The Dancing on the Edge Festival began its next quarter century last night at the Firehall with an opening performance by Ottawa Dance Directive (ODD). Founded in 2010 as an incubator and presenter of new work, ODD created a splash at the 2012 Canada Dance Festival with the premiere of resident choreographer Yvonne Coutts' Fracture and guest choreographer Tedd Robinson's Trembleherd Bells. Both of the works, slightly re-conceived, were on the program last night, alongside a new work for the company by Vancouver-based choreographer Noam Gagnon called sho me wut u gut.
One wonders if the development of the last piece influenced some of the choices made in the remounting of the first two. For, while all three works are very different with respect to their movement vocabularies, there is a tonal/thematic/narrative through-line to the evening that unfortunately casts something of a homogenous sameness over the proceedings: lots of hair being whipped around; lots of bodies falling to the floor for no apparent reason; lots of bare flesh. To be sure, we are alerted to such behind-the-scenes connections at the top of the first piece. Company member Riley Sims, munching from a bag of candies, walks on stage with Jasmine Inns and Marilou Lépine--both wearing full-length evening gowns--and announces that while we may have been expecting a duet (as Coutts had originally choreographed Fracture), the company recently received some more money; hence his presence. Sims seems mostly to have been added as a talking head, commenting not just on what we are watching, but (as per my earlier speculations) hinting at what we can expect to see later on in the program (via a reference to an earlier working title for Gagnon's piece). Indeed, Sims labours for most of the piece to insert himself within the closed intimacy of the female dancers' world: at first humourously by miscounting the beats of their unison movement (and getting his face slapped); then more aggressively by picking up and moving Inns' gyrating body about the dance floor; and at last sensuously by stripping to his underwear and attempting to mimic the women's swaying hips, languorous arm waves, and joyous jumps. However, the women never fully include Sims in their world, which reads like a compendium of the mysteries of sisterly bonds: from the virtuosic synchronicity of hand-clapping games, to the out-of-nowhere perplexity of mean girl shoves, and the restorative grace of womanly partnering. Given this, and given that the real dance focus of the piece is on the women, my question is why we need Sims at all. If one is trying to concentrate on the movement, he is mostly a distraction.
In Robinson's Trembleherd Bells, Sims, Inns, and Lépine are joined by Charles Cardin-Bourbeau and Simon Renaud. As the curtains part, the dancers, clad in white, are all clumped together upstage; downstage a collection of cowbells has been arranged. Renaud, shirtless and holding a book, appears to be the leader of the group, whom we are wont to read as cult-like followers in search of spiritual and physical direction. Inevitably, that search propels the dancers towards the cowbells; however, once the first bell is rung, the limited cohesion that seems to have existed in the dancers' collective aimlessness is sundered, as bodies disperse about the stage, resist each other's embrace and, eventually, descend into solitary paroxysms. In Sims' case, this means a full-body twitching downstage centre that can only be stilled by a final ringing of one of those bells. Needless to say, I was grateful for the blackout that followed.
The exploration of sexual and social bonds that I have, albeit retrospectively, been reading into the first two pieces owes much to Gagnon's concluding sho me wut u gut, which wears (quite literally) its in-your-face attitude on its dancers' well-cut sleeves. Mind you, the men's shirts and the women's blouses--along with their pants, skirts, dress shoes, stiletto heels, and of course underwear--will all eventually come off by the end of the piece, with the five company members engaging in various same-sex and opposite-sex couplings, bodily gropings, animalistic howlings and, just because, dry humpings of the floor. Not that we don't also see moving moments of tenderness, not to mention some sublime group dancing. Indeed, at times during the piece I was reminded of what so captivated me about Gagnon and partner Dana Gingras' trademark choreography for The Holy Body Tattoo: high energy and highly physical unison movement performed by talented young dancers to pulsating music. It's hard to concentrate on that or any kind of movement technique when dancers' clothes start coming off (as Arlene Croce has famously written, in what might be taken as a ballerina's credo for never removing her tights, on stage it is the arabesque that is real, not the leg executing it). Which is not to say that nakedness in dance doesn't have its place (Alistair McCaulay has written perceptively on the topic--referencing Croce--in the New York Times), or that it cannot also be referenced in a smart and self-reflexive way (as in Frédérick Gravel's Usually Beauty Fails, which played the PuSh Festival this past year, and which I wrote about here). But the nudity as an end point in Gagnon's piece was so belaboured and so obvious that for me it actually got in the way of seeing the movement. Like Sims in Coutts' Fracture, it was a distraction.