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REVIEW: A rainy fall Thursday with Toronto Dance Theatre and Citadel + Compagnie

iPhoto caption: Photos by Stoo Mentz and Jeremy Mimnagh.
/By / Oct 9, 2023

Toronto’s east end very nearly has a dance district. At Parliament and Dundas lives the Citadel, a booming centre for contemporary dance. And a 15-minute walk northeast is the Winchester Street Theatre, home of the historic Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT). Between the two buildings, a marquee with the word “dance” implies a third venue; the space is really a children’s dance studio (The School of Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre), but its old-timey exterior contributes vibes to the almost-district nonetheless.

On a rainy fall Thursday, I saw refracting giants, a “co-devised physical theatre performance,” at the Winchester Street Theatre; and Night/Shift, a late-night dance festival, at the Citadel. Both spaces hummed with youthful energy — but the former abounds in playful experimentation while the latter showcases intense bursts of virtuosity.

refracting giants is a culmination of dance artist Leelee Oluwatoyosi Eko Davis’ two-year “expressive residency” at TDT. Davis produced refracting giants in association with the company; they’re also the show’s curator and director.

A press release says Davis’ “practice is rooted in the foundations of contemporary dance and intermedia creation methodologies.” This dual focus comes through clearest in the show’s lovely opening. In it, theatre artist Merlin Simard performs a simple dance solo with VR sensors in her hands and a headset over her eyes. Behind her, a projected digital figure clumsily replicates her movements. From the figure’s hands spill colourful ribbons, allowing Simard to trace out shapes in the virtual air. As the classic French chanson “Paroles paroles” plays, she uses this power to spell out the words refracting giants

What follows is a series of eclectic vignettes performed by a five-person cast made up of Simard, isi bhakhomen, Jordan Campbell, brawk hessel, and Anna Malla. Davis is credited as choreographer of the show as a whole, yet many of the individual pieces are by the performers.

refracting giants’ early vignettes riff on the mundanities of contemporary life. After Simard’s opening foray into the digital world, the cast sits at the front of the stage, each pouring a packet of emergen-C into a different model of water bottle, shaking to dissolve. Their movements are exaggerated and drawn out: before they open the packets, they slap their bottles with them, creating a soundscape that resembles church bells; when they shake, they do it vigorously, for too long; and to drink, they open the bottles one at a time, highlighting the sound each cap makes.

As the show goes on, this playfulness balloons, until eventually the cast emerges in sequined, Mamma Mia!-like garb, sings a couple ditties, and, in a tender final piece of choreography by Davis, embraces under kaleidoscopic lighting by Emerson Kafarowski.

In their curator’s note, Davis says the refracting giants rehearsal process centred care — and, indeed, an atmosphere of supportiveness reigns over the show. It’s clear, I think, that refracting giants’ focus is on the “how” of creation. The next step for the piece would be a stronger “what”: though the show can broadly be called experimental, it lacks the kind of specific aesthetic starting point needed to make experimentation feel intentional. refracting giants is buoyant, but also somewhat rudderless.

Outside, streetlamp light bounces off the glistening Cabbagetown streets. After a sushi bowl, I bide time before Night/Shift by strolling around Regent Park, indecisive about whether it’s rainy enough for an umbrella. In the distance, dance music emanates from a rentable church hall. There’s something ominous about the bass reverberating in the rain, and I imagine a cult is meeting inside — a flock of cloaked men chanting in front of oil paintings, worshipping a precious obsidian idol, and planning deeds of unspeakable monstrosity. 

Probably not. Still, the shadowy nightclub visions echoing in my mind prepare me well for Night/Shift, an annual series produced by Citadel + Compagnie and co-presented with Fall for Dance North. It’s 10 p.m. when things get underway, and the audience is one of the youngest and most energetic I’ve seen at a Toronto performance space. 

Each evening of Night/Shift features three short performances separated by two 10-minute intermissions, during which the lights remain dim and “Emi the DJ” provides pulsing remixes of pop hits.

The festival’s first offering, A History of Silencing Dance, choreographed by Alireza Keymanesh, is an homage to underground contemporary dance in Iran, where government censorship has been increasing over the last few years.

The piece, performed by Keymanesh and Clara Chemtov, goes from small movements synced with tender music, to athletic jumps and spins punctuated by fast drum beats, to chaos: in its powerful final minutes, the performers grab giant sheets of crinkly paper from the stage’s sides and loudly mangle them. When the lights rise for curtain call, their destruction still covers the stage — this is dance that leaves a trace, and will resolutely not be silenced. 

Next up is SEED, a solo choreographed by Shameka Blake. The piece begins with a recorded voiceover of a poem by Arsène Hodali and Ariel Sim that discusses the untapped potential within all of us; the straightforward text backgrounds a graceful contemporary dance sequence performed by Willem Sadler.

But this simple seed soon grows into something more dynamic. The poem ends and fast-paced instrumental music — composed by Blake, Derick Robinson, and Sim — begins. Their composition constantly modulates genres; there’ll be thirty seconds of hip-hop beats, then a snippet of jazz, then something EDM-inspired. To complement the intense music, Blake incorporates street dance vocabulary into the choreography. Though I wouldn’t call the piece focused, exactly, Sadler’s navigation of its ups and downs is expert.

The evening’s scintillating closer is the flamenco piece Tarantos, by Maria Serrano. With an ensemble of seven women (including Serrano) and three live musicians, it’s the largest-scale offering at Night/Shift.

Performed in blood red lighting by Émilie Trimbee and beginning well after 11 p.m, the piece electrifies through carefully calibrated peaks and valleys. Flamenco heels shake the floor of the theatre, accelerating, accelerating, accelerating, then stopping to let silence momentarily hang in the air. Over the course of the performance, the audience gets more and more into it, unable to contain cheers. During the curtain call, the reception is so rapturous that the musicians can’t hear each other well enough to start the second encore in the right key, but it doesn’t matter: just the idea of another song rouses.

Toronto’s more bourgeois performance spaces could learn well from Night/Shift: sometimes all it takes to get young people in the door is a late start time, a lively atmosphere, and a little flamenco.

refracting giants ran through October 7 at the Winchester Street Theatre; more information is available here. Night/Shift ran at the Citadel through October 7; more information about the in-person run is available here. Until October 15, every night of the festival can be streamed through Fall for Dance North; tickets for that are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Liam Donovan

Liam Donovan

Liam is Intermission’s publishing and editorial assistant. A critic and theatre artist from Toronto, his writing has appeared in Maisonneuve, This Magazine, NEXT Magazine, and more. He loves the original Super Mario game very much.



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