Coalesce & armour: an audio action tour retains an essential, hypnotic mystery

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A Peggy Baker Dance Projects production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Wednesday, January 8. Continues until January 11

Birds, dogs, apes, wolves: all manner of species have made their way into dance on local stages in recent years. Now the lowly bug gets its due in two pieces influenced by insect life—and it’s amazing what different moods two veteran choreographers are able to conjure out of the same inspiration.

With armour, New York’s Doug Varone has fashioned a deeply intimate duet for elder dancers Peggy Baker and Larry Hahn. Drawing from the way social insects work together and communicate through touch, he’s created a throbbing tangle of limbs and heads. On the other end of the scale, you have the cold remove of coalesce, Baker’s own trio for Andrea Nann, Sean Ling, and Sahara Morimoto: the dancers are strange and alienlike as they lift and bend legs like a six-limbed creature, raising their arms and turning their hands into pincers stabbing at the air to pick up vibrations.

Before any of the dance happens, the Peggy Baker Dance Projects’ “Audio Action Tour” includes a show-and-tell to explain the process behind the works. Flashing artist Sylvia Safdie’s paintings and insect films on a projection screen, calling her dancers up to demonstrate phrases, and talking about influences as diverse as pomegranates and beetles in death throes, the effervescent Baker pulls off what is essentially a lecture. Is the talk integral to understanding the works? Probably not. But it offers a rare chance to get inside a choreographer’s mind. After all, how often are dance audiences left struggling with cryptic programs, wondering what a piece was about?

The performances come as almost a relief, though, starting off strongly with Varone’s intense, all-too-brief armour, set to Debashis Sinha’s pulsing electronic score and performed mostly lying and sitting on the floor. Watch the still-electric Baker wrap her sensual, long fingers slowly around Hahn’s face, like she’s picking up some transmission, or using one of her lean legs to move him across the floor. At moments, they do seem insectile, like a two-headed caterpillar or multilimbed bug as they extend arms and legs from behind each other. Yet sometimes they seem more to be a long-time couple wrapping themselves around each other, “becoming one”. The ending is stunning and haunting, as they connect hands to bodies and achieve some kind of mind meld, convulsing on the floor.

What strikes you most about Baker’s piece is that, although the sexagenarian is an icon of modernist dance, coalesce feels cutting-edge contemporary. As the three black-clad dancers contort and extend to the static blips and hissing of Sinha’s score, it’s clear the choreographer is finding a fresh new movement language. Fortunately for her, she has a trio of dancers committed to the exacting experimentation taking place, staring glassy-eyed as they whipsaw their arms like antennae and kick out their legs like an upturned beetle. The piece lacks velocity, feeling a bit long and abstract, like an extended study. But it does effectively “coalesce” at the end, where the creatures we’re watching join into an interwined beast that moves as a single unit.

The preceding lecture may seek to demystify the works, but the dance ultimately retains its essential, hypnotic mystery.

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