Peggy Baker Dance Projects
By Leandra de Valois-Franklin
Toronto was the final stop for Peggy Baker Dance Projects’ Canadian tour this weekend (March 6-9), which showcased three works by the queen of Canadian contemporary dance, as well as a duet by revered choreographer James Kudelka. The multi-award winning Alberta-born dancer/choreographer/teacher/Joni Mitchell-devotee exhibited her high calibre artistry at the intimate Betty Oliphant Theatre.
First on the program was Yang, Baker’s 1998 abstract work which explores one of the two principles of Taoist philosophy. Dancers Louis Laberge-Côté and Sahara Morimoto communicated the round, harsh concepts of Yang through a deconstructed, androgynous dynamic, so detailed that the choreography was exhausting to absorb. Their strength seemed to derive from a close relationship to the ground, which was occasionally broken by unusual amphibian-like leaps. Thierry de May’s score Frisking Prolationum for 11 Percussionists closely matched the primal atmosphere created by the dancers, which conveyed an unlikely combination of desperation and control.
Next was Baker’s long awaited Portal, a 10-minute self-choreographed solo, which would have premiered last year, had Baker not broken her foot two weeks prior to opening night. Themes of contradiction inherent in physical form reoccur in her tightly-structured work which is both spiritual and intellectual. The enigmatic solo was performed in silence, except for her audible breaths and the powerful sweeping movements of her legendary long limbs, which appeared simultaneously aggressive and gentle in her kinespheric exploration. A lack of music was justified due to a dialogue of light and movement created by master lighting designer Marc Parent. The effect of light physically connected to Baker’s immaculately defined outline both “reveals and distorts the dancer.”
Preceding the intermission was Brahms Waltzes, which Baker created in 1992. Long time collaborator pianist Andrew Burashko’s presence was visible on stage behind dancer Jessica Runge, who, dressed in a long, royal blue dress (designed by Caroline O’Brien), exuded elegance and sophistication, epitomizing the “high art” aspect of the modern dance discipline. Unfortunately this did not captivate half an audience occupied by students forced to satisfy performance attendance requirements. Admittedly, even for the most enlightened dance aficionado, the remounted piece at times suffered the impression of appearing dated in comparison to Baker’s more recent accomplishments.
The evening’s final performance was the world premiere of Kudelka’s A Woman by a Man. The charming work investigates the complexities of a long-standing relationship of an unusual duo, performed by Baker and Michael Sean Marye, who remain physically and metaphorically attached. Cartoonish, Popeye and Olive Oyl characteristics, created an endearing aesthetic in which the dancers’ torso remain stiff above disconnected legs, provoking a few conservative chuckles among the serious spectators. Horizontal stripes of shadows and light created a simple landscape onstage which complimented the minimalist choreography. Once again, music remained integral to the work as a pianist (Burashko), violinist (Benjamin Bowman) and cellist (Shauna Rolston) performed Shostakovich’s Piano Trio #2. Brechtian attempts to emphasize to the audience that they are watching a performance included pauses for the musicians to adjust their instruments while the dancers paused to remove their footwear.
Peggy Baker’s Dance Projects are founded on sincere artistic integrity. Admired by the dance community for over three decades, her work often expresses abstract emotions with cerebral insight. Whether she dances her own choreography, or interprets that of another, her unique style allows her to convey characters and stories through a movement vocabulary as clear as an actor’s dialogue. At 55, Baker remains the pride of Canadian modern dance, and continues to inspire the next generations of modern boho dancers.