This season we are inviting different contributors to offer their perspectives on the work developed during 12 Minutes Max, bringing a breadth of interpretations of the rich, provocative and inspiring works of these courageous artists in motion. George Sipos shares his impressions of the first studio showing which took place on November 10:
I love work that starts with something very small and almost imperceptible. The first work we saw November 10, choreographed by Cody Cox, starts with a single dancer standing facing us and doing nothing at first. Then she opens her mouth into an oval that slowly rotates clockwise as if it were gnawing agape, or emitting a silent scream. The action looks raw and possibly tortured.
It is repeated several times and then the elliptical clockwise motion transfers to the face and head, and then to the upper body and then the arms and torso and so on. With each expansion of the orbit, the movement becomes more lyrical and assured and less anguished; more beautiful and less threatening.
Two other dancers appear, a male on the left and a female on the right. They begin to move in parallel with the central dancer as cued by this initial elliptical leitmotif, but the male dancer’s movement resonates more with the angst-impelled component of the initial theme (repeating the mouth movement together with an angular expressionism focused on the hands), while the female dancer responds to the lyrical impulse with broad open gestures of both body and arms.
The effect for me is completely musical, like a string trio developing a basic thematic idea via the contrasting colouring of the different instruments and their varying rhythmic and harmonic character. I think this is quite brilliant, and just as with amusical trio, I am engaged as a viewer/listener both in paying attention to the contrasts separately and in attending to their interplay.
What I mean, at a practical level, is that my eye was constantly moving back and forth between the two dancers at either extremity. I found that stereo vision pretty darned interesting, though I also wished I had a third eye to keep track of the dancer in the middle, who clearly was central to embodying the formal and emotional synthesis of the whole thing.
In this regard, it is worth commenting on the two occasions in the piece when the three dancers come into physical contact. On the first occasion it is their outstretched hands that meet each other’s bodies as if by accident. But the second occasion is the most interesting: At the beginning of what we might call the fourth and final movement of the piece, the two female dancers stand aside briefly while the male dancer embarks on a short solo. Uncharacteristically, his movement here is completely fluid and lyrical (as if he has transcended the angst-driven timbre of his instrument and found the lyrical voice that animated the second female dancer).
But the two women then re-appear and attach themselves to the male dancer, the three of them forming a moving sculptural form. I find it interesting that an audience member said that the word “parasitic” came to his mind at this point. I wouldn’t say that myself, but it is odd that the piece seems to end less with a resolution of the emotions and forms introduced by the initial image than with a possibly ambiguous vision of the triumph of one thing over another. Less thematic synthesis, perhaps, than surrender.
I guess what I want to say overall is that, as someone who has programmed a lot of chamber music over the years, I was really excited to see that same exploratory interplay of instrumental voices I find so engaging in such music at work here embodied as thoughtful and intelligent choreography.
To say that the second piece of the evening, created and danced by Katie DeVries and Kimberly Stevenson, is narrative is perhaps to say the obvious, but it is also to shortchange it. Yes, we have a woman and a phantom child; yes, the dramatic energy of the piece comes from some trauma (whether that’s of a child’s death, or of a stillbirth, or of the memory of childbirth itself); and yes the dance journey of the piece enacts and works with images of that trauma. But the dramatic and choreographic imagination of the piece goes much deeper than that.
I’d like to comment on a whole lot of things in the piece because I found it very rich, but let me just say a few things about the second dancer right now. When she first appears it is a real puzzle who she is and what she’s doing in the work. Her movement for the longest time is identical to that of the main character. Is she a doppelganger, a younger version of the main character (her costume is that of a young business woman, versus the more formless dress of atormented mother/un-mother)? Whatever the case, their unison dancing goes on for a long time and we watch and watch for something to happen to separate the two. When it first comes, it is a small but extraordinary gesture: The two dancers both extend an arm toward us, one palm forward in defiance or refusal, the other palm upward as if offering something. The gesture passes, but it is finally an opening to differentiating the two characters.
Later, of course, the differences magnify, however ambiguously. When the main character stands by the crib (which we know by now does not contain a living child) the second dancer refuses to look and withdraws to perform a short and tortured solo of denial.
From then on, we have a steady ratcheting up of dramatic and emotional tension. The business with the crib wheeled back and forth across the stage is really effective, particularly when the second dancer ends up momentarily on the floor under it. I heard a gasp from the audience as the implications of this sudden image hit. Interestingly, it was a more shocking moment then than a short time later when the same thing is presented in a more extended and emblematic form as the bed is deliberately placed over the prone body of the second dancer.
Overall, I found this a really effective blending of theatre and dance in which neither form is merely illustrative or elaborative of the other but the two work together to explore an experience, a mental journey, a specific life narrative with a strong eye for power of detailed images.
Several people in the audience spoke after we saw the duo choreographed by Mahaila Patterson-O’Brien about the initial gestural definitions of the beginning of the piece being “mathematical” or “riddle-like”. Unlike them, what came to mind for me was “hieroglyphic”. Perhaps it was the simple grey costumes, perhaps the prominent and gracefully staccatoarm gestures by bodies seen largely in flat perspective. In any case, that initial exposition of discrete gestures reminded me of something fundamentally linguistic. As if what we are given at the beginning were a semantic lexicon of movement, or the phonemic inventory of a language.
And if so, then as a viewer I am primed to await what statements (or what poetry) will be constructed from such elements, what truths can be spoken when such elements of a language are put together. And sure enough, when the music beginsthe movement changes – different elements of the gestural lexicon link up, words and phrases emerge. The culmination, I guess, is the short opening in the middle to the moves of night-club dance that people in the talk-back referred to as the piece’s “boogie-moment.”
I’m quite torn about what to say about this. On the one hand, I have to confess to a real disappointment. Is the conventional language of social dancing the best we can attain from the finely-chiseled beauty of the hieroglyphs that we were so lovingly given at the beginning? It’s a bit like the disappointment of bringing home a blouse with beautifullyembroidered Chinese characters from a holiday and discovering that what they say is “Dry Clean Only”.
At the same time, I’m intrigued by the observation from someone in the audience that this “boogie moment” should be seen as a “mockery of night club music”. I like this better, but I don’t quite understand the larger context of the possibly intended satire; at least I don’t find such a context within the piece itself. The solution might be for me to see the piece again with an eye and a mind more attuned to intention and to the nuances of possible satire, aesthetic deconstruction, or whatever.
George Sipos is a writer, poet and arts programmer, and a curator for last season’s 12 Minutes Max.
Read more about 12 Minutes Max.
Photos top to bottom: Rob Trendiak (Two Great Truths Chor: Katie DeVries, Dancer: Elya Grant); Ash Tanasiychuk (Mahaila Patterson-O’Brien).