Durning's This Shape, We Are In at TDT

This Shape, We Are In

by Jeanine Durning (with the performers)

Performed by: Valerie Calam, Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Megumi Kokuba, Pulga Muchochoma, Erin Poole, Roberto Soria

Toronto Dance Theatre

Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto

January 24 to February 2, 2019


Reviewed by Beverley Daurio


The wing curtains are tied up and the stage is empty except for an isolated closed door, in a frame, at the middle of the right of the stage, and a small room that is part of the theatre at the back left. The stage is lit and the house lights remain on. A clicking and banging sound starts and metal sticks poke out through or bump against the door frame of a small room at the back left of the stage. This goes on for a little while, and then a performer emerges through the portal and into the space—he has been trying to fit a school student’s table through the doorway, and he succeeds in a small moment of triumph.

This student’s table multiplies, and emerges again at the end of the piece. It may not be too far a stretch to suggest that the student’s table is a symbol for the choreographer/creator’s struggle to bring philosophy and learning into dance, and how awkward this attempt is, and yet mysterious. The table is carried off-stage; it is brought back; performers carry the tables through the long hallways beside the risers where the audience is seated; more tables appear and are carried in and out by dancers, and scraped and jerked noisily and creatively against the stage floor.

The dancers wear casual, colourful, slightly eccentric street clothes, and shoes: a wildy coloured workout suit, plaid bermuda shorts, lace, wool, pleats and so on. Their movements are individualized, too—as they make their way around the stage, or off and on stage, and each has a particular style. They are excellent dancers, and their movements, whether angular and vertical or awkward and loping, are arresting and powerful. But in the strangest way, in the context of this piece, they seem isolated from each other and stuck within a self that is limiting. They are atomized, and this “individuality” feels like a distancing cage.

This casualness, of movement, dress and organization, proceeds apace. In such a formal situation—professional theatre, incredible dancers, acclaimed choreographer, almost sold-out audience— this disintegrated centre creates palpable tension. Audience members literally lean a bit forward—what is going to happen?

The answer is, a lot, and not very much.

The dancers’ movements, in solo, duets or in groups, often seem obtuse or random, even when done in tandem. In one long sequence near the beginning— one of the few sections accompanied by music or soundscape— the performers bob up and down in place, standing, hopping and jiggling to the beat. A similar spareness and randomness holds for most of the texts spoken by the dancers. At different points, dancers stand on the stairs in small groups and speak directly to the audience, but the things they say are mostly lyrically surreal, a bit comic, and reflect a failing, if desperate, desire to communicate—to communicate “something.”

The lighting changes little throughout the show—house lights up, full wash on stage—except at two points when the house lights dim for a few minutes, and the audience feels a certain relief from the discomfort of full visibility in a theatre. This is a subtle trick to include the audience in the performance, for their identification with the dancers to be felt, and to blur the line between performance space and audience space. The stage lights also dim a couple of times for a period long enough to be noticed. These alienation techniques—think Brecht, Osborne, Handke, and Canadian influences like Ame Henderson and Michael Trent—are applied gently and subtly.

The use of music is spare and also clearly used to play up the chaos or to foreground it. The one sequence of organized joy, more than three quarters of the way through the piece, lasts for a few minutes, as Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” plays, with all the lights up full. This segment is a centre of “order” in the piece, providing comfort for audience and dancers in terms of recognizable beat and familiarity; but its unsatisfactory nature cannot be overstated.

This Shape, We Are In coheres as an acknowledgement of formlessness in our society, relief at the wrong things, connection over the ephemeral and non-productive, constant urgency without goals, and distraction. There are clustered activities—including sudden simultaneous dancing, funny gatherings in the small room at the back left corner, and a long scene at the end focused around knocking on the isolated, standing door and being let in, or invited in, or pushing through, all excitedly and as if this segment is abstracted from a party in someone’s apartment. There are loud declarations, from “It’s over!” to surreal or philosophical musings, like the phrase repeated throughout the show, “We have all been here before.” We have been to the dance theatre, they have danced, we have watched, they have socialized.

When dancers leave the stage to speak on the steps beside the audience, leave the stage to actually exit the theatre, leave the stage to party in the small room at the back, they stitch the production to “reality,” or the reality outside the performance. The off-kilter vocalizations are openings into the surreal and imaginary—but without cohering into graspable meaning, just as the show refuses to cohere into graspable sense or meaning, and the movement refuses to add up or build, and even the meme near the end: one student’s school table and one empty chair facing it—are we meant to learn?—is purposefully vague and insubstantial.

The dancers are sublime; the precision, focus and energy of Valerie Calam, Alana Elmer, Mairi Greig, Megumi Kokuba, Pulga Muchochoma, Erin Poole, and Roberto Soria electrifies the space. Their physicality is transformed, as if they could be butterflies flitting across a summer garden, woodland creatures frolicking, or shapes in an abstract painting that keeps rearranging its forms and colours before our eyes. This is a challenging work that demands many complex arcs from the performers.

Durning’s disorder and pseudo-chaos is meaningful whether or not the production inspires the audience sufficiently to spend time considering the many questions the piece raises, including: what is the role of the artist/choreographer? If the artist’s role is, even in part, to dislodge complacency and ask people to question their own purposes and activities as part of a greater social reality, then This Shape, We Are In succeeds, and its subtle, complex philosophy has been made manifest. This is a very difficult achievement.