Canadian Stage & Peggy Baker Dance Projects/who we are in the dark, concept, choreographic composition, and direction by Peggy Baker, score and live music by Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire, Bluma Appel Theatre, Feb. 21 to Feb. 24. Tickets available at 416-368-3110 or www.canadianstage.com.
Two revered cultural icons have come together to create the new dance piece who we are in the dark. Peggy Baker is considered one of the greatest modern dancers/choreographers in the country. Arcade Fire is the Montreal-based, internationally acclaimed, indie rock band. Violinist Sarah Neufeld and percussionist Jeremy Gara from that august group have composed the tape/live score. (Currently, Neufeld is a “touring musician” with the group having ceased being an “official member” in 2013.) The end result of this much-anticipated collaboration is a work whose sum is greater than its parts.
The inspiration for the piece stems from fractured black, which Baker and Neufeld created in 2015. The opening lyrics of that duet were “who we are in the dark” which conjured up for Baker all sorts of images associated with the “alluring darkness of night”, as she says in her program notes. That was the starting point of exploration, and Baker goes on to list other concepts that appear in the piece — creeping darkness, confounding darkness, dreadful darkness, comforting darkness. Movement invention was triggered by text by such notables as Rainer Maria Rilke, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and Pablo Neruda among others. Taken together, there is a great deal of weight and heft anchoring the piece. Baker is an intellectual and her knowledge of literature and art infuses her work.
As a whole, the piece is quite mesmerizing, with its swirl of movement and compelling score, but the component parts fall short upon closer examination. Baker’s choreography, created with the eight dancers, seems like variations on a theme, filled with endless turns, swoops, lunges, and bends. Like all Baker’s works, there are beautiful moments such as the three duets connoting intimacy, but there is a sameness throughout. The choreography also lacks an edge, which the concept of darkness should evoke. The stage picture seems gentle somehow. The dancers emit a great deal of sounds like heavy breathing and monster yells, but this proves to be a distraction, and in the case of the latter, almost an embarrassment.
While Neufeld’s violin moves agilely between agitation and lyricism, it feels derivative, sounding like bits of Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, with hints of baroque music thrown in for good measure. Similarly, Jeremy Mimnagh’s fuzzy black and white projections have that been there, done that feel. Textile canvases by the late Montreal abstract artist John Heward are flown in at various times from the roof of the stage, and while they do contribute a sombre mood, they seem isolated from the dance. Robyn Macdonald’s various black costumes of pants, tops and hoodies fade into the background. One pines for something more striking.
There are two shining points of originality in the work, however. Gara’s percussion does give much-needed drive and energy to the piece, over the drone-like taped score, and helps propel Neufeld’s violin into more intensity. Marc Parent’s lighting is dazzling. Working with diagonal shafts and beams, he cuts through the darkness in dramatic fashion, pin-spotting the dancers, cleverly playing with shadows.
Who we are in the dark is a curiosity. Fabulous talent worked on crafting this show, including the creative team and the dancers, and it is certainly engaging to sit through. The light, the sound, the images do bombard the senses, but only on a superficial level. Nonetheless, there is a feeling that something is missing. Substance? Edginess? Innovation? Perhaps this dichotomy can be summed up by who we are in the dark needs more of a heart of darkness.