Elsewhere at the Holiday Inn

I’m just back from a weekend in Toronto where I went (thanks to the Canada Council) to see a new dance work by Heidi Strauss, whose company adelheid was resident at Dance Victoria Studios for two weeks last January. Strauss is a much-loved fixture on the Toronto scene. Her extensive teaching and recent work with Toronto Dance Theatre have placed her at the front of a generation of intelligent young dance artists. Her four shows at Harbourfront Centre Theatre were sold out, a rare occurrence in the world of contemporary dance.

My timing couldn’t have been worse. I was in the thick of writing two substantial grant applications due days after my return. As a result, when I wasn’t at Heidi’s shows (I saw the program twice) I was holed up in a room at the Downtown Toronto Holiday Inn, tapping on my laptop for hours on end: an unlikely spot for a writer’s retreat, but as it always seems to go, far from home and daily distractions I did a formidable amount of work.

I also had time for quiet reflection. While there has been no shortage of self-analysis and contemplation in recent months, the quality of these ruminations had a different texture, coloured by Strauss’ dance piece, no doubt.

Her work is entitled elsewhere. The dancers’  movement is grouped around the idea of landing in the middle of something else, an unexpected place where your regular coping mechanisms and life experiences no longer make sense: a new place. The lighting and sound scape were appropriately dark, murky, deeply textured.

Up stage was masked by six or seven 16-foot Mylar panels that hung from ceiling to floor. The surface of the panels had been etched and streaked with paint so that they took on a translucent quality. At the beginning of the work, in dim light, shadowy solitaire figures appear behind these panels. After a few moments, the dancer Molly Johnson is propelled from behind one panel, as if pushed onto the stage. She takes a place downstage centre where she is lit under a bright overhead spotlight. The other figures remain in the shadows, almost motionless, but not quite, wavering on the periphery as if occupying Johnson’s consciousness. These are the people, the relationships, the thoughts and feelings that preoccupy her. In a moment, as she pushes with arms, like a swimmer underwater, and struggles at the extreme edge of movement, she comes crashing to the floor. In that moment, the score reaches a crescendo. The Mylar panels are suddenly alive and vibrant with pulsating colour. Johnson is elsewhere.

In the ensuing dance, soloists, couples, groups rush toward each other but fail to embrace. They press their torsos close to each other, front to front, their arms and heads are thrown back, extending away from each other. They seldom touch (there is no softness here) and yet at other times in the group work they undulate like waves across the stage, as if one is manipulating the movement of all the others.

For me it was evocative of a state of being, a hard thing to articulate, but something dance can do well. It was elsewhere. There is a solitude in this place.

2020/21 Dance at the Royal Season Suspended Due to COVID-19