, with each facial gesture and each emotion, the intricacy of thought and feeling essential to their characters. Tim Campbell’s beleaguered Happy winces at every word his father utters as he takes a backseat to Biff, the favored son. But when the stakes heighten and Happy has the opportunity to create his own brand of paternalistic bravado, he never falters, defending himself and his father’s delusional ways at every turn. Ari Cohen’s Biff finds a truly elegant range of emotion as he moves from brash argumentative son to a character struggling against all odds to be honest with himself and a father who triggered Biff’s own lifelong struggle to become a great man. The emotional range sought by the ensemble weakens only slightly at pivotal moments for the extremely difficult ‘crying scenes’ - scenes that might have been sculpted a little more judiciously with an eye for suppressed inner turmoil rather than overt emotion. Ziegler finds his teary moments in a successful, restrained, glassy-eyed mode, while some of the other actors don’t quite reach the summit of their chosen emotional peaks. These heart- wrenching highs are achieved in so many other ways that the tearless wailing that marks some of the later scenes appears somewhat overplayed and slightly cringeworthy.

Nevertheless, the overall production is a tour de force for a twelve actor ensemble that embarks upon this incredible urban journey, allowing an audience to laugh, cry, and frequently wince at the sometimes wanton, sometimes whimsical wanderings of men half in love with themselves and half in love with the women they - perhaps unconsciouslly? - use as pawns in their timeworn homosocial game of emotional monopoly. This is a nearly perfect production of a classic script that endures changing social histories as it reflects the ongoing roller coaster of capitalist economies with its universal themes on life, love, and the pursuit of a secure income. Not to be missed!!!

held over at the Young Centre (Distillery District) until November 20th

Friday, November 5, 2010


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore--

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over--

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

The current Soulpepper production of Lorraine Hansberrry’s acclaimed A Raisin In The Sun is an emotionally charged rendition of an historic script that examines American race politics through the gaze of a struggling black family on the threshold of moving to a white middle-class neighbourhood in Chicago. The drama unfolds through a complex series of relationships between mother and son, daughter and suitors, husband and wife. This triumvirate of social interaction manages, in Hansberry’s intricately developed text, to feature broad historical issues ranging from African/American history as it relates to inter-cultural generational experience from Nigeria to the U.S., as well as the ways in which racism and real estate become entangled within vicious circles of oppressive class-based sentiments.

The cast, led by Alison Sealy-Smith as Lena Younger, the matriarch struggling to do the right thing with her late husband’s substantial insurance policy, presents a lively yet frequently uneven production that resonates with subtle tragic-comic overtones expertly crafted into the script. Sealy-Smith shines as the steadfast mother, surrounded by a supporting cast that falters from time to time through an uneven emotional range that makes some of the social realism a little hard to fathom. Bahia Watson as Beneatha Younger, skillfully portrays the intelligence and vivacity necessary to the role, yet her physicality and vocal ability frequently verge on the melodramatic. This works well in certain physical scenes but becomes somewhat awkward when the realism turns to dialogue requiring more nuanced interaction. Similarly, Charles Officer’s Walter Lee Younger, although a very strong and credible son to Sealy-Smith's powerful mother, lapses into moments of awkwardness that don’t quite live up to his otherwise powerful, smouldering persona. Barbara Barnes-Hopkins gives a surprising and expertly comic cameo as Mrs. Johnson as she draws on skillfully and delicately managed gestural nuance in order to reveal Hansberry’s concerns over particular responses to stereotypes projected onto black communities of the time.

Although uneven at times, the ensemble brings Hansberry’s work to life with rich layers of emotional intensity. Based on an incident experienced by her and her family in 1940 when they won the right to a day in court regarding the purchase of a new home in a white neighbourhood , the playwright wrote about this formative event in her book To Be Young, Gifted, and Black:

"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

The Soulpepper production has been held over until November 20th and is a crowd- pleasing family saga that brings an iconic script to a Toronto stage for the second time in the past two years. The 2008 production won Sealy-Smith a Dora award for outstanding performance by a female in a principal role. The resonant, timeless strength of A Raisin In The Sun play can still be seen in 2010 as a production of Clybourne Park, a contemporary response to Hansberry’s play, opened at Playwright’s Horizon in New York last February with a subsequent production at London’s Royal Court Theatre.




The current Danceworks production at Harbourfront is an intriguing and powerful piece of choreography that combines a variety of performance disciplines in order to create an eighty-five minute meditation on the uneven nature of love and physical interplay. The uneven nature of the theme however, seeps into the overall mise-en-scene, making for a frequently bewildering yet fascinating exploration of voice and movement.

Sasha Ivanochko both performs and choreographs the two connected pieces that comprise the evening. Her presence onstage is immediately engaging as she exhibits vivid facial and bodily expression. The first ten to fifteen minute section lags somewhat as the subtle, somewhat ponderous gestural movements take time to morph into an explosive mixture of physicality and staccato text.

Ivanochko’s environment for the piece includes an evocative backdrop by designer Trevor Schwellnus that, although an impressive and simple brick wall with painted signage, quickly becomes a rather static and naturalistic addition to an otherwise expressionistic piece. Similarly, the text, both spoken and sung, including excerpted citations to Ethel Merman and Patsy Cline, entices the audience with an idea of story that might have been further developed through the use of recorded sound in order to add another layer to what appears to be a rather inconsistent approach to dance theatre. Although a kind of stylistic inconsistency may be part and parcel of some multi-disciplinary experimentation, this production could use a little judicious trimming.

Ivanochko’s vocal abilities are very effective and pleasing throughout, and yet they bear an incongruous relationship to the rest of the piece, and might have been balanced by a more pervasive recorded soundscape, giving her a more condensed and integrated opportunity in which to explore the physical nuances of the work. The highlight of the first section occurs during an extremely visceral moment that combines both physical and vocal agility, revealing Ivanochko’s impressive and graceful ability to defy gravity with her lower body while she lies onstage and emits Patti Smith-like song stylings into a prostrate microphone. In her program notes she asks her audience to bear witness to an exploration of “the pleasure/pain” reflex” and to “play a role” in the proceedings by taking “what you wish from the story (or stories).” Her desire to explore these areas through a combination of dance and spoken narrative has prompted a surprising mixture of citational movement and sound, ranging from Broadway divas to country music icons, ultimately creating a very contrasting and unexpected mixture of styles.

The second half of the evening brings the male counterpart to Ivanochko’s emotional journey onstage. Brendan Wyatt’s presence gives the choreographer the opportunity to produce even more explosive images for a dancer able to create ballet-like, gestural performance that frequently explodes into extreme physical aggression. Wyatt’s expertise with this range of styles, and the coupling between him and Ivanochko, makes for a number of memorable, heart wrenching moments where the duo engage in loving equations that end in total physical collapse.

Overall, the evening provides a series of very guttural and beautiful testaments to romantic interaction as it is played out within a highly theatrical environment that playfully flirts with the idea of performer as diva through the use of an onstage microphone that becomes a literal metaphor for frequently comic emotional bravado. A more condensed version, with the use of projections and a stronger, less intermittent soundscape, could move the piece into a fully integrated, less uneven atmosphere for what the artist has called The Future Memory Heartbreak Junction, Diptych - an entertaining and evocative coupling that might benefit by becoming a single panel for two dancers.