Cherice Barton and Donald Sales avoid clichés in Leaving Grit
A Chutzpah Festival presentation. At the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Sunday, February 19. Continues February 20 and 21
Picture all the dusty highlights of A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly broken down into random scenes and reformulated into dance, and you’ll get somewhere close to imagining what Leaving Grit looks like. Cherice Barton and Donald Sales’s wickedly creative ode to the spaghetti western is full to its corral fences with playful sequences. A drunk staggers down the aisle of the theatre. An anguished saloon girl almost drowns herself in her clawfoot tub. A ponchoed, bandannaed stranger comes to town—a “man with no name”. There’s a duel and a hanging. And cowboys fight, do tricks, and ride their “horses” on the range.
Ambitious and clocking in at over an hour, with seven dancers (eight if you count an uncredited mysterious man), Leaving Grit is cinematic and theatrical—but never literal or clichéd. The iconic gestures of the old westerns find their way into smart choreographic play. Barton and Sales manage to turn a saloon drinking scene into dazzling dance, toying with the rhythms of glasses being turned upside down when they’re empty, and with the cowboys moving from chair to chair.
But Leaving Grit’s other key is that, even when it seems to be following some kind of bootleg-hooch-fuelled dream logic, it’s grounded in compelling characters. Unlike in most westerns, the women here are given equal screen time: at one point, Kevin Tookey’s rough, angry cowboy hungrily runs his mouth down Jennifer Welsman’s leg, but she eventually gets the upper sexual hand; and he repeatedly spurns the quietly yearning Lara Barclay’s comforting touch.
Though the stage is mostly bare, the production team builds a Tombstone-like atmosphere with desert-sun lighting; the recurring sounds of flies, chickens, and howling wind; and a rich cinematic soundtrack that spans Ennio Morricone, Hank Williams, and Lhasa de Sela.
Barton (who’s worked with everything from Broadway’s Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark to American Ballet Theatre) and Sales (a Ballet B.C. dancer who choreographed its eerily beautiful Moth last year) have never created a work together before, and you can tell that they really hit it off. Still, the sense of fun belies the fact that there is some serious virtuosity being displayed on-stage. A highlight is Jeffrey Mortensen, whose drunken solo—complete with a rafter-shaking belch that opens the scene—to Roger Miller’s classic “King of the Road” finds him acrobatically lurching around the stage, and even pulling off a one-handed flip off the floor.
In all, if you could get into the cowboy vibe—if you are the kind of person who can’t resist a Clint Eastwood western in the wee hours on TV—you felt like you were in tumbleweed heaven. If not, it’s possible Leaving Grit felt a bit long. I wouldn’t know.
In a fun twist, the Chutzpah Festival program also featured a new duet, called Ch. 3: Collaboration, for Barton and Sales to perform themselves. Choreographed by Barton’s renowned sister Aszure and set mostly to dizzying klezmer rock and chamber jam music, it’s a quirky little piece that has a deeper meaning than the inside joke it first suggests. Centred around a large, heavy table, it’s about the joys and torments of artistic collaboration. At times, the couple square off at opposite ends of the piece of furniture; at others, they stand it up between them, contorting, kicking, and knocking at both sides, but never connecting.
Aszure Barton knows her subjects well, she shares their droll sense of humour, and she uses their strengths to advantage. Cherice Barton sidles around on tiptoe, as if she’s in invisible high heels, all sly femininity, while Sales is an intense, charismatic physical force, easily jumping up onto the high table and down again in a flash.
As dancers, and as choreographers, Sales and Barton have a chemistry that is clearly combustible. Overall, the packed-out Chutzpah Festival audience probably got a lot more than it bargained for with its fistful of dollars. Now all we want to know is one thing: who was the man with no name?