Conceptualized by renowned dance artist Peggy Baker, Michael Ross Albert’s play, Beautiful Renegades, is a tribute to the rebellious artists of the 1970s Toronto dance scene. Inspired by the artist-run 15 Dance Lab and the innovative work it spawned, the story brings together six young, ragtag creators and follows their development.
We gaze upon an open-concept performance space. The year is 1974. Those ubiquitous metal and wood chairs that define low-budget gatherings line the edges of the stage. A cabinet with an assortment of period theatre tech stands off to the side. Two figures sneak in and and seat themselves just as an intimate performance begins.
This opening dance piece—set to some cumbersome, poetic text—introduces us to world of experimental performance. Right off the bat, we are both amused and intrigued. The play has a sense of humour about avant-garde performance art. We laugh at the pretensions, but find ourselves fully invested in the radical spirit.
There is something intensely funny in the awkward spectacle of these pieces—clunky poles attached to limbs, head-banging weather balloons, flopping fish-like on a mirrored mat, rolling clumsily all over each other. As we giggle at their fumbling, we also marvel at the off-kilter beauty these efforts evoke. Despite the goofiness, flashes of grandeur abound.
We are pulled through a five-year period from mid to late 1970s, each year represented by a single, continuous scene that examines the group’s shifting dynamic. As these fledging artists struggle against the burden of arts institutions, the disinterest of larger funding bodies, and internal conflicts; we get a vivid sense of the Toronto arts community of the era. Albert drops references to local venues and arts organizations, creating a through-line from then to now.
Though they often strain each other’s patience, these volatile, ambitious people are fiercely bonded: Mia (Erika Prevost) and Gary (David Norsworthy), the ballet school drop-outs; Beth (Anne van Leeuwen), the burlesque provocateur, fresh in from the New York scene; Joan (Shauna Thompson), pulling from her martial arts training in her search for new forms; Esther (Sarah Fregeau), negotiating her inner city, radical art with the concerns of a protective Jewish mother; and then there is Hart (Jarrett Siddall), the American draft dodger, shy, conflicted and desperate to find community among these artists.
There is a giddy sense of recognition in Gillian Gallow’s period costumes and set-dressings. Feathered hair, pornstaches and bell-bottoms conjure a very palpable vibe yet the overall aesthetic never descends into nostalgia-bait.
The ensemble cast is a mix of dancers and actors. Each coming to the table with a specific set of honed skills, you can spot their individual strengths. There is a gawky charm to moments where physicality or line delivery betray a performer’s unfamiliarity with some territory. They bolster each other, though, and their unique challenges also echo the boundary-pushing dynamic of the characters.
In a pivotal conflict, Albert examines the role of criticism in the formation of new, unconventional art. When one member begins to call out the weaknesses and inconsistencies in another’s work, it causes tension throughout the group. Their argument calls into question the responsibility of a journalistic presence within the community and the impact of scrutiny on an artistic venture’s success. It demonstrates the importance of criticism that challenges artists while also supporting the work.
There is a sexual assault depicted here. Though the attack itself is brief and interrupted, one of the most discomfiting aspects is the provocative idea contained within the build-up to it. Though his behaviour is unquestionably reprehensible, the violation erupts out of an intriguing idea the perpetrator posits during an intimate rehearsal. The awful irony is that his insights could have strengthened the art; but alcohol, festering insecurity and frustration triggered actual violence instead.
Director Eda Holmes maintains naturalism throughout scenes, giving purposeful poetic shape to action as it unfolds. The scene transitions that take us from year to year are stylish and mesmerizing. The finale—a hypnotic dance that isolates each performer, dressed in neutral white, and has them fight against invisible boundaries—is a thoroughly exhilarating sight.
Beautiful Renegades feels both retrospective and immediate. By looking back on the social malaise, political disruption and progressive artistry of our past, it throws our current struggles into sharp relief.