At the Theatre Centre in Toronto on Wednesday
I was intrigued by the premise of dead reckoning, a dance piece in three parts about explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition, because of the unexpected collaboration between two very different dance artists: Peter Quanz and Lucy Rupert.
Quanz is a Winnipeg-based ballet choreographer with an international reputation for his inventive and intelligent manipulations of classical technique. Quanz has created critically acclaimed ballets for the likes of the Mariinsky Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and Canada's National Ballet. His company Q Dance, an ensemble of Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancers, consistently generates excitement at the best American dance festivals – Quanz's name is well-known in dance communities south of the border.
Rupert, the artistic director of Blue Ceiling Dance, is known in Toronto for smaller-scale dance-theatre work that's often driven by compelling characters, stylized aesthetics and imaginative themes. Her focus is neither formal nor technical; she's as much a physical-theatre artist as she is a dancer. Seeing Quanz and Rupert slated for co-creation in Toronto's Theatre Centre's intimate downstairs space had the tenor of the unlikely – so I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.
Dead reckoning begins with a gorgeous image of Rupert standing in the corner of a sunken, contained space, bending backward into a spotlight. She is dressed entirely in black – the fabric of her black costume extends from her waist in all directions to swoop over the whole stage.
A door opens suddenly and she is basked in warm light. As she walks into the beam, the fabric moves with her, so that the stage appears to undress itself, revealing a patina of white floor. With Rupert slowly exiting, the effect suggested a lonely uncovering of cold, uncharted land, making for a beautifully distilled introduction to Shackleton's story.
From that point on, however, I felt that the 45-minute, four-person work (dancers Elke Schroeder and Sky Fairchild-Waller perform with Rupert and Quanz) was choreographically underdeveloped, with little to substantiate the dancers' relationship to each other or to the excerpts of text they recited – excerpts that ranged from chocolate-cake recipes to bits of biographical narrative.
While the atmospheric score of layered piano and electronic music (composed by Walter Frank and Jascha Narveson) created an off-kilter feeling of extremes and uncertainty, the dramatic stakes weren't clear enough to turn the sparse formal content into a satisfyingly coherent expression.
But the extreme close-up nature of the performance – only a single row of seats wrapped the stage on all sides – set the audience up to ponder a parallel between the physical precariousness of dancing and, perhaps, the physical dangers of Shackleton's mission.
Early on, I noticed a circle of blood on the arch bone of Rupert's foot (I was that close); as the piece progressed, it began to trickle toward her instep. This tiny injury made for the kind of real-life detail that unwittingly gains theatrical weight in such close quarters, particularly when the planned performance itself is thin. I couldn't help but note the unintentionally apt symbolism of blood on Shackleton's "uncolonized land."
There was a similar sense of real physical danger as Fairchild-Waller thrashed himself about the stage, pounding his heel repeatedly into the floor with a heedless ferocity that I can't imagine a physiotherapist would recommend. Still, there was something theatrical in being constantly reminded of the risk of physical exertion, and to witness the constant overlap between "real" and performing bodies. I wonder if these flashes of danger could be more productively integrated in a more developed iteration of the work.
Dead reckoning runs until Jan. 17 at the Theatre Centre Incubator Space in Toronto (theatrecentre.org).