Things near + far: Strong Dance, Strong Visuals

Ziyian Kwan, Anne Cooper & Ron Stewart (photo by Chris Randle)

Things near + far premiered last night at the Firehall Arts Centre. Created by a trio of mid-career dance artists (Anne Cooper, Ziyian Kwan and Ron Stewart), the show features two pieces. Each is called Dwelling and both are approximately 30 minutes in length. The first comes from a young choreographer (Josh Martin of 605 Collective) and the second from senior choreographer (Tedd Robinson of 10 Gates Dancing). It means we experience an evening of dance that crosses generations and geography.

The first piece of the evening is from Josh Martin. It's on an open stage with a bright whitedance floor. The stage is open to the wall on stage right with four entrances from the wings on stage left. Clad in grey tops and pants with bare feet, the three dancers enter and none seems aware of each other at first. Intended to explore the past dance works that each of these dancers have performed, it begins in silence with movement and muttering. A word here, a gesture there... I understand little of the muttering, then I clearly hear:  "The floor is squeaky right here." It makes me laugh. I see snippets of memories entwined with movement.

Then the dancers begin to acknowledge each other and seem to perform elements of dances past. Then the music begins (from composer Stefan Smulovitz)... and suddenly they begin to move together. I am pulled into their dance jam - it feels very spontaneous and improvised in parts. There is light on the audience throughout - I almost think I've wandered into a rehearsal hall where dancers are showing off for each other. Then the music turns jazzy, and that "dance jam" feeling increases. Then it switches again, and I see each of the dancers learning from each other - imitating bits of gesture and movement. I am mesmerized by this process.

Music slows... the lights fade. The dancers begin a section of floor work... each seems to be dreaming, in a restless sleep, pulling apart the memories of past movement that are buried deep inside their bodies. I hear strings, melancholy tones and I watch the dance emerging - the intensity increases and they rise up off the floor three connected dancers yet individuals too. I suddenly notice that Stewart is dripping with sweat and both Cooper and Kwan have sweat staining the small of their backs. All this movement has appeared deceptively simple yet there is a demanding physicality to it. 

The continuous motion reminds me of the title Things near + far. And I wonder why each dancer is so alone in some of the movements, why connecting to each other can appear an impossibility. Then almost in the moment that I begin to wonder, I see the dancers connect and look at each other. Cooper and Kwan start to watch Stewart intently as he seems to dance in his own memories... then Stewart stops. He passes the torch to Cooper, who is watched in turn until she stops. Finally, it is Kwan who dances alone for the other two. This elegant, simple action then transforms into an interaction between all three as they touch hands to shoulders. Finally, each dancer ends alone and they slowly exit the stage. Before intermission, the dancers bow and receive a loud, sincere round of applause.

For the second piece from Tedd Robinson, we are asked to leave the theatre to allow time to reset the stage. When I return, I see two work lights onstage, some long beams stage right with some flannel workshirts and a handsaw balanced on two tiny four-legged stools. First Stewart enters wearing a flannel workshirt and what looks like a handmade white dress of canvas tacked up on all sides. He saws through a beam of wood and exits. Then Cooper enters in a similar dress with more wooden beams balanced on her head. She places the beams onstage and exits. And last, Kwan enters clad in a dress that is falling off. She picks up the sawdust on a sheet of paper, stands on the tiny stools and walks to one worklight where she blows glistening sawdust glitter into the air.

The dreamlike music from composer Charles Quevillon suddenly shifts to pounding drums. All three dancers emerge in their the one-size-fits-all dresses reminding me a surreal Greco-Roman tableaux. As they move, the dancers seem birdlike - they are jerky, light and twitchy. Then slowly more beams are brought onstage carried on heads, shoulders, hands and fingers. A power drill appears and the dancers begin to build a physical structure. Slowly at first, then faster and faster to the sound of tingling bells, of thunder and even alarms. The lighting intensifies as the pace of building increases by the three all now clad in flannel workshirts over their dresses.

Once complete, the dancers begin to inhabit the small structure. They remove the workshirts and explore their new home, look beyond its walls and determine its boundaries. The movement becomes slow and deliberate, a contrast to the turning, looping and spiralling music which accompanies their discoveries. I wonder why they are here, what it they are truly finding together and alone in this newly constructed space. The dance artists have clearly created a space in which they move - a dwelling made before our eyes. 

These two pieces of dance offer a glimpse into the meaning of live performance. It is inherently ephemeral, as perhaps more of our life is than we really know. James Proudfoot's lighting design for both pieces is integral to setting up a sense of place and of time passing. But perhaps the strongest visual of the evening for me was the three generations of dance artists who appeared together onstage at the finale - a young choreographer, three dancers a generation above and a choreographer whose memory is longer yet.

Things near + far runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from Dec. 3 - 6, 2014.

By Allyson McGrane