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Vital Signs: A show built on the work of four great choreographers

The Browns featuring Darryl Tracy and Heidi Strauss.

Jeremy Mimnagh

Vital Signs
Directed by
Choreography by Ginette Laurin, Heidi Strauss, Sylvain Émard and Yvonne Coutts
Heidi Strauss and Darryl Tracy
Winchester Street Theatre
Runs Until
Saturday, September 14, 2013

Vital Signs is a wall-to-wall dance show featuring the work of four powerhouse choreographers – Toronto's Heidi Strauss, Ottawa's Yvonne Coutts, and Montreal's Ginette Laurin and Sylvain Émard. The performers are Strauss and Darryl Tracy, who are always a class act.

It's a reunion of sorts. Tracy and Strauss used to commission duets for their company, Four Chambers Dance Project (1998-2006). Vital Signs, produced by Tracy, reconnects their talents with two solos that are premieres, and two duets that are notable works from the past.

The most significant piece is Laurin's intriguing half-hour solo The Edge of Now for Strauss. It is everything we have come to associate with this renowned choreographer, and Strauss proves to be a strong interpreter of Laurin's intense work. The Edge of Now is very physical and says volumes about the human condition.

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The environment created by lighting designer Simon Rossiter and videographer Jeremy Mimnagh is not just ambient design. At first, Strauss, clad in a bra and panties, performs within a square delineated by light. Later, when Strauss wears a dress and shoes, the stage is dissected into compartments by bars of light, so only parts of her are highlighted as she moves through the lines.

Mimnagh's black-and-white abstractions break into smaller components as the piece progresses, matching the edgy score culled from various electronica composers.

It's important to describe the environment because it mirrors Strauss' disintegration. We know from text she recites toward the end that her character is in the throes of a relationship gone sour.

In the first part of the piece, Strauss moves in strong, confident steps, and Laurin has given the dancer a total body workout in which she is always in control. Kicks, jumps, lunges, turns – Strauss executes a dance that celebrates radiant womanhood.

In the second part, her movements are incomplete and she seems muddled about where to put her limbs. She is beside herself in confusion. A multitude of short, fuzzy, physical impulses depict a woman in disarray.

As with any of Laurin's works, it's all about the details – whether showing a woman who is bold or one who is lost, nothing is left to chance. Laurin and Strauss make a magnificent team.

The other premiere is A Map of Lightyear, a whimsical solo that Strauss has created for Tracy. It is a life's journey coming full circle, beginning with stumbling and recovery, and morphing into a man finding his inner strength.

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We see him pump himself up, fists clenched, muscles on display. We even witness a shadow play of Tracy off stage, his shadow depicting fighting and derring-do. But when he returns to the stage, he is back to a stumbling man.

Again, Rossiter has provided the effective lighting, while Mimnagh has created both the edgy electronica sound design and the floor projections which enhance the swirl of movement.

Tracy has always been a charismatic performer, but he is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. There is a stiffness to his torso; he is not as supple as he once was. Nonetheless, he can still command the stage, and Strauss has honed this solo to fit his talents.

The duets are both oldies and goodies. Coutts's The Browns (2001) is a compelling look at two people who can't communicate, while Émard's final duet from his full-length Temps de Chiens (2005) depicts a self-absorbed couple more interested in finding themselves than relating to each other.

Vital Signs is rich in substantive dance. It makes a huge difference in the quality of movement when it comes from master choreographers.

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