Monday, February 22, 2016


I've been to Canadian Stage two weeks in a row, where I saw two very different shows about mortality. Both shows were dance/theatre hybrids.  The body often speaks what words cannot.

As a culture, we have a very uneasy relationship with death, and the suffering and sorrow that often accompanies it.  Mostly, we avoid thinking about it or talking about it. Even funerals are now often referred to as "celebrations of life." No wailing or gnashing of teeth allowed anywhere, ever. No black armbands, no mourning dress, no public show of grief.

Thank Heaven, for a theatre where you can leave your game face at home, and the artists will let you weep quietly in the dark.

The delightfully eccentric Belgian duo of Michelle De Mey and Jaco Van Dorael decided to look at death from the point of view of dead people: people who died suddenly, inexplicably, by accident or design. COLD BLOOD was weird, wonderful and quite magical.  The miniature dioramas used to stage the various nano-dances the company created and live-projected with their tracking cameras, were perfect for the blackly charming, surrealistic tone of the show.

A dark cloud drifted across the massive centre screen, inky and nebulous.  We were told we were being hypnotized: in three, in two, in one. We got pulled under: to a Hades of their own invention.

At one moment, early on, a giddily gorgeous, and completely silly finger tap number, in black and white, screened at a drive-in. The camera pulled in tight on fabulously synchronized nano-tap in an art-deco inspired Never-never Land. As memories of  late-night Fred and Ginger, and Busby Berkley chorus girls fill our collective imaginations, a voice-over reminded us that when we see these old movies, all the people in them are dead.  Nostalgia:  bringing the past back to life.

The play moved into darker territory, albeit leavened with uneasy humour.

Plane crashes and car accidents happened. A murderess committed suicide, and an elegiac contemporary solo dance exquisitely conveyed the crushing isolation of her life in a world of concrete high-rises, and Tinder swipes.

The most moving moments of the evening were the last. A man left his wife in the midst of an unresolved spat to walk to work.  He donned the gear of an astronaut and headed off into space, never to return. David Bowie underscores his demise: an otherworldly drift into a limitless void.  We know The Starman whose music was a part of so many of our youths is gone forever.  The silence that followed the music was heart-breaking. There weren't many dry eyes in the house.

The show is still a little raw, and there are places where it feels awkward, struggling to find the right tone.  No matter: it was a beautiful and trippy voyage of imagination to a place where we'll all end up, but rarely plan on going.

Last weekend, Crystal Pite, Kidd Pivot and Jonathon Young returned to Toronto with their critically acclaimed show from  last summer's Panamania:  BETROFFENHEIT.  The collaborative creation examines a horrific personal tragedy and its effect on one of the survivors.

Young's only child and two of her cousins died in a fire, at  his wife's family summer property, in 2009. Young and his wife were asleep in another cabin. News reports from the time made mention of the fact Young was injured trying, unsuccessfully, to rescue the children. His marriage did not survive the accident.

The show follows Young on a nihilistic journey to the bottom of a void of addiction, despair and loss as he tries to escape, then examine, and finally accept what has happened. He gives a completely committed, utterly harrowing performance as a man nearly destroyed by guilt and grief.

Pite's astonishing and demanding choreography was brilliantly danced by her-jaw-dropping good company, Kidd Pivot. A Weimar-influenced cabaret has seldom seemed so seductive or damaging.

The movement, combined with the sets by Jay Gower Taylor, costumes by Nancy Bryant, fantastic sound design and composition by Owen Belton, Allesandro Juliani and Mae Rae, and evocative lighting by Tom Visser came together perfectly to create an arresting, intense and memorable night of theatre.

Young's text is great in parts (the beginning) and weaker in others (the long speech in Act II) and could, overall, have been pared back, particularly in the second half.

It's hard to be both the writer and the performer when the material is this close to the bone.

Young, Pite and company have salvaged beauty from tragedy and created a deeply moving work of art.

COLD BLOOD and BETROFFENHEIT both appeared at CANADIAN STAGE this February. BETROFFENHEIT continues on an international tour with stops in Vancouver and Victoria later this month:


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