Two Fridays ago I found myself at the Glebe Community Centre for the first installment of Dark Horse Dance Projects (DHDP) and my first foray into the independent dance scene here in Ottawa. An evening of nine short movement pieces, DHDP looks to showcase new experimental works from emerging performers. As one might expect, some pieces show more promise than others, however, this is an excellent platform to let artists try new things without having to shoulder an entire production themselves. The programming that this initial DHDP chose was enough to pique my interest and I recommend checking out this event in the future.
Because my training lies in theatrical performance, my commentary on dance focuses more on the overall storytelling, the imagery, and the emotions found in the piece than the physical technique of the performer(s) (though I do try to become better versed in this avenue as well!). So, while I cannot comment too much on the technicalities of the new choreography, what I can say is that there are some exciting storytellers coming out of the dance scene.
The pieces that stand out in my mind are those where I can see and/or feel potential for growth within its conceptual frameworks and also the structure of its narrative through both text and/or dance. There are four pieces in particular that caught my attention: the excerpt of Stockholm Syndrome; You Have For Eyes; feelers 2am; and the three brief vignettes performed by Mary Catherine Jack and Megan Jerome entitled, Big Plans, Skills, and Obstacles. All of these performances have distinct ideas and stylistic choices that set them apart from the pack and have potential to be extended and developed into full length pieces.
The excerpt of Stockholm Syndrome, for example, by Jocelyn Todd has already done so where a longer version was included as part of the show Damaged Goods at this year’s Ottawa Fringe Festival. Each time I’ve seen this “contemporary pas de deux” (show program, 2015) I’ve enjoyed it. The choreography is interesting and intricate and dancers Jessie, L’hôte and Maxime Nadeau perform it with such intensity that you can feel their confidence in one another as they repeatedly push and pull each other in a vicious “game of tug and war” (show program, 2015).
It’s easy to be turned off by the latter half of this piece which features Nadeau creating the live sound by whistling through his teeth. Admittedly this gets quite irritating- almost torturous- until one bears in mind the title- Stockholm Syndrome. The relationship between not only the dancers themselves but also the choreography to the sound becomes clearer.
In You Have For Eyes, with choreography by Laura Toma and performed by Kathering Ng, the dancer is “challenged to not only enter, but shift between precise levels of engagement with her environment, body, and mind” (show program, 2015). The audience certainly goes along on this journey with Ng, who immediately snaps on the fluorescent lights overhead (a complete contrast to every other piece) allowing the audience to become aware of one another.
Toma’s choreography seems to play with constantly shifting centres of gravity and weight which gives the performer and illusion of being off balance or, more specifically, intoxication or inebriation while always maintaining total control. Ng is an exciting performer as she “stumbles” and falls across the stage floor with this beautiful awkwardness and almost grotesqueness that sometimes makes one wonder if her bones are not made of rubber. The performer continues to alienate her audience by occasionally breaking the fourth wall, as it were, to stare into the eyes of a couple individuals seemingly searching for reassurance that what she’s experiencing is still real life.
And then we get to the video projection of YouTube sensation “David After Dentist” where Ng takes to a chair and attempts to mime the movements of the hilariously loopy young boy David- who had just come out of dental surgery at the time of his father’s recording. I am still unsure what this particular video adds to the piece which, up until this point, is reasonably compelling to watch. Adding the video only splits the audience’s gaze between the performer and what is being projected which makes it challenging to know what to watch. However, I can respect the absurdity of the idea itself.
Feelers 2am is a performance I would like to see again because during the particular run I saw they suffered an unfortunate sound mishap at a rather climactic part of the piece. The dancers (Amber Green, Adam Awad, and Geoffery Dollar) played it off with aplomb, continued with the dance, and the sound (thankfully) kicked back in shortly thereafter. Despite this technical accident, the choreography (by Amelia Griffin) was enough to sell me on feelers 2am with its premise revolving around a young woman demonstrating her unique style of self-defence when walking home alone from the club at 2am.
The intensity starts low(ish) and kind of sultry with Green dancing by herself and the tension starts to rise as Awad and Dollar enter the scene as predators who begin to stalk their prey. The piece reaches its climax with an explosive attack and fight for survival. The performance is a great blend between dance and fight choreography while also fusing together a relevant and true to life scenario with high energy and violent physicality. Feelers 2am creates a truly suspenseful and exciting piece of physical theatre.
Last, but certainly not least, comes the three vignettes created and performed by Mary Catherine Jack and featuring the live musical talents and performance by Megan Jerome. The three scenarios- Big Plans, Skills, and Obstacles– appear to all have fairly similar characters, namely: the accordionist and the dancer. Each time they appear on stage it’s as though we are seeing a new scenario in, what I interpreted as, a competition between the music and the dance. While the two are certainly symbiotic, there is no denying that sometimes there is a selfish desire for one to stand out more than the other.
The scenes themselves are simple and funny and are arguably some of the most fully realized among the whole group. It is certainly the most theatrical, with the most spoken text and perhaps the least amount of what one might traditionally describe as ‘dance choreography’ (though- sidenote- isn’t is such a beautiful and quiet moment of release when Jack finally gets to do her own thing even if it’s only briefly in Obstacles?) but nonetheless I appreciated the stage imagery overall and the clear relationship between these characters. This was a smart decision on behalf of the producers to have these vignettes break up the evening while also providing a neat little through-line.
I remember speaking with Todd, who is also one of the Artistic Directors of DHDP, at the Fringe this summer and she explained to me how difficult it is for the local emerging dancers to find avenues in which they can showcase new work. This is why exposé style events like DHDP and the Fresh Meat Theatre Festival are necessary and integral to the future development of the professional artistic scene. It is also another reason why it becomes more crucial for the independent artists to make cross-overs into different creative communities. Cross-pollination, as it were, is never a bad thing and hopefully there is even more commingling between the emerging Ottawa theatre and dance communities in the future! I look forward to the next episode of DHDP and I recommend tuning in with me.
(editor’s note: all photos were taken directly from DHDP’s Instagram account which you can follow at @darkhorsedanceprojects!)