Daina Ashbee’s POUR at The Theatre Centre


Artistic Direction, Concept, Choreography and Scenography by Daina Ashbee

Interpreted by Paige Culley

Produced by TO Live in association with Native Earth Performing Arts

The Theatre Centre, Toronto

February 22-24, 2019

Reviewed by Beverley Daurio


POUR is a touring, full-length solo work by Daina Ashbee, originally shown in Montreal in 2016 and recently performed at the Theatre Centre by Paige Culley. The floor of the upstairs theatre is covered with 4 by 8 foot sheets of styrofoam building material in white and pale blue. They form a performance base of artificiality that is like a giant blank page or screen.

While the audience enters the theatre, the stage is dark. Someone is moving around in that darkness; we see occasional flashes of arms or a face without identification. Eerily, this person emits extremely high pitched notes. They are not quite screams, but almost. They are long, piercing, painful to the ears. They are like anguish embodied in sound.

When the stage lights come up, brighter lights hit the audience and stay there. It is like being hit by headlights while driving at night. These audience lights remain on for perhaps the first third of the piece.

In silence, we see the stage has had liquid poured onto it—clear liquid, and yellow liquid pooling on the left side. Paige Culley stands in the middle, at the front of the stage, facing and staring at the audience in a challenging, firm, strange attitude. She is naked except for a pair of jeans. Her chin length brown hair has been slicked back with oil. Her demeanour is powerfully ambiguous. She eventually removes her jeans and curls onto the stage, naked.

Ashbee’s approach to nudity reminds me of some work by Daniel Leveille—where the naked human form works in sympathy with the audience’s bodies, vulnerable, small yet full of strength, essential and somehow manifesting the soul. This is a kind of magic that dance has that is rarely used. Ashbee has used detail to control every aspect of this presentation.

Culley is an incredibly strong dancer and performer. This piece is so physically and emotionally demanding and challenging that it is almost unimaginable how she gets through it. The theatre is not warm, and Culley, naked and covered with oil, must be cold. She is also required to contort and writhe and hold odd and uncomfortable positions, to push herself. In one segment more than halfway through the piece, Culley lies on her back and begins to drum using her elbows against the floor. This looks very painful, and her elbows turn red. She pounds the floor with different parts of her body in turn, sometimes while sideways, holding balance with just a foot and her shoulders or head and hips.

As she travels in a long rectangle around the stage, slowly—this traverse takes up more than half the show—we are given flashes of many different bodily images, from childbirth to intercourse to ballet to rape to mental pain and many more. Culley, who is a very strong and elegant dancer, is always in an uncomfortable, awkward position, and for most of the show she is prone or horizontal, balancing on her side, or on her stomach. The images remain ambiguous and implied, but she is pressed low, kept down. Ashbee has constructed these images to flash at us, to remind us, to perhaps taunt and repel us, but to never be graspable. At its core, this piece presents a woman who is inutile in societal terms—she is engaged in art, in expressiveness, in a material sense completely unproductive. Culley’s confrontational looks at the audience are constructed to implicate society in something—it is almost an accusation—something that is intended to work on us after we have left the theatre.

The work mostly occurs in bright light and silence, and there are only two sections that use a soundscape, a kind of deformed violin/cello keening that is scrapy, harsh, and pressured. The lighting changes rarely—once to turn down the brights lighting the audience, once to turn them back on, and again near the end, when the darkness returns at the back and Culley returns to further renditions of the disturbing almost-screams from the opening.

POUR is disturbing on many levels; it is offputting, if powerful, to watch; it is an indictment of the cages society puts people in, and of the lack of response to and care about the suffering that many experience. It is also hard to accept its lack of offered hope. The cycle of anguish is presented and then begins again at the end when the screaming returns. Even though Culley stands at the front of the stage with her back to us, stepping sideways, surveying the performance space, outside the fray, upright, she is still naked and in the suffering space. The beauty of the dancer is used in harshness, and in movement that not just lacks, but actively rejects, joy and freedom. The piece insists on the dancer’s strength and power and endurance, on her deep integrity, which is perhaps a kind of encouragement. Yet one leaves the theatre saddened. And without even a glimpse of an implication of hope.