The Great Farini Project

 Reviewed by Beverley Daurio

Enwave Theatre, Toronto, as part of NextSteps 2010-11, September 22-25, 2010

Choreography by Sharon B. Moore, Dramaturgy by Derek Aasland, Aerial Choreography by Sven Johansson

Performed by Brendan Wyatt (as The Great Blondin) and Brian Solomon (as The Great Farini), with Laurence Ramsay and James Kendal (as The Butlers and E.S. Dance Instrument Operators)

With taglines like “Enemies Forever” to “A Harrowing Dance Work of One-upmanship,” (both from the lovely Victorian period-style poster picturing top-hatted Brendan Wyatt as The Great Blondin, and Brian Solomon as The Great Farini, with a tightrope over Niagara Falls in the background) it’s clear that competitive performance glows within Sharon B. Moore’s and Derek Aasland’s new show, The Great Farini Project. The jousting tone is set when the two rivals shout nasty epithets at each other during the dramatic opening.

Tensions abound in this work that explores male display at the core of dare-devillery. Delicate dance is fuelled by testosterone, formal dress is countered with sweating bare shoulders and torsos; speeches are ornamented with old-fashioned vocabulary. Blondin and Farini never met in real life, but egged each other on to greater feats in distant competition. Their love-hate relationship is a tornado of muscular stamina, in the middle of the dreamscape that Moore and Aasland have created for Solomon and Wyatt.

One is reminded, watching The Great Farini Project, how seldom “traditional” masculinity—in theme, strength-apparence, open competitiveness, relationship, and male power as aesthetically beautiful—is welcomed as the atomic weight of dance shows. Wyatt’s and Solomon’s performances are commanding, unrelenting, and elegant; they not only gleam, they amaze. The physical demands of this show are unusually strenuous, and their energetic, flawless and focused performances literally had audience members drawing in surprised and delighted breaths at times.

Though Solomon brings a more ethereal quality to Farini, and Wyatt creates in Blondin a more determined, hammering presence, the individuality of the two characters is much trammelled by similarities of speech and activity—at one point Farini says to Blondin, “I am you.” Their pursuits are nearly identical, and they relate to each almost as alter egos. This is a deeply character-based show. The plainly egotistic striving of the two men—to study, improve, exceed, excel—reveals, partly, by pushing to the external that which performance most often hides inside dramatic and choreographic processes: self-doubt, private successes and failures, dreams, ambition, and the self.

The set is simple: chairs and a coatrack at the back of the stage, Blondin’s dressing room in small at the right—but the space is also dominated by two large black “flying” machines (designed by Sven Johansson, who is also credited as Aerial Choreographer). Each machine has a large black wheel that counterbalances, at the end of a long pole, the weight of a dancer, who, once strapped into the seat at the pole’s end, can be lifted and twirled to fairly dizzying heights.

Read as, perhaps, symbols of Fate (their Wheels; the way the dancers dangle, as if caught by the long arms), these machines hunker darkly, tinged with obsession and destiny. Somehow I wished for more integration of their wheels and uncomfortable-looking straps into the work’s narrative; could they have been more fun, or more frightening? The machines also refer us to gravity, and to the past before air travel, when Blondin and Farini had their heydays. Despite the rather amazing deployment of the machines, they remained separate, hulking and threatening in the shadows, linking the performances to doom and the lives and deaths of Blondin and Farini, creating a gentle pathos, of earthbound men wishing to be angels.

The theatrical and movement transitions—from metaphysical duets sliding from fighting to cooperation—and scene changes—from quiet moments in Blondin’s dressing room to flying sequences to, for example, a strangely moving scene at a crowded party where Blondin and Farini have both been hired as the entertainment—are magical and often magnificent in pacing and flow. This was supremely aided by a varied and circus-tinted but modern movement vocabulary.

In such a complex, driven and sophisticated show, adding voicing duties to Wyatt and Solomon may have been a calculated risk, and at times their speeches came through ravaged breathing. Strangely, it felt that through their talking we were given another dimension, another way to “know” the characters, and greater evidence, too, of the met challenge of the work. One might wonder if some of the speeches—especially historical and other commentary—had come from the Butlers, or as one critic suggesed, a voice-over, if that might have offered a different sonic texture while maintaining our visceral connection to the characters.

My biggest question about this dazzling show was around the narrative arc. Farini and Blondin seemed to always have known each other in the same way; their struggles and fights do not lead to change or vanquishings, though perhaps to a stronger glint of mutual respect. This sameness may strengthen our sense of their commitment to achieving perfection, but could also tend toward a dryness, and despite the energy, a staticness. Humanizing tricks—a silver ball rolled on a hat brim, two hats balanced on a stick—offered wonderful colour and a minor danger that make us love the performers.

Laurence Ramsay and James Kendal are quietly powerful and concise presences as The Butlers and adept as the E.S. Dance Instrument Operators. They also bring out a strong class structure through their roles.

Costumes (by Jennifer Bunt), and the olden “look” of the props (from gravestones to hatracks) reinforce our deep sense of the respect of the creators of this show for the historical originals, as well as for their striving, accomplishments, discipline and shine.

The lighting (by Martin Saintonge) used harsh or soft flavours, washes or hot spots deftly, focusing attention at will, or shortening or deepening the stage. The score, which also effectively evoked the period, at times felt a bit patched-together and even tinny, though it also unified with a consistency of tone.

The beautiful old-timey world of The Great Farini Project is a joyous, tragi-comic place that I feel fortunate to have visited.