Visiting the Gentle, Odd Apocalpyse with JD Dance

Visiting a rehearsal is like stepping through the looking glass. It is a world of curiosities, peculiarities, frustrations and unripened temperaments, which are all part of the process of honing a wild idea into a wild performance. The resulting production or performance will have all these characteristics, sometimes latent, sometimes frothing over. But where you start is never where you end up. 

This is why, of late, I love sitting in on rehearsals and observing before I see a production. And I was honoured when Jesse Dell and Jordana Deveau invited me to sit in on a rehearsal and write about it.

The origin or spark of new performance work has a sweet evolution, no matter how painful or painstaking the process is. Sometimes it's a breeze, but those processes are whimsical anecdotes. The real function and work of art and art-making is living in the shit. Artist or not, we all experience that inescapable point of living in the shit. We work hard to create beautiful provocative, entertaining, moving, enlightening, funny, dark, thrilling performances that reflect the galaxies, worlds, communities and realities we live in. That is our main task as artists, in my view. And those realities are complicated, messy and gorgeously shapeshifting.

All these thoughts are flowing through me as I sit on the rickety bench outside Toronto Dance Theatre waiting to visit JD Dance's rehearsal for In Absentia -- premiering this week as part of DanceWorks Mainstage Series

photo by Craig Chambers


JD Dance -- Jordana Deveau and Jesse Dell -- has been developing this work for 5 years, over which time both artists have taken up residences outside the city while still managing their Toronto-based careers. Jesse gave birth to twins. There were cast changes, funding and theatre challenges, and the general, universal challenge of how to execute a big, sweeping vision with a small company infrastructure.

They are two remarkable women, that is for sure. 

In Absentia is choreographed by another remarkable woman with a large, sweeping vision: Sharon Moore, who has made spectacles for the PanAm Games, choreographed zombies in big budget films, created solos for emerging artists and all things in between.

I ask Jesse why they commissioned Sharon, why for JD Dance? 

"I believe it was one afternoon in the foyer of Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre Sharon asked us if we would like to get into the studio with her. Jordy and I are pretty much game for anything and definitely loved the multifaceted and complex nature of Sharon's work.  We love physical work, we love theatrical work and we love a challenge, so from the beginning it was a good fit." Jesse said,  "Jordy and I have always talked about upping the ante with each project we embark upon and we knew working with Sharon was definitely gonna do that."

Rehearsal begins as they sort, assemble and organize cardboard boxes...many cardboard boxes. Sharon explains to me that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and shows me a maquette (also a prop piece) of a cardboard cyclone which will figure prominently on stage.

As they begin working, the cardboard transforms from boxes to a ledge, an umbrella, a burden, a portal -- all the while still evidently cardboard. For me the effect is wreckage and rubble, and yet also the domain of childhood: building worlds out of cardboard boxes.

Those two ideas can be held as one, as Jordana and Jesse are two childlike creatures who seem to not understand the world they find themselves in, inhabited by five equally peculiar and perhaps a little confrontational beings. Together they seem to be making new rules for a new society, while no one speaks the same language. They are coping with a wrecked world of imposed limitations without knowledge of why there are these limitations or of their own prior existences.

photo by Aria Evans

I am reminded of the Maze Runner book series, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, The Wizard of Oz, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lord of the Flies, but this choreographic work doesn't quite live in any of these specific references.

It skims over the familiar with a wicked sense of humour and expansive physicality, as the weirdest obstacle course, ever.

The score is gorgeous, equal parts of indicative and elusive waves created by composer Allen Cole. The music just enough description at one moment then heads off in a different more abstract direction. A kind of mythology underlying this new society the dancers may be trying to construct.

I asked Jordana about how living out of the city -- both she and Jesse both live in homes in rural areas outside of Toronto -- has shaped this production.

"I am still very much here (in Toronto), or in two places at once! My time between the city and wilds, between two worlds in a way, feels analogous to how our characters in IN ABSENTIA are straddling two worlds – trying to hold on to pieces of a past life while being inevitably pulled towards another.  Being closer to nature and spending time in my garden fills me up and keeps me grounded in a way that I feel supports my artistic life. It provides much needed balance and perspective and reminds me to slow down, breathe, and understand that everything in this world is a process, like the seasons, part of a bigger cycle. Details are important, and also, tiny specks in the grand scheme of things."

She likens this to the roles both she and Jesse play in the production: producers and performers. 

"I think the hardest part is the simultaneity – trying to do both and be both at the same time. We want to enable our creative and design team to realize their full artistic visions, but of course as producers, the challenge is to do this while managing the budget! The biggest challenge of performing in this context will be to ‘shut off’ my producer brain – let go of the logistics and details – and be able to be fully immersed in the work as an interpreter and performer."

I know exactly what she means. It is a vivid reality for dance artists of all kinds these days. But it extends beyond the realm of dance. It is the crunch of multiple identities we all have: how to have them coexist and not topple each other.

And this, I think, is what I was getting to at the beginning of this blog. Our job as artists is to create performances that live, thrive, relish and languish in the discomfort and awkwardness of life. If we can do this as performers, perhaps our audiences can feel recognition and release.

photo by Craig Chambers


IN ABSENTIA is a world that is powered by imagination the way Earth relies on sunlight. Performers activate a constant wonder with the actions and reactions happening around them. It a strangely alive landscape of rubble. A gentle but odd post-apocalypse.

photo by Craig Chambers


How did they arrive at this subject matter?

"The seeds of the subject matter were there in the beginning, some ideas that were whirling around in Sharon's mind --but it definitely developed over time." says Jesse,  "The cardboard was there from the beginning. Over each creation process the amount of cardboard grew and grew. It is currently close to 1000 lbs of cardboard. The skeletons made their way into the second process and I believe it was in the second process that Sharon had visions of the Wraiths (the 5 other dancers). She talked about them as the force that rips everything apart and the glue that brings it all back together again.  A constant cycle of creation and destruction, destruction and creation. In the third process Jordana, Sharon and I spent some time with Anne Barber of Shadowland Theatre, she gave us some tips on working with the skeletons as puppets.  We worked with the Wraiths -- unfortunately only Kathia remains from the original group but the dancers with us now are great too."

photo by Aria Evans


It is a fabulous team, with great, evident personalities on which Sharon capitalizes. Together, Jesse, Jordana, Yiming, Noah, Hilary, Kathia and Jake make a motley and beautiful crew of misfits.


After watching this rehearsal of violence, tenderness, raw physicality and crazy voices, I can't wait to see the premiere.

photo by Craig Chambers


*******
IN ABSENTIA 
Nov. 21-23, 2019 @ The Harbourfront Centre Theatre
a JDdance production                                                                                            
presented by DanceWorks                                                                                       
concept, choreography & direction: Sharon B. Moore                                                           
set & lighting design:  Steve Lucas                                                                                         
projection design: Laura Warren                                                                                        
sound composition:  Allen Cole                                                                                 
costume design: Sonja Rainey
production manager: Suzie Balogh
stage manager: Laura Cournoyea
assistant stage manager: Hannah MacMillan                                                                                                                                                                                                        
performers: Jordana Deveau & Jesse Dell                                                                              
Noah Blatt, Yiming Cai, Hilary Knee, Jake Ramos & Kathia Wittenborn


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