By: Angela Guardiani
I've seen a lot of theatre from both sides of the stage. Musicals and Shakespeare, dramas and farce, opera and circus arts. But never dance. So when I was invited to watch a DanceWorks production at Harbourfront Centre, I really had no idea what to expect. I recruited my friend E., a former bunhead, (i.e. ballet dancer) to help me parse what I was looking at.
“E.,” I said, “what is contemporary dance, anyway? Is it sort of 'this isn't ballet, or jazz, or tap, so we're just going to call it “contemporary” because we don't know what else to call it?”
“Well, some people categorize it that way,” said E. She thought for a moment, and said, “What I really like about contemporary dance is how expressive and emotional it is. It's not as concerned as much with form or technique, as ballet is. There's no storyline to follow, no symbolism to process with the logical part of your brain. Just experience the dance as it's happening.”
Okay, I thought. I can try that. I'm a story person; I like narrative. But there was something very appealing in just reacting to art on a visceral level, not thinking or analyzing. When I let myself go, I found myself appreciating the movement and intensity of the dancers. I didn't necessarily understand what I was watching at the time I was watching it, but putting it together afterwords, I could see themes and stories and yes, narrative. It was an exciting, adventurous evening, and one I'd love to repeat.
The show in question was a double bill of avant-garde contemporary dance created by Yvonne Ng and her company, tiger princess dance projects. Ng performs the first piece – a solo – herself, a semi-autobiographical playful piece called In Search of the Holy Chop Suey. The title is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think, but it's also meant to give us a picture of the artist's life in quick flashes of memory. The piece is performed to a background of sounds – bells ringing, traffic, street sounds, the chatter of people speaking (I later read that Ng used field recordings from her native Singapore). Ng enters the stage with a remarkable contraption on her back, part set, part costume. As she enters, the object springs from her back like a pair of moth's wings. The same object becomes a tent, a nest, a playpen, an egg . . . it's like a visual poem, serving as whatever Ng and the audience need it to be.
Ng's movements are playful, child-like in the very beginning, making faces and imitating more adult behaviour. Her movements are tightly constrained inside her tent/nest. As she shows us her development, she takes slow, cautious steps, reaching out, but always retreating back into her safe space until the last few moments. She turns her nest on its side, revealing an opening, and cautiously, thrillingly, steps through.
The second piece in the show is much longer, and although it's choreographed by Ng, it's performed by three other dancers. It's called Zhong Xin, which translates to “centre,” and it continues the idea of identity. Interestingly, the piece began with each dancer in isolation, working with Ng and interpreting her choreography with their own experiences and skills. The result is fascinating. Three dancers move across the stage, intersecting, moving in tight formation, and yet they do not touch. There's no lifts and very little contact until the final third of the show, and it surprised me how strong the feeling of release was to see these isolated, fragmented dancers at last merge and synchronize.
E. pointed out to me how each dancer had a unique physical presence. Luke Garwood is lithe and muscular, with a lot of what E. called “isolation work” - moving a single part of the body while the rest stays still. His movements were tight, controlled. Mairéad Filgate moves more how what I imagine a “classical” dancer would, with deep lunges are wide, graceful arm movements – very expansive. Irvin Chow looks to me like his work is informed by street dance. He spins, jumps, and runs with spreed athleticism. Watching the three of them together was a very emotional experience. I can't quite put my finger on what those emotions were, exactly, but as E. put it, contemporary dance is kind of like a piece of modern sculpture. It does not dictate how the audience should feel; instead, it aims to provoke, to be a catalyst for whatever subconscious feelings the viewer has lurking around in their depths. It's definitely not Shakespeare – but I wouldn't want it to be.
DanceWorks continues their 2016/2017 season at Harbourfront Centre Theatre as part of Next Steps, a collection of over 20 contemporary dance companies. Tickets are available at harbourfrontcentre.com/nextsteps/tickets. More information about tiger princess dance produtions is available at princessproductions.ca.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.