Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Body in Question at DOTE

What happens when you bring Christopher House, long-time Artistic Director of Toronto Dance Theatre, together with iconic postmodern choreographer Deborah Hay? The answer is The Body in Question, an evening of two solos by Hay adapted and performed by House as part of this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival.

House learned the solos News (2006) and At Once (2009) alongside several other dancers at one of Hay's legendary workshops. As dancer and scholar Megan Andrews noted in a presentation at last week's Canadian Society for Dance Studies conference--and as House reiterates in his program notes--Hay's method is to begin with a written score, which she invites dancers not so much to interpret as to engage with in finding what Andrews referred to as their "intention" for the piece. Next, Hay poses each dancer a series of questions about that intention, asking them to strip away their embodied histories as performers as they find new ways of capturing an audience's "attention." Finally, she offers a series of tools to aid her dancers in completing certain "actions." As both House and Andrews note, throughout this process, Hay is encouraging participants to find new modes of perceptual awareness of the body in time and space through paradox, loss, and negation.

At the end of her workshops, Hay signs a contract with each dancer, in which they commit to a fairly lengthy period of practice of the works they have learned and then, I believe, to at least three public performances of each of those works--none of which, as Hay's teaching method ensures, will ever look the same. What I'm assuming the different adapted performances of Hay's solos all do, however, is concentrate audiences' own perceptual attention on the individual performing body in ways that heighten our consciousness of the movement choices being made.

At least that was the case with me last night watching House move across the Firehall stage, which had been exposed to the back safety wall (through which House enters at the top of the first piece), and which was mostly fully lit and with house lights up throughout. Here was a dancer at the height of his abilities, and with a whole choreographic history stored within his body, executing a series of precisely wrought movements, but also demonstrating how situationally contingent are those movements: what it means to swivel one's hips to the right instead of the left, to pivot this way instead of that, to rise up onto and then tap one's toes with concentrated deliberation. There was no music for House to keep time to, only the internal rhythms of his own body, which I experienced in a kind of spectatorial slow motion, as if House were breaking down, frame by frame, not just each observable physical action, but also the invisible bodily impulses that go into performing those actions.

Paradigmatic in that regard was the moment near the start of the second piece, At Once, when House, having exchanged his slacks and Harley Davidson t-shirt for a kilt, starts clapping--or at least showing us (and himself) the combined sequencing of arm and hand motions that go into the gesture we call a clap. House is not interested in the sound that clap makes--indeed, his hands only rarely come together, and often noiselessly. Rather, he is showing us how, on a somatic level, that clap gets put together. And why that is meaningful.

I couldn't agree more.


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