As they indicate in a note included in the program to things near & far (on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this Saturday), Anne Cooper, Ziyian Kwan, and Ron Stewart have been friends and dance colleagues for three decades. During that time, they have collaborated in separate pairings on many works for local choreographers. Yet until now they had never danced together on stage as a trio. Seeking to remedy this, they collectively commissioned two choreographers whose work inspired and challenged them to build new pieces on and for them. That one of these choreographers, Josh Martin, was younger and local and the other, Tedd Robinson, older and from Quebec, was also a deliberate choice. The resulting commissions are at once in dialogue with each other (both are called dwelling) and with the embodied dance histories of their performers, revealing in their own distinct ways how separate parts fit into a whole.
For Martin this means beginning with the accumulated dance repertoires that already reside in the dancers' bodies from a lifetime of performance. Walking out on stage with both the stage and house lights up, Cooper, Kwan and Stewart pause and adopt distinct poses, or make a specific gesture, before quickly exiting. They do this a couple of times before eventually coming together to help each other remember a succession of moves, using their bodies and their voices to indicate how their arms are meant to be held, or in what direction they are meant to travel across the floor. At a certain point, however, they actually drop to the floor, their heads and arms and torsos pierced by the shafts of bright white light that lighting designer James Proudfoot sends across the stage. To a gorgeous score by Stefan Smulovitz, Martin infuses his own choreographic sensibilities into the work by having the trio engage in extended floor work that draws on and adapts several of hip hop's trademark moves: rolls into suspensions anchored by an isolated and locked arm; a wrapping around of the legs and circling into verticality before a liquid and seemingly boneless collapsing at the joints sends the dancers' bodies back down to the floor. What I especially liked about this work is how the patterns approached but never quite fully meshed into full-on unison movement: which is to say that the dancers were moving together but also in response to each other. I also liked seeing what Martin's choreography looks like slowed down; this is, dare I say it, his most mature work to date.
In his piece, Robinson takes the metaphor of building a work and literalizes it for us on stage. It begins with Stewart, clad in a white canvas shift and bodice, shuffling centre stage on his toes. Positioned there is a thin length of builders' wood, supported by two tiny foot stools. Balancing his body over the wood, Stewart takes a hand saw and proceeds to cut the wood in two. Cooper, having emerged upstage left, her body also wrapped in a similar tarpaulin-like garment, balances the two bits of cut wood on her head and then exits from whence she came. Finally, Kwan's bit of balancing consists of stepping onto the two footstools, now inevitably orientalized into the distinctive Geta platform sandals worn by traditional Geisha, shuffling on them towards the downstage left footlight, and then blowing some glittery confetti off of the piece of paper she is holding. After this ritual preparation of the space, it is now ready for a collective act of creation, which in Robinson's case means demonstrating the choreography inherent in carpentry. Donning plaid work shirts over their white dresses, the dancers grab additional planks of wood leaning against the stage right wall, take up nail guns and with the precision and timing we associate with the best group dancing erect a perfect square enclosure. Into which they eventually step, enacting a final act of balancing via the successive wearing of the footstools on their heads. Featuring the contributions of longtime musical collaborator Charles Quevillon, Robinson's work is typically elliptical, but also firmly grounded in the material world.
As are each of these wonderful dancers, who bring both works on this unique and satisfying program to life through their embodied collaboration.