at Premiere Dance Theatre
in Toronto on Thursday
Is dance ritual, or entertainment, or some hybrid of the two? Because the performing arts evolved out of religious ritual in every culture, and because dance and theatre artists consistently renew their inspiration by looking to their roots, artists repeatedly face the challenge of bringing ritual on stage without rendering it trivial or gimmicky.
Toronto-based Ballet Creole's latest work, Orisha Voices (which opened Thursday at Toronto's Premiere Dance Theatre, alongside two short works by Gabby Kamino) is highly effective in meeting this challenge.
While the work draws on ritual dance forms associated with Cuban Santeria, a fusion of Yoruban religious practices and Catholicism, Orisha Voices doesn't reproduce Santerian ritual in a literal way. Rather, it draws on it to create mesmerizing and transformative theatre.
The work is effective in part because choreographer Patrick Parson (who has an MA in dance ethnology from York University) has done his research thoroughly. The practice of Santeria, along with such related traditions as Candomble in Brazil and Shango Baptist in Trinidad, is based on drumming and ecstatic dancing. To create a dance vocabulary based in such Cuban folkloric tradition, Parson worked extensively with Consuelo Herrera Manresa of Cuba's Ballet Folklorico Raices Profunda. He also collaborated with Toronto choreographer Newton Moraes, who boasts a background in Brazilian ritual dance and a long-time interest in portraying trance states on stage. But in addition to doing the research -- and this is the hard part -- Parson has managed to integrate his source material into a coherent piece of theatre.
The result is an impressive composition, trippy and episodic, highlighting altered states and psychic landscapes.
Although it's not overtly narrative, Orisha Voices portrays a group of dancers on a journey that's alternately private and shared. It has something of the feeling of writer Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan books, or of an acid trip. The rhythmic structure of the music (composed by Parson and performed live by the Creole Drummatix) is overlaid with piano, violin and vocal lines that heighten the feeling of suspense. You never know what the next instant will bring, and each moment is pregnant with promise and veiled threat.
Structurally, the piece alternates slow, atmospheric sections with fast dynamic interludes. In the slow sections, each dancer inhabits his or her own landscape. Periods of suspended activity, like held breath, are punctuated by bursts of running.
Occasionally leaders emerge, holding group attention momentarily. At others, dancers trace each others' features with great absorption and repeat gestures that look like drawing toffee out of their open mouths, slightly inhuman and ominous. Following the lead of Moraes, a performer who is consistently transported by on stage trance states, the dancers appear to be genuinely intoxicated.
The tension in these slow atmospheric sections builds until it culminates in bursts of fast, exhilarating rhythmic unison dancing that brings musicians, dancers and audience together.
Such ecstatic, climactic moments are contagious -- they make us feel included. In this way, Orisha Voices provides (to paraphrase "performance studies" American guru Richard Schechner) a middle world between entertainment and ritual, where audience, dancers and musicians can come together in an unprecedented way.