For its 2023 season, Toronto Dance Theatre’s (TDT) stated aim is to spotlight practices outside contemporary dance. It’s an important initiative: with such a wide variety of global and social dances, opening this established institution’s stage introduces audiences to dance outside conventional Eurocentric frames of reference.
This intent is on clear display in Convergent Divergency, an 80-minute double bill at the Winchester Street Theatre featuring the work of two prominent GTA dancemakers from profoundly different practices. Their pieces, titled helix and GIVE ME ONE, pair three TDT artists with two or three artists from outside dance communities. The convergence here is not just of two choreographers; it’s the celebration of dancers from multiple unique traditions on a shared stage.
Atri Nundy is a dancer and choreographer trained in the Tamil form of bharatanatyam, a highly codified storytelling dance defined by intricate hand gestures, deep bends to the floor, and percussive uses of the feet. Yet Nundy’s helix bears few obvious markings of bharatanatyam, likely due to the many years of training a dancer must undergo before performing this precise and historically rich form. Her work instead evokes a postmodern dance style known as pedestrianism, which finds profundity in simple, everyday movements.
Danah Rosales’ GIVE ME ONE acts as an exciting introduction to ballroom, a QBIPOC nightlife tradition that can trace its lineage back to the Harlem Renaissance. A ball includes a series of one-on-one competitions won by participants who find inventive approaches to fashion and performance-inspired Categories including Runway, Face, and Vogue. Different groups known as “houses” often field (and sometimes literally provide formal housing to) competitors, and Rosales herself is Mother to Toronto’s own Kiki House of Siriano, lending itself to her alias as “New Legend Mother Maldita Siriano.”
In other words: Convergent Divergency’s two works couldn’t be more different. While Nundy’s helix evokes aesthetic pleasure through uniformity and repetition, Rosales’ GIVE ME ONE is an exuberant celebration of ballroom’s Categories driven by the magnetic uniqueness of each artist’s style, flair, and boldness. Performances like Convergent Divergency showcase the sheer breadth of what dance as an artform can achieve, as TDT and its esteemed guests skillfully inhabit simplicity and spectacle alike.
The evening begins with helix, which Nundy describes in program notes as “a search for the contemporary” in her practice. With seafoam green unitards by designer Valerie Calam and Philip Glass-adjacent music by Nancy Thavaruban, helix feels postmodern in more ways than just its “pedestrian” movement style. As the stage lights designed by Noah Feaver illuminate a circle of dancers slowly walking and lunging around TDT dancer Megumi Kokuba, there is depth in the dancers’ small gestures and careful footfalls. From a movement perspective, the piece does not increase the speed, virtuosity, or rhythm from its initial crawl, instead reveling in a meditative quality.
As the piece develops, it becomes clear that Nundy has discovered a contemporary aesthetic through bharatanatyam’s directional and rhythmic aspects. Beneath the slow movement are meticulously choreographed changes in synchronicity between the dancers, where one will lunge or circle their arm alongside another dancer before falling in unison with yet another. The illusion of ease becomes even more challenged in the final section, where the dancers verbalize uneven counts that switch time signatures from five to nine at a moment’s notice. Choreography like this is a reminder that great dancers aren’t just flexible, good turners; their skill is just as measured by their memory, musicality, and kinesthetic intuition.
After Nundy’s pensive and meditative work, TDT asks audience members to go to the bar during intermission as the space is rearranged to accommodate Rosales’ piece. GIVE ME ONE starts when the audience re-enters, as spectators are greeted from the aisle by TDT dancers and house ballroom community members alongside pulsing beats by myst milano. With looks styled by Diséiye hanging in front of them, the whole cast gets ready in front of the audience before marching downstage and striking a pose in a blue silhouette. The ball has begun.
This piece starts off with a match-up between TDT dancers Devon Snell and Erin Poole, who ask the audience to judge who has the better outfit. While Snell has assembled a look from the spectrum between Value Village and Victoria’s Secret, Poole reveals garment by garment that she has sourced an entire satin magenta ensemble (complete with bag and fringe gloves) from Zara. As the two insult the other’s outfit, Matthew “Snoopy” Cuff emerges to inform the audience that “it’s a chop for both”, a term used to signal the loser of a battle. It’s hilarious, it’s fierce; it’s entertaining as hell.
Snoopy, alongside fellow ballroom artists Jocelyne “Jaws” Cardenas and Kelly-Ann Johnson, is a clear authority on these matters. Jaws and Snoopy are masters of the Vogue technique, defined by intricate hand movements and gravity-defying dips. A battle between the two artists sees them descending and emerging from the floor as if levitating from their backs, while a solo exhibition of technical prowess from Snoopy includes multiple gold chains that bounce alongside fast, rhythmic gestures. Johnson introduces the audience to the tenets of Runway, stomping across the stage with an unbothered confidence that screams “main character energy.” These fantastic ballroom community artists command space and attention from the moment they arrive; we as the audience are simply lucky to be there to see them shine.
Clocking it at around 30 minutes each, helix and Give Me One provide small tastes of their respective practices. Rosales and her collaborators’ work feels especially primed for an evening-length piece; their cohesion with the TDT company felt both exciting and natural, and I left hungry for more. I hope TDT continues with this successful initiative of opening their space to different approaches in dance making. Such convergences on TDT actually don’t feel divergent at all.
Convergent Divergency runs until April 1 at TDT. Tickets are available here.