Toronto Fringe 2009 - The Hollow Show

Reviewed by: Beverley Daurio

Choreographed by Lynndsey Larre, with interpreters/collaborators Heather Berry, David Houle, David Kraft, Jade Sakamoto, Erika-Leigh Stirton, and Jessica Wilson

Mercenary Dance Theatre at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Dance at the Toronto Fringe Festival, July 1st to 11th, 2009

Heather Berry - Mercenary Dance TheatreOne delight of attending the Fringe Festival is discovering new companies and new work. The Hollow Show was choreographed by Lynndsey Larre, artistic director of Mercenary Dance Theatre (founded 2009), who also works with the Crazy Fish Collective. Larre’s vision in The Hollow Show is lush, with a fascinating imaginative palette.

In “The Waste Land Variations,” the first and longest piece in The Hollow Show, T.S. Eliot’s poem takes us back in time and tradition, while Larre’s choreography is breathtakingly contemporary.

As the piece opens, an arm tightens and a hand clenches into a fist in lonely silence. The four dancers seem weighed down, as if by some awful magic of gravity. Sound is muffled. While one woman lies over a prone man downstage, two dancers’ femininity is disguised by khaki jackets over skirts, an unmerciful draping that feels socially sullen, resonating with the frustrated, strange interaction of the dancers. Movements are jerky, and it is as if the tension is contagious, travelling from dancer to dancer in interrupted, dysfunctional connections. “As if there were water,” the male dancer says.

Proceeding in sections that could be compared to stanzas, the performance has appropriately jagged lines, but seemingly effortless configurations. One dancer is lifted horizontally, laughing; dancers roll across the stage, group together, or are left by themselves, in half-nightmarish, half-recognizable social gatherings. The use of T.S. Eliot’s own reading of sections of “The Waste Land” is extremely effective; when his voice clarifies, it is as if the dance itself coheres—“Hurry up, please. It’s time,” rings in repetition.

Visually and sonically arresting, Larre’s choreographic style would be painterly were it not so kinetic, intense, and multi-dimensional. Her movement vocabulary uses much contrast between tense musculature and softer physicality, drawing on the casually normal, as well as sharp turns of limbs, bodies, and necks, as the dancers twist, pull and push each other, using vertical and horizontal planes, as well as the full stage, to great effect.

In one particulary moving segment, one dancer is held from breathing until freed by another with a touch, while plaintively asking, “Speak to me, stay with me.” Abrupt, then flowing, human and compassionate gestures are repeated, deepening and altering the mood. Coupled with skewed lifts, and both sexual and asexual ignoring and belonging, the swirls of the dancers are by turns scary and affectionate. In the end, the first dancer has become capable somehow of kindness; her gestures are looser, and she is awkwardly pulled into joining with the others. A hand is gently placed on her chest.

Larre challenges her dancers emotionally and physically. Erika-Leigh Stirton, Heather Berry, David Kraft and Jessica Wilson all bring intense commitment and expressiveness, as well as elegance and commanding performances to their complex and difficult roles.

Jade Sakamoto is engaging and expressive in “Duet”—a piece designed for one dancer who is very pregnant. The second, and shortest piece in The Hollow Show, “Duet,” offers a gentler grace note within the program. “Duet”’s brevity belies its ambiguity and complexity—who is the second dancer? The dancer’s unborn baby? The voices and music accompanying the dance? The single white wooden chair placed strategically on stage? Ambivalence, vulnerability, the erotic, and worry about pregnancy are achingly rendered, as Sakamoto’s text and voice describe tears, joy, and counting the days until the baby is born, including a terrified (and universal among mothers-to-be) worry about hurting the baby. Sakamoto rises with grace, tumbles nervously, sits primly on that chair, or slumps. As the piece ends, Sakamoto finds peace and calm on the floor away from the chair, while Ella Fitzgerald’s sensuous singing fills the theatre.

Erika Leigh Stirton - Mercenary Dance TheatreIn “A mile in my shoes,” Heather Berry and David Houle explore connection and disconnection between a man and a woman, through the physical link of one pair of lace-up brown leather boots. Symbol of work, distance from the ground, who owns the boots is a mystery, though they appear to fit both dancers’ feet. Berry’s flimsy, feminine dress serves in stark contrast to the boots’ protective leather, while Houle’s shirt and pants seem to claim the boots. Yet he wants her feet to have that protection from the ground, as he struggles to hold Berry up, as she stretches achingly from place to place across the stage—her feet never touching the ground as she is lifted uncomfortably, or stands awkwardly on the boots, before taking off again. Both dancers sizzle as they bring love, hate, and amicable puzzlement to powerful and delicate movements—as well as evincing a desperation to share the nevertheless ironic and impossible support of one pair of boots. The piece ends with Houle wearing the boots, standing isolated in a square of light, while Berry, in slight shadow behind him, reaches out, as if the cycle will go on as the couple searches for balance.

The structure and pacing of this show demonstrate Larre’s great range, and a capacity for involving the audience intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. She choreographs angst, philosophy, vulnerability and warmth, care, abhorrence, and mercy, meshing all seamlessly within a stark and gorgeous visual context.

Throughout the program, Robin Dutt’s spare and careful lighting is both evocative and sensitive. In voice, text, music, or silence, the soundscape is brilliantly surprising, enhances and deepens meaning, and always feels appropriate to the moment, whether in tension or harmony.

When every element of a piece seems essential, as it does in The Hollow Show, trust is built between the performers and the audience, who become more open to the experience of the work, suffering and delighting in suspense with the dancers. This effect is even stronger when a bare, honest, yet complex emotionality is organically created and maintained. Larre has said, “Conscious of the beauty that exists equally within the mundane and the extraordinary, Mercenary Dance Theatre is a celebration of the human, the vulnerable, and the beautifully flawed.” The Hollow Show fulfills and exceeds these intentions: this is a sophisticated program that deserves to be seen again.