Culture & Conversation

Title-Rich, Meaning-Poor

Just when you thought the age of bad post-modern titles was really, really over, veteran Canadian choreographer Christopher House returns to the Danse Danse series with Dis/(sol/ve)r, a recent work for Toronto Dance Theatre. The name is misleading, puzzling even (as is the involvement of a dramaturge), because the hour-long dance is an exceedingly legible and earnest look at how people orbit, bond and inevitably disappear on one another. But what else is new? The choreography begs the same question.

Dis/(sol/ve)r features five men and four women in smart cocktail party dress, barefoot. The set by Cheryl Lalonde is handsome, a half-stage pastel backdrop of gently-wrinkled tissue paper panels, hung. Instrumental music by Phil Strong is choreography friendly, offering some mischief, some rhythmic parts, and plenty of bittersweet moments to accompany the searching looks between dancers.

The piece alternates mainly between group sections evoking social scenes and male-female duets indicating different kinds of couples or moments in a couple’s life. The former is the more rewarding. House’s reported penchant for particle theory and quantum mechanics reveals itself in these ensemble sections, as dancers weave and propel around in unpredictable patterns, skittering, leaping and walking multi-directionally with gazes interlocked. This is a departure from House’s much-lauded use of unison or canon but shows he still excels at arranging his dancers on stage. Charged-up molecules or planets drifting, performers are self-contained and yet ruled by some collective force that returns them to precise docking points. Another recurring exercise has the dancers linked in a chain, a kind of tough-to-wrangle social dance that is probably more fun to improvise than it is to watch.

Although the founders of Toronto Dance Theatre were trained at the Martha Graham school, House, its Artistic Director since 1994 and Resident Choreographer since 1981, culls from a mixed contemporary tradition that calls to mind the falling weight of Jose Limon, the strict upper body, awkward pivots and heavy jumps of Merce Cunningham, and especially in this piece, the pedestrian, untrained movement of Judson Church experimentalists like Deborah Hay. What is lacking in Dis/(sol/ve)r, however, is the simultaneous freedom and deep rigor that made ordinary movement so radical in New York in the 60’s and 70’s.

Stripped of House’s usual props and video, Dis/(sol/ve)r invites a closer look at the movement itself. Here, House’s language is gesture rich and at times very quirky, with a lot of attention to the arms and hands, but despite a conscientious use of phrasing and repetition, meaning rarely bubbles up, images do not stick. It doesn’t help that the choreography sometimes resorts to clichés like unreciprocated hugging, or even worse, a dancer slapping himself in the face; the theatrical elements are poorly integrated and one wonders why suddenly there are facial expressions or bouts of cruel gender games like a vanilla version of Pina Bausch.

There are successful passages, however, and the most poignant involves one dancer going in to cradle the head of another, only to have his or her object disintegrate into the floor, leaving an empty embrace. The phenomenon ripples through the group as dancers disappear on each other and resurrect, only to experience the same loss from another. The simple gesture and its myriad suggestions is the middle C of the entire piece.

The company has recently renewed itself with a batch of new dancers, but the result is a less-than-cohesive whole. The men are citizen-like, uneven technically but nonetheless channel a realness that is useful to House’s choreography; the girls on the other hand, while more polished, often betray lyrical jazz manners (think So You Think You Can Dance) and seem to want to point their toes and flick their hair any chance they get. For the time being, this mini-society does not quite sell itself.

House gets high appreciation marks for being one of Canada’s most seasoned and skilled dancemakers. Dis/(sol/ve)r is a thoughtful departure from his busier pieces; it is not, however, the work that marks a veteran choreographer drawing innovation from existing formulas at large.

(Footnote: To all choreographers who still feel the need to over-punctuate their titles, a polite reminder that William Forsythe made ALIE/N A(C)TION in 1992. It’s time to move on.)

Dis/(sol/ve)r closes the 2009-2010 season of Danse Danse. The last performance is tonight at Centre Pierre-Péladeau, 8pm. For more details visit the Danse Danse site.

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