The powerful image of looming shadows “dancing” with their flesh-and-blood counterparts is apt for these dark times; evoking the ghostly presence of those no longer with us; as well as conjuring fragile memories of our former, comfortable worlds before COVID-19 ravaged the earth.
Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers presented the world premiere of rising Canadian star choreographer/performer Jera Wolfe’s Begin Again, as its latest online presentation also marking the company debut of the 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning artist.
The commissioned, filmed production inspired by the tantalizing promise of “re-invention” and originally slated to open with a live audience in the Rachel Browne Theatre early December premiered Friday night and runs through Jan. 31, featuring a cast of local dancers: Carol-Ann Bohrn, Allison Brooks, Mark Dela Cruz, and Kira Hofmann.
The Toronto-based Wolfe of Metis heritage and notably a graduate of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Professional Division also serves as Associate Artist with Red Sky Performance, with his works presented by Canadian Stage, Fall For Dance North, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Festival des arts de Saint-Sauveur, Danse Danse, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, as well as the National Ballet of Canada.
Winnipeg-based lighting designer par excellence Hugh Conacher finds himself a playground with his large, onstage barn door theatrical lights wheeled about the stage by the dancers that brings to life Wolfe’s often jaw-dropping imagery and magical, “trompe l’oeil” effects.
The choreographer has created a lingua franca of intricate, often highly gestural, intricate movement vocabulary that morphs between both classical and contemporary worlds, from pure balletic grace to grounded tumbles and rolls — with even a few flashes of breakdance paying homage to his hip hop/breakdance/jazz roots — in which dancers’ centres of gravity constantly shift with kaleidoscopic fluidity.
Naturally, “pandemic dance” is ideally suited to solo work, with each masked, physically distanced performer garbed in pedestrian trousers, sleeveless tops and socks taking their turn (literally) in the spotlight, underscored by a haunting soundtrack featuring the Iskra String Quartet and Manchester-based composer Danny Norbury.
Standout moments include Hofman’s rhapsodic opening solo with her serpentine spine arching into full backbends, and Dela Cruz’s simple, slow rise from the floor with his hands cupped that instills a sense of ritualistic ceremony into the roughly 17-minute work. Bohrn also delivers a deeply lyrical solo with each suspended movement propelling the next, while Brooks’ own expressive solo is performed as a private soliloquy, including more athletic choreography infused with gentle falls and backward somersaults.
Several sections of unison movement might arguably have benefitted from greater polyphonic counterpoint, with several transitions at times feeling disjointed due to the requisite filming/and piecing together of individual scenes. Wolfe’s varying of tempo, including a penultimate group section where dancers sitting in a circle of wooden chairs flail their limbs against the sustained strings proved particularly effective.
One of the elegiac show’s most potent scenes is when Bohrn and Hofman’s unfettered shadows meld together, finally “touching” when masked humans cannot, on the exposed, upstage brick wall; a complete altering of perspective where live, mortal dancers play supporting roles to their own temporal, dancing souls.
However, the final moments pack the greatest punch where each dancer suddenly gazes directly into the camera having shed their mask like a snakeskin. This raw revealing of their all-too-vulnerable, utter humanity reminds us of what we have seemingly lost during this past year – and will someday find again.
The production is available online through Jan. 31. For tickets or further information, visit: http://www.winnipegscontemporarydancers.ca/