Mother Tongue catches the ineffable in its net

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Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Conrad Alexandrowicz. Text by Lorna Crozier and Erin Mouré. Presented by Wild Excursions Performance. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Wednesday, May 14. Continues until May 18

Sometimes it fails. More often it works.

In Mother Tongue, director Conrad Alexandrowicz explores text by Canadian poets Lorna Crozier and Erin Mouré, using a company of six actors and two dancers.
Act 1, “The Poet’s Dream”, which is based on Crozier’s work, begins with a meditation on perception that reaches through the constructed nature of reality to embrace the glory of physical existence: “Plato’s angel: it thinks the world into being/Genesis/With its huge mind/The gleam of leaf and skin/Its pure intelligence/on any moving thing./You see yourself/under stone/You see your shadow/under each tread of the bear’s wide paw.”

From there, “The Poet’s Dream” goes on to explore the intimacy of the Poet’s relationship with her—or his, the staging varies—mother (“We grew our bones and our hearts inside our mothers”), and the more difficult relationship between the Poet and the Poet’s father (“I wish I’d known then that his drinking was a sickness, not a sin.”)

Crozier’s language is so alert and sensual that listening to it feels intimate—even erotic. Alexandrowicz muddies the works sometimes, though, including an academic and unnecessary explanation of a poem about a blizzard, for instance.

In terms of movement, the simplest moments work best—as when an actor walks slowly upstage carrying a bouquet of flowers as another actor recites, “I am afraid to meet my father in the other world…” Too often, though, Alexandrowicz’s choreography consists of a distracting and generic flurry of flailing limbs.

In “our verges <borders>”, Erin Mouré’s half of the evening, the poetry is more challenging, but the staging is vastly more disciplined and successful.

In Mouré’s text, the narrator takes her mother’s ashes to the Ukrainian village of her birth, where the Polish population—including the narrator’s family—was either murdered or expelled during World War II.

Mouré’s text is less immediately accessible than Crozier’s: “They burned those Polish houses and drove them away./Who this them was./This/they./They/this/them./(rain)/(silence of rain)/(we walk behind the woman who is not speaking)/Now they wish they would come back again./(a pronoun problem)/(a time problem)/(a village silence).”

The subject matter, one family’s suffering during war, is compelling, though. And the talented cast, which includes luminaries Peter Anderson, Sandra Ferens, Brahm Taylor, and Linda Quibell, rises as one and makes passionate, apparently effortless sense of the material.

Alexandrowicz’s choreography is powerfully simple: the performers sit in two lines of stools and face one another, their arms raised. As Ferens walks between them, we hear liturgical music in Andreas Kahre’s sound design, and their hands float away: we know we’re in the memory of a destroyed church.

In moments like these—and there are more than enough of them to make the evening worthwhile—Alexandrowicz and his company catch the ineffable in their net.

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