by Yasmine Shemesh
There is a difference, in dance, between pure entertainment and the exploration of feeling. On one hand, there is execution of choreography—creating pictures with the body, hitting image after image. On the other, there is using the body as a tool to plumb the depths of emotion. Of course, both approaches can also exist simultaneously. The difference is within the intention.
Gabrielle Martin, co-founder of Corporeal Imago, which combines aerial acrobatics with contemporary dance and visual theatre, is interested in plumbing the depths—in what is said through the sequencing and subtleties of movement. It’s one of the reasons she and Jeremiah Hughes started the dance company in 2018, coming together while touring as principal performers with Cirque du Soleil.
“I think our work through this company is a vehicle to explore the existential questions that we have,” Martin tells the Straight. It manifests as what they refer to as “contemporary tragedy,” and tragedy in the Greek sense of there perhaps being something fatalistic about life.
“The other thing that we’re questioning in our work in general,” Martin continues, “is also, how much do we have agency to really shape the course of our lives or the course of humanity? And how much are we at the mercy of the gods?”
This question is at the centre of Corporeal Imago’s newest piece, Throe, making its world premiere at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from November 17-19. The inspiration came as Martin and Hughes thought about cycles of progress and regression, and where human beings can work together to pull themselves out of crises.
“There’s so much to be grateful for in the lives we live,” Martin says. “But also, in some ways, you can’t help but wonder, are we not regressing? When you see war happening, when you see how people can treat each other, when you see the rise of fascism.”
There is not one particular issue being referenced, Martin adds. Throe is, rather, a metaphor for crises in a universal sense. “I think all of us kind of feel—some of us more than others—moments of our doomed reality.”
Sound also greatly informed Throe’s conceptual scope. Martin and Hughes listened to planetary recordings: soundtracks of interpreted movements of the solar system, eerie celestial translations. This is reflected literally on stage as the dancers are suspended in an immersive black-box environment, thick with haze, clinging to ropes. It depicts the individual will to climb, to pull up another body, to make it against external forces of gravity. Humanity, in the throes of survival, hanging by a thread.
“For me, there’s just something so poignant about seeing the body suspended,” Martin says. “I think it’s so beautiful in its precarity. And I think the vulnerability that we see, and the fragility—which are themes of circus as well, this underlying conversation about death, mortality, risk—those themes come in nicely with the [aerial] form.”
Movements on the ground articulate what can’t be said in the air. In some ways, it’s easier to express emotions on the floor where release can be achieved with greater ease. For example, there’s one section of Throe, Martin notes, where the dancers work with their limbs intertwined in such a way that physically couldn’t be done aerially. The dynamic movements compliment each other in a way that provides depth to the rhythmic language of the bodies.
The commitment to collaboration in Throe is significant. For Corporeal Imago, it’s always been paramount to the creative process, something that was reinforced from their experiences with Cirque de Soleil.
“We both felt like we were artists who had more to offer for a long time,” Martin says. “Because Jeremiah and I started our creative work together on tour, we really didn’t have the choice of collaborators. A lot of the people we were touring with were great artists and just also not so interested in exploring the creative process while performing seven to 10 shows a week. Understandable! So, for us, it was clear that there was only so far that our visions could go.”
Work on Throe began in October 2021. It was important to have a long timeline, especially since most of the six dancers had never done aerial before and strength takes time to build. In initial research for the piece, Martin and Hughes worked with professional aerialists, knowing they could probably do more, technically, with performers used to working on apparatuses high above the ground. But that feeling was missing—the nuance. Again, that difference. So, they embraced working with dancers who could convey emotional range.
“We’re so grateful for their fearlessness,” Martin says. “Their courage in embracing this form, because we’re asking a lot of them and they’re being very generous. And, you know, it’s because we’re all excited about the possibilities [of this piece].”
Lighting designer Sophie Tang also began early. Martin and Hughes are visual creators, so it was crucial to see that element completed in Throe’s formative stages—the black-box, the haze—to understand what shape the work was taking. Then, with inspiration from the planetary recordings, Jo Hirabayashi composed an original score. “There is this sense of being in the aftermath of an explosion,” Martin describes. “Sounds that leave you, at times, a little bit uneasy, but they’re woven together so beautifully.”
The music particularly underscores Throe’s melancholic yet uplifting concluding note. Martin hopes the audience feels catharsis, a sense of exhale. We can all relate to struggle. It’s important to have hope.
“And to process these emotions with others, which I think is what we can do in the theatre,” Martin says. “You know, that process of communion. Somebody asked us, ‘Oh, doesn’t your work sound kind of depressing?’ While it does touch on a subject that’s heavy, I don’t want people to leave the theatre depressed. I don’t think they will, either. And I think that’s also where the beauty comes in.”
The dancers are moving in beautiful ways,” she continues, “and in these beautiful images, that also helps give it a bit of levity. I think when we can acknowledge the truth of the heavy things we’re working through, then together that actually can relieve.”More