Choreographing Zeitgeist: Shen Wei, Italy's MM and Toronto's Chris House

Edgy productions cut -- or grate -- near the bone

Toronto Dance Theatre frisking around the cyclotron. Photo: Guntar Kravis

The once-iconoclastic Contemporary Dance movement may no longer be the hottest new upstart on the terpsichorean scene; it’s now challenged by a gamut of newfangled art dance styles, from the austerely “conceptual” to sassy, street-smart Jookin’.

But a trio of performances this week reassured Vancouver’s contemporary dance devotees that their favoured art form still has plenty to say to our times.

At the Vancouver Playhouse, Dance House members were treated to a 50th Anniversary celebration of the Toronto Dance Theatre that featured a five short works “reimagined” from the opus of choreographer Christopher House, the company’s artistic director since 1994.

Many of the same crowd showed up later in the week at the Chutzpah! Festival for the North American premiere of Italy’s MM Contemporary Dance Company in two long-form works set to classical scores: Ravel’s Bolero and Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring).

And then, the very next night, Hunan-born Chinese-American superstar choreographer Shen Wei offered yet another – almost diametrically opposite – rendering of the same Stravinsky score to Vancouver International Dance Festival patrons at the Playhouse.

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The Toronto programme opened and closed with science-themed ensemble pieces. Martingale (2014) offers a frisky take on quantum physics that resembles nothing so much as a freeform soccer warm-up. To a minimalist electronica score by frequent House collaborator Thom Gill (who “performs” live at an onstage computer console), the company’s dozen high-powered and technically impeccable young dancers wheel, whirl, veer and pair like subatomic particles in a cloud chamber or a cyclotron.

Physiology, rather than physics, sets the tone for the recital’s concluding piece, Vena Cava (1999), but the dancers maintain the same throbbing pulse. This time, though, they figure as blood-red erythrocytes coursing through the intricate venation of House’s geometric choreography, rather than just quantum ephemera on a stochastic random walk.

The two pieces highlight the choreographer’s evolution over the years. Earlier works look notably more formal and structured; House’s later opus is more open to spontaneous, one-off interactions of his dancers’ “body intelligence” (as he terms it in a pre-concert talk). Gill’s live presence on stage and his amorphous, iterative scores promote this dynamic, most notably in the newest piece on the bill, a lightsome quintet that premiered just last November in Colombia.

By contrast, the earliest piece on the bill, Fjeld (1990), seems stately – almost architectural – with its classically draped, statuesque female figures and its cantilevered male pas de trois, all to the haunting strains of an Arvo Pärt vocalise.

Bolero's mesmeric pulse. Photo: MM

Italian choreographer Michele Merola, artistic director of the MM company that bears his monogram, concludes the Chutzpah! programme with a darkly stylish septet rendition of the Bolero.

Unseen hands manipulate what looks like a giant, flexible sheet of corrugated black cardboard in tune with Ravel’s sinuous score. Black-clad dancers appear and disappear, singly or in twos or threes, among the undulating folds of this backdrop. Lighting designer Cristina Spelti illuminates the vignettes with stark side spots, sometimes creating the impression of a double exposed negative.

Musical interpolations by Stefano Corrias lighten up the score now and then, allowing for more lyrical dance interludes. But still, Ravel’s mesmeric melody builds to its inexorable crescendo, whereupon the whole cast – now dressed in dazzling white – arrays itself before the unfurled backdrop in a climactic tableau.

If that sounds a bit noir, it’s positively airy compared with MM’s Chutzpah! programme opener, choreographer Enrico Morelli’s Sacre du Printemps. That’s Sacre, as in “sacrifice.” Stravinsky subtitled his work “Pictures of Pagan Russia.” Celebrants welcome the vernal equinox with a designated virgin doomed to dance herself to death.

Morelli sets the foreboding mood even before any dancers appear: a couple of dozen glittering meat hooks dangle from chains, swaying ominously over the empty stage. The lights dim and, when they come up again, nine of the cast members stand arrayed before us, looking on, stone-faced, as a 10th dancer is dragged off into the wings, prone and inert at the end of a hooked chain.

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