No Exit and Lost & Found make for a warped double bill of existentialism

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A Fujiwara dance inventions production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, January 16. Continues until January 19

It’s hard to think of anything more bitterly appropriate for a biting winter night than Denise Fujiwara’s warped little double bill of existentialism.

The veteran Toronto dance artist opens the show with her strongest work, No Exit, a butoh-tinged retelling of Jean-Paul Sartre’s grim satire. Fujiwara cuts to the almost animal motivations and emotions in the play, which tells the story of three people trapped in a room that turns out to be hell. There’s no script here, nothing’s literal or mimed, and yet it is not exactly “danced” in a traditional way either. Instead, Fujiwara gets the story’s ideas across through tortured exchanges and twisted, silent screams. The three dancers never sit comfortably in the hard little chairs set in a triangle within the confines of the stage’s white-spotlit square. The atmosphere is heightened and surreal, due in part to the performers wearing the ghostly white face makeup of butoh, despite their street clothes. Phil Strong’s soundtrack of odd sounds and a cappella rhythms, punctuated by screeching and what sounds like the urgent whistle of a kettle, adds another dimension of alienation.

The three damned souls are immediately recognizable, brought to life by a trio as gifted at movement as at acting. One-time Vancouver dancer Rebecca Hope Terry returns to town in the role of the seductive but antsy Estelle. Miko Sobreira’s philandering Garcin is drawn like a moth to her flame; at one point he grabs her and opens his mouth over her face like he’s about to swallow her whole, then shrinks away in shame. And Sasha Ivanochko is a revelation as Inez, the lesbian character who constantly blocks Garcin’s advances on Estelle; with her pale face and evil grin, she comes across as a sort of Gollum in loafers. Watch her contort from horror into wicked laughter when she’s stabbed. Taut, chilling, and darkly funny.

Fujiwara herself appears for the evening’s other work, her solo Lost & Found. A more wandering, introspective work, it can be read literally as a woman losing her mind and finding it again, or, more abstractly, as a person trying to find pieces of herself—as in her self—to put them together into a whole.

The work opens with chalked-off square spotlights centred on a single slingback shoe, a turquoise egg, and a vintage pet carrier. Fujiwara appears wearing layers of housecoats—ratty faux-fur pink, lacy, and frilled—and a bird’s nest on her head. Even as she finds her other shoe and places the egg in the nest, everything is off-kilter: she often balances on the floor on her side and then tips over. Touches of the absurd and surreal abound: at one points she pulls two wooden ducks out of the pet carrier, observes them silently, and announces, “Ah. A pair o’ ducks.” But as the garments come off, one by one, she starts to find herself, and by the end, reaches a butoh flow.

Lost & Found is definitely out there—a cryptic inner journey that isn’t as easy to get into as her riff on Sartre. But both works will leave you walking out into the bracing January night air questioning the meaning of existence.

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