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Flash Review 2, 11-3: The House of North
Toronto Dance Theatre Summons the North

By Shena Wilson
Copyright 2000 Shena Wilson

TORONTO -- On Wednesday, I experienced "Severe Clear" by Toronto Dance Theatre at Premier Dance Theatre in Harbourfront Centre. This past July, choreographer Christopher House travelled to the Yukon with twelve other performing artists from across Canada. The artists would use the experience to create, to inspire, and to expand their artistic and geographic horizons: "Severe Clear" is the product of this unique experience. The piece not only explores the ambience of the North, its resounding freedom and demanding physical elements, but also the myth and legends of the land, as well as the fascinating sounds of the wilderness. House has managed to distil place and feeling into a fine-tuned poetry of movement. "Severe Clear" is an engaging homage to the crisp, wild beauty of the far north, as told through the elegant strengths of the TDT dancers.

Before the dancers even enter on stage, a man's voice rhymes off wilderness tips, some of them rather funny: "A bear's nose is a good place to strike." "If a bear charges and it's a black bear stand your ground." "Bring a twelve gauge shot gun." "In open terrain look for bears with binoculars." Air-filled opaque plastic cubes are scattered, i.e. blocks of ice, all over the stage, one woman enters wearing an off-white furry camisole and knit, lose capris. The costuming, by Anna Michner and James Robertson, is various styles of skirts, dresses, trousers, tops, in neutral coloured knits with thick seams showing. It looks natural, almost animal-ish without a trace of the easily cliche 'oh look, northern people' or wilderness garb. Very attractive and effective: these beings are at home in the Yukon. There are strong elements of legend in most of the sequences; occasionally people morph into animals, or perhaps even spirits of the land.... The northern myths and legends that I ment! ! ion, I will not attempt to render in detail for fear of diminishing the charm and power of each of them. Many spoken passages begin with "Here are two truths and a lie, listen carefully..." Christopher House's voice and that of a woman are the prelude and the interlude to several of the sequences.

Following the approximately 70-minute performance, we were invited to stay to learn more about the process of creating "Severe Clear" at the informal and pleasant 'dance speak' session. Mr. House mentioned, among other interesting tid-bits of creation, that Cate Friesen, a journalist, was on the voyage and recorded the many voices that describe the scenery and the sounds of nature: rushing water gurgling, a boat navigating through ice flows, et al. Sound engineer Phil Strong did a stellar bit of work that showcases these natural sounds, and blends in a very infectious techno/groove music that in tone reminded me of what Portished might be if they moved to the Bahamas via New York City. As one audience member asked, "Is this for sale? Can I buy this music? It's really beautiful." I agree. I hope Phil Strong puts it together for all to enjoy -- it's very engaging and was used beautifully.

Back to the performance. A helicopter sound, we arrive. Then light, strong, free movements by the first dancer. Beautifully stretched feet and limbs, ease of movement and interesting attention to an internal dialogue. I wondered if she was an animal, free and easy, before the arrival of the travellers, whom she will also, in turn, become. Enter approximately six other dancers, placing the ice blocks into a pile that eventually one of them will jump into. A gesture often repeated by those of us in our northern climates make a pile of leaves or snow and then jump on Ahh.... A voice reminds us that of everything we need in the north, water is the number one priority, above even food and shelter. Water gurgles almost throughout the entire piece. Six women move as though swimming with the current, pushed by it, turning their legs and torsos in unison. Enter five men with glasses of water that they drink together. Then, sitting back-to-back they sing. They sing, as Mr House explained later, in a 'round' as he did many times while travelling: "Dip, dip and swing..." It sounds very courreur des bois to me: low tones, melodic, a working song. And then they gargle. Yes. Not gargle and spit, but a big musical gargle that is terrifically reminiscent of the rushing rapids we've listened to. Message perhaps: we are water, we are all rapid running rivers... Enchanting.

There is a sequence in which Kristy Kennedy becomes a mating tundra swan or in any case, a large bird. It is absolutely beautiful to watch, especially the many creative lifts, which partner, Sean Ling (I believe), allows to flow quite effortlessly. "The tundra swan mates for life."

A clear plastic triangle tent is brought on stage and used to house people at various stages. A group dance resembles a Scottish country reel, but 'techno' style, in the woods, with snappy sex appeal. Three women braid and weave Jessica Runge's long dark hair around twigs and leaves that become a Shaman-like head dress, that also could be a set of antlers on a deer-like creature. The braiding takes some time;: we watch Sasha Ivanochko, meanwhile. She is a graceful, lots-behind-the-eyes, power-house of a dancer. In two passages she appears with snowshoe like items on her feet. (Note: When I lived in the great prairie west during my high-school years, we learned to walk in snowshoes in school -- it ain't easy, but Ms Ivanochko makes it look simple and light.)

Another passage with five men dancing in a circle reminds me momentarily of the Pow-wow's traditional snake-like circle, which begins with the elders and finishes with the youngest dancers winding slowly, rhythmically into the gathering. One remarkable element about the dancing in general, besides a pure and seemingly effortless quality, is the almost constantly high eye-line. It is as though they are looking far along the vast horizon to see what is there. Their gaze is free and confident, as is their purpose in this place.

Next, there's an ice cube fight, with all tossing the cubes at one woman, Ms Kennedy, who giggles wonderfully as though in a pillow fight. And then, it is indeed party time.

An urban-ness appears out of nowhere as the music shifts to sultry groove and clear water poured into tumblers magically becomes bright colours: green, blue, red, purple. The revellers flirt, they dance, one is jealous, and chooses a new partner. Lifts, swings, chaos, and unity. It is a party in the middle of no where and it is a sexy feast of people. Later, they lie down, sleep. A helicopter is back, and the group of revellers, sitting around a lantern listen to legends again and then lying on their backs, heads to the audience, legs raised at ninety degrees, feet seem ing flipper-like to me. These are seals on an ice-flow; waiting, like animals left behind, they hibernate, a deep northern sleep. And a voice begins again: "In the beginning, the raven created the heaven and the earth..." The dancers sing 'a cappella,' "Here I am strong and free... darkness...darkness..." I am usually rather allergic to singing randomly slotted into dance pieces; I think it usually ends up sounding corny, like hey, let's just sing a tune. But this somehow worked very well. The dancers were fine harmony singers and it had a natural relaxed quality that felt like we were all at the outdoors party with them. They also integrated vocals, such as animal-like screeches, that were quite effective and did not leave me, as usually is the case, cringing for pity. In fact they were delivered clear-eyed and again, with a natural simplicity that worked.

Although I've detailed some of the spectacle, and given elements of the steps and props, the music and the costuming, I must say that on a purely personal, not analytical, but emotional level, I was left in love again with the North. Like a lost love, met again by chance, I was moved and quite surprised to be so. There is something so entirely comforting about the grand spaces, the echo, the simple, peeled-back landscape that is the north of Canada. Somehow, Mr House and company managed to offer this feeling.

They summoned a hint of chill, of sun, of the northern lights and of complete pitch black of a sky, and they gave it to us as we sat on the edge of Lake Ontario in the largest city of Canada, cosy inside our modern arts complex....

"Severe Clear" is a commission from the Yukon Arts Centre Corporation and was made possible through the support of the Laidlaw foundation. For this I thank them. This piece was created and performed by Lara Barclay, Valerie Calam, Chistopher T. Grider, Christopher House, Sasha Ivanochko, Brendan Jensen, Kristy Kennedy, Matthew Kwasnicki, Louis Laberge-Cote, Sean Ling, Robin McPhail, Jessica Runge, and William Yong. Each one of them is an integral part of this piece. Christopher House had the good grace to mention that the dancers do indeed contribute to the creation of the piece, to especially the partnering and they share ideas continuously. Hail all the "silver paddle" to you.... Bravo!

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