Serge Bennathan's Just Words at The Citadel

Just Words

Written and choreographed by Serge Bennathan

Performed by Serge Bennathan, Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell

The Citadel, Toronto

October 6-8, 2016


Music gently rises in the darkened theatre. Gathering warm light slowly allows the audience to discern three figures standing at the back of the stage: Serge Bennathan, choreographer, poet, dancer and creator of this show, and dancers Karissa Barry and Hilary Maxwell. Their presence is revealed the way ideas are revealed in an essay, or symbols revealed in a poem. The way they appear reminds us of how thoughts come to us, and how evanescent beauty arrives and fades.

Bennathan’s poetry—a heart-centred lyrical mixture of personal philosophy, autobiography, and thoughts on art, politics, and the hard work and challenges these represent in artists’ lives— is threaded through the show, and serves as key and inspiration to the whole piece, in a subtle interplay of elements. A phrase in words—“I just wanted to write… with choreography,” for example—becomes a recurrent series of hand and finger motions, bringing the poetry into the movement and the movement back into the poetry.

Bennathan says he wanted “choreographic chaos.” He says that he asked the dancers not to become too attached to specific movement, in favour of a focus on finding the line in courage and energy. Bennathan describes dancers as extremely brave, and it could be argued that this piece is a love poem dedicated to their work and courage.

Barry and Maxwell, dressed in black shoes, black pants and tank tops, are impeccable, embodying Bennathan’s stated ideal of beauty and challenge, creating a kinetic sense of time and travel as they execute an hour of intense, demanding work that reaches, arms like wings of angels or birds, from difficult low floor work to vertical, with fast and slow beats, shifting the mood, the pace, seemingly effortlessly. Sweeping motions are followed by closed and folded bodies; then little hops, hesitations, repeating and echoing, sometimes abstractly modern, sometimes balletic; in solo and duet, and occasionally interacting with Bennathan, at one point comforting him as he stands in lament: “I live with ghosts,” he says. Karissa Barry’s solo, during which she speaks Bennathan’s poem “What Is It?” is profound, moving and powerful. She captures the movement in her voice, and her voice in the movement, realizing Bennathan’s stated aim of earned presence and impact. Hilary Maxwell performs a strong, engaging solo to her own recorded voice reciting another of Bennathan’s poems, creating different nuances in how we hear those words.

Bennathan’s presence is multifaceted; he is master and supplicant, teacher and humble voice, expert guide, brave explorer, sage, dancer, challenger, intellectual, and mastermind. He becomes his own chorus, in the sense of traditional Greek drama. His presence is physical, spiritual, and almost Butoh-like. And there is at the same time a balance of power, a deep respect for the dancers.

Just Words is constructed in threes: music, dance, and poetry, all constructed to reinforce each other; three performers; three focal points on stage. Bennathan quietly gives a clinic in how to build a work that is thoughtful and deeply felt. He becomes a kind of symbol of the free thinker, inside the piece— “nothing can lock me up,” he says— and he lists the lost and misbegotten, the uplifted and the downtrodden, close with the magic of art.

Bertrand Chenier’s music has a steady, beautiful presence throughout the show. Unlike many contemporary sonar landscapes created for dance works, that are digitally compressed to provide a kind of ear-pounding and unnatural loudness, the soundscape for Just Words supports, enhances and creates a frame for Bennathan’s words and choreography. Intricate, at times melodic, then arrhythmic, with occasionally recognizable instrumentation—guitar, drum rhythms— blending into the electroacoustic and listenable, Chenier’s music is always present and intertwined with the other elements on the stage.

The lighting, by James Proudfoot, is similarly integrated with the words, choreography and mood. The light is a warm, soft gold, close to the colour of natural skin in heavy sunlight, creating an almost out-of-time, mythic aura. There is enough variation in the lighting to stay kinetic, ranging from soft washes to more intense front lighting, and slight changes have more power, working beautifully to enhance the subtlety of the piece.

On its surface, Just Words could be considered a love poem to dance and dancers. Beguilingly simple, unassuming, and entrancing, Just Words combines poetry, dance and music in a balanced and organic way that allows the audience to gently watch and enjoy, dazzled by its many riches. A gorgeous hour of fully realized work, demonstrating what can be made with human hands, minds, spirit and joy.