Performed by Gibney Company, this Canadian Premiere of choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s OH COURAGE! opened Act 1 of Fall for Dance North’s UNBOWED: Signature Programme 2. It is ultimately uplifting, a celebration of bodies in forward, pulsating movement. A core physical theme seems to be that motion and action are hope.
Rachel Hauck’s scenic design gives us four tall light stands turned inward. Within this very open yet secure chamber, a set of mismatched speakers are stacked. It feels almost like a fortress, one easily accessed and welcoming, but a safe and comforting homebase.
Sometimes blinding the viewer with strobes, Asami Morita’s lighting design is moody and evocative, casting the dancers in silhouette or throwing their bodies into chiaroscuro relief.
Next up was Light-Print, choreographed by Jesse Obremski and performed by recent graduates of Toronto Metropolitan University School of Performance. Set in a sort of basement laboratory, Margaret Steinbach’s set feels cavernous and eerie, with overhead fly system lowered to suggest the internal plumbing of some vast facility. Hanging down from these are a set of pendant lamps that are under constant scrutiny.
The dancers, clad in white lab coats, are deeply involved in studying these lights. They set them swinging and these luminous pendulums become objects of great fascination. Whenever contact is made, the dancers are set into violent spasms.
The music by Trevor Bumgarner features magnified and enhanced ambient sounds—breath, the scratch of contact between contrasting textures and, most prominently, the hum and arcing of electricity.
Featuring thirteen dancers, the visual and auditory experience is carefully considered and offers plenty of whimsical spectacle, but it never quite achieved the intensity to which I imagine it strives.
The second Act of the programme begins with My Mother’s Son, created and performed by brothers Mthuthuzeli and Siphesihle November. I first saw this in a filmed version screened as part of FFDN’s 2021 season. The Battersea Arts Centre, bathed in natural light spilling in, was a massive venue for the work. Rather than swallow the performance up, the vastness of the space seemed to impel this passionate due to greater intensity. This live presentation allows for more intricate atmospheric control and the overall gestalt of the piece feels even more urgent.
The piece is propelled by the brothers’ deep connection—emotion made flesh. The soundtrack features archival audio from an interview with Mthuthuzeli in which he articulates his devotion to his brother. Training on different continents, the siblings had never performed together before this dancework. There is a palpable catharsis here—an exhilarating release of pent up yearning for this opportunity to collaborate.
The final work of the programme is another choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November. NINA: By Whatever Means is a stirring portrait of the life, artistry and activism of Nina Simone. The title is taken from an interview in which she articulated her compulsion to facilitate self-love within the Black community, to make them curious enough about their history to seek it out and own it; she stated her commitment to achieve this “by whatever means necessary.”
Performed by Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black, this is the most narratively representational of all the works featured here and, for me, the most unabashedly emotive and thrilling. A mix of ballet and contemporary dance, we glide through her early gospel inspirations, her classical training as a pianist and the fusion of these into her jazz. Archival audio of Simone is woven into the score and Isabela Coracy’s portrayal of Nina is stylized with a gritty authenticity.
Jessica Cabassa’s costumes are elegant and colourful, capturing several distinct eras and referencing some of Simone’s iconic outfits. The scenic design—two modular panels and a piano—swirl about in hypnotic arcs before finding their proper place in each scene. In the atmospheric haze, David Plater’s lighting design features sensual, angular slabs of contrasting colour—immersing us in a world of vibrant jazz clubs.
The finale, set to Simone’s “Sinnerman,” is a fierce and riveting crescendo.