Matthew MacKenzie is used to hearing it: “You’d have such a great touring show if you just cut all the dance.” Lucky for him, he’s not so interested in such opinions—and if there was any doubt, a couple of Dora Awards and a slew of touring gigs for his very choreographic play Bears have made swift work of the haters.
The Edmonton-based playwright and director is about to prove the naysayers wrong a second time over with his new work, The Particulars, the story of a man named Gordon who attempts to maintain a normal and regimented life while suffering from intense insomnia brought on by seeming infestations of house and garden. Produced under the banner of Punctuate! Theatre and running at Toronto’s Theatre Centre from Oct 17-26 before returning west to Edmonton, The Particulars is one person’s narrative (played by Simon Bracken) augmented by an ever present seven-person chorus of dancers (Amber Borotsik, Lara Ebata, Bridget Jessome, Richard Lee, Krista Lin, Rebecca Sadowski, and Kate Stashko).
The movement chorus is a device MacKenzie has been experimenting with in his work for some time, and one that theatregoers may remember well from Bears—but the similarities end there, says MacKenzie. “[In The Particulars] the chorus functions quite differently in that the dancers represent our hero’s internal world, whereas the dancers in Bears are very much the external world,” he explains. “The chorus is our beginning point, but we’re learning that with each iteration and each new story it all functions differently—a lot of the rules change.”
MacKenzie’s original intent for the work was for the chorus to be a means through which he might expand the audience’s understanding of the main character—not unlike a Greek chorus and not so dissimilar from Bears in that respect. To do this, he quickly learned they would need to reimagine what that meant, especially when it came to building the choreographic language that becomes the dancers’ vocabulary. “When we started rehearsals, we approached it like we did with Bears and it immediately fell apart,” admits MacKenzie. “It didn’t work for a second, trying to just replicate what we’d done before.”
This is where Alida Kendell comes in. A frequent on-stage collaborator with MacKenzie and Punctuate!, Kendell is also a choreographer and dancer in her own right, best known for working with Edmonton’s Good Women Dance Collective. When MacKenzie approached Kendell about collaborating as choreographer on The Particulars, she was clear about her desires: “What I was interested in this time around was seeing if it was possible to research the movement in the way I know Matt researched the text when he was writing it, so that we were both coming at the rehearsals on the same level.”
MacKenzie puts it more bluntly: “She basically said she wouldn’t do it unless we really had time to just explore the dance—in the same way that I get to explore the writing.”
It was a simple proposition, one that may seem obvious from the perspective of people whose primary means of communication is movement-based. But it may have less footing in the text-centric theatre world. MacKenzie concurs: “In our previous processes I would spend a year or three writing a play and then we would get together and have a couple meetings with a choreographer and would have to start setting choreography on the first day of rehearsal.” Adapting this dynamic for The Particulars is not a slight to past process, which he deems “fun and successful,” but part of discovering alternative ways of approach—and finding what feels necessary for this play. For Kendell, this was starting from a place of “open-endedness” without an immediate push to produce.
“We spent almost two full weeks with the dancers, where they worked just with images and movement states or movement ideas, and not setting anything to text yet,” she recalls. “Entering it from that point of view I think just really gave us a lot of freedom—pairing things together like movement and sections of text that I never would have thought would have worked together.” This approach was not only generative but allowed for a levelling out of the hierarchies of text and movement, creating room too for the dancers to be equal collaborators in developing material—something that is common in contemporary dance, and that Kendell was keen to bring into the room. “We were able to work together with this amazing team of dancers to find the world of vocabulary that Gordon’s psyche exists in. That was really important to me because I wanted everything to be grounded in their bodies and their experience of the scenes of the play.”
By all accounts, investing in Kendell’s experiment was well worth it for the team, and definitely gave MacKenzie pause about how he had previously approached things. AKA, he’s not blind to theatre’s curious double standard: “Often in theatre, the writer will write and write and rewrite to build the play, and then you get into the rehearsal process and often it’s the first or second draft [of what happens there] that sticks. And if that was the case with writing, we’d have awful, awful plays.”
He enthuses: “To just give so much time to ruminate on the various things we’re exploring and also to try things and throw things out like you do in a writing process—if we could do that every time, that would be amazing.”
Of course the reality of most production budgets makes it easy to decry the practicality of the chorus, let alone what would be viewed as an “extended” period of research; as MacKenzie himself admits, “It’s a heck of a lot more costly to produce a show with seven dancers.” He also understands the draw of the solo form and the ease of producing work in that mode, especially in the context of Fringes and other festival scenes. In fact, an important piece of context to drop in here: The Particulars is not technically a new show. It had a good run on the festival circuit itself almost a decade ago as (you guessed it) a one-man show. But MacKenzie knew that wasn’t the end of The Particulars—or hoped in any case it wouldn’t be.
“I’d had the dream of having a chorus for The Particulars for a long while. I had previously applied for funds at least a half dozen times and continually failed…because people didn’t see why on earth it didn’t just continue to be a solo show.” While it’s not totally clear if the results are linked, MacKenzie has the sense that Bears successfully demonstrated what he describes as “the power of the chorus,” paving the way for support and funding for this fully realized production of The Particulars.
“Having done the show a number of times in the solo form,” MacKenzie explains, “it’s quite incredible to see how dance and the use of chorus really changes the composition of the story, how it alters things.” He gives an example: “When things reach a kind of emotional height at the end of the play, it’s a natural time to go to this kind of amplified dance place. But early on, when Gordon’s not really letting on what’s going on with him, manifesting this is challenging but really exciting. Even if Gordon is speaking about the most mundane thing that everyone does in their day to day, [the dance] brings it to a heightened place. It deepens it so much and just generally makes the whole story so much more unnerving…and funny.”
For Kendell, the value of the chorus and the dance can be found inside the viewer’s own physical response. “I believe when an audience sees bodies moving on stage it gives them something else to relate to on a different level. We relate to kinaesthetic things so automatically and it’s a very honest response. So when paired with text it just gives it that much more complexity, and it also gives another access point for the audience to understand, or appreciate, or relate to their own experiences.”
In an ideal world, artists don’t make work to fit budgets but to offer living and breathing worlds—for MacKenzie, offering an audience the ability to deep dive into Gordon’s universe through the combined lens of text and movement does just that. “I think when we hear stories or hear plays, we’re very good at saying ‘Okay—this is what this is and I’ll let it hit me in this way,’ and everything is very predictable and safe.” But with dance, MacKenzie sees the possibility for new paths of engagement: ” It can hit you on a visceral level you can’t really defend against. And our experience in creation and [our hope] for the audience is that this hits people in very different and unexpected ways. The bang-for-buck on an art level is just exponentially higher.”
The Particulars, a Punctuate! Theatre production in association with The Theatre Centre, plays Oct. 17-26 at The Theatre Centre. For information and tickets, click here.