Danceworks Morphs at Harbourfront Centre (Review)

It took two years and countless online-only performances to get here, but Toronto’s acclaimed indie/alternative DanceWorks series returned this past week at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre.

Opening the new season was the highly experimental MORPHS, from Montréal-based Fila 13 Productions and choreographer Lina Cruz. Billed as a night of dream and illusion, it made for an interesting, at times alienating show. While aspects of it were incoherent (and annoying), it was at least brave enough to try something different.

Photo credit: Danceworks/Fila 13 Productions

I’m a sucker for prop dance. Wrap a performer in plastic, give them a pane of glass to move their body through, and you’ll get my attention. The late, great choreographer Pina Bausch was a master of this, deploying pools of water, giant boulders, or buckets of sand to be playfully engaged with by her dancers.

The opening moments of Lina Cruz’s MORPHS have hints of this. A pair of dancers pose ironically in front of broken mirrors, their jerky movement and odd gestures a sly parody of the vain and the superficial. Slowly, they make their way downstage, wrapping themselves in black straps which have been stretched across the width of the stage. Soon enough, one dancer is balancing one of the straps on her nose, while another has his arms and legs completely intertwined in the material, like an insect trapped in a spider’s web. There are some compelling visuals here, accentuated by the interplay of light and shadow on the sparsely lit stage.

Unfortunately, it does not take long for MORPHS to abandon these fascinating, albeit more traditional, forms of modern dance for the sake of several experimental elements that prove far less effective than might have been hoped. As the program wears on, dance gives way to elements of bouffon, mime, circus, and large stretches of experimental theatre. Some of this is interesting, a lot of it is awkward, and certain portions probably should never have left the workshop.

Company member Philippe Noireaut, a composer and musician, probably had it worst. While his percussion work on an odd set of instruments – a mason jar, a lantern, a sheet of metal, etc. – worked well enough, his amateurish singing voice was a real distraction. It’s one thing for Noireaut to, Tom Waits style, perform his own out-of-tune oddball compositions, but if you’re going to be out there butchering a beloved Handel aria, you’d better expect people are going to notice, and be annoyed by it.

As for the dancers themselves, Alexandra St-Pierre, Antoine Turmine, Abe Simon Mijnheer, and Geneviève Robitaille were all technically proficient, moving their bodies in evocative and sometimes disturbing ways as they played out an hour’s worth of dreams and illusions on the Fleck Theatre stage. Other interesting prop work included a pair of large tarps that dancers maneuvered in and out of, and a spray bottle (one assumes it contained water and not, say, distilled lysergic acid diethylamide) that performers would take turns spraying in each other’s faces.

Still, as the hour-long show progressed, actual dance work receded further and further into the background, replaced by ill-conceived vignettes and long stretches of no dance at all. By the time the performers were walking across the stage shouting gibberish while someone held a sign reading, “FRESH ORGASMS – 5 CENTS” I had lost the plot. And sadly, I think, so had Lina Cruz and her company.

DanceWorks can be found online here.

For more on Lina Cruz’s Montréal dance company Fila 13 Productions, click here.