The stage is a sea of cardboard clutter—boxes, large and small, piled haphazardly on top of each other. In the centre, a massive tower of these boxes hovers precarious over the entire scene. Torn flaps of corrugated brown paper hang suspended in mid air. Even before the performance starts, there is stunning beauty in this sight. And then it begins: JDance’s In Absentia, presented as part of DanceWorks, and the world it creates is wondrous and expansive.
With cardboard and light, designer Steve Lucas gives us the physical reality of this world. The placement and movement of the boxes is delicate and deliberate—serving as both tools and obstacles to our characters. And with the many torn holes gaping, there is a recurring motif of portholes through which our characters must traverse from one plane of existence to another—sometimes by choice, sometimes wrenched through by force.
Laura Warren’s projections, which bounce off the cardboard surfaces and tall screens that line the back of the stage, further the illusion of churning space. These projections are often of the performers themselves and their environment, creating a kaleidoscopic dreamscape that gives their playing area a cosmic vastness.
In some moments, the live projected video is more intimate. As the dancers manipulate two skeleton puppets, the small scene is blown up on the screen behind them. These mumbling, mischievous skeletons were a highlight for me. They explore their world, tease and console each other, all the while balancing an odd yet familiar dynamic of fraught companionship. Lovers? Conspirators? The possibilities seem boundless.
Like the skeletons, the performers (Jordana Deveau, Jesse Dell, Noah Blatt, Yiming Cai, Hilary Knee, Jake Ramos and Kathia Wittenborn) seem to exist precariously as both self-determined creatures and under the influence of some controlling force. There is a fascinating beauty to their stumbling movements. Choreographer Sharon B. Moore has masterfully crafted motion that is purposeful and deliberate while maintaining a constant sense of instability. This environment feels vibrant and inviting, though it seems to have an intention of its own which may very well be sinister. The threat of complete collapse is ever present.
With skeletal figures and Sonja Rainey’s costumes that suggests flesh gradually dropping from metallic body frames—death, the notion of passing on, is a core theme. Though eerie, this exploration is mostly humorous. Each moment, whether it is gentle or violent, feels like a rich tapestry—with all the humour, fear and sadness that life’s chaotic transitions evoke in us. And there is such comfort in the blooming flower imagery that marks the final moments, conveying a cycle of decay and regeneration.
With the exception of some brief moments of blurted text—which felt incongruous to me—I was captivated from start to finish. Full of dark and delirious whimsy, In Absentia is a poignant and exhilarating experience.