Building the new House

persephone's lunch choreographed by christopher house presented by Toronto Dance Theatre at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West),.


persephone’s lunch choreographed by christopher house presented by Toronto Dance Theatre at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen’s Quay West), November 27-December 1, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm. $16.75-$37.50. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN

it’s two weeks before the pre- miere of his new full-length dance work, and Christopher House is looking lost.He’s facing a restless crowd of dance lovers sitting in the Toronto Dance Theatre, where House is artistic director. We’re here for an informal sneak peek at the new piece, intriguingly (and perhaps nonsensically) titled Persephone’s Lunch.

House is struggling for words to describe it.

It’s inspired, he tells us in his characteristically scratchy voice, by Homer’s Odyssey. He drops some names, like semiotician Umberto Eco’s and those of the team of collaborators — designers, stage managers — working on the show.

“We’re at a vulnerable stage right now,” he says. “In the process.”

Translation? The work is far from being done. But then something happens. House introduces excerpts from the show — solos, duets and ensembles — and suddenly words are redundant.

Music fills the hall, the TDT dancers get up and move ritualistically. They toss sheepskins into the air, snuggle pomegranates in the crooks of their necks, every move shot through with passion, clarity and occasionally humour.

House looks on with mixed emotions. His eyes look dead.

Two days later he’s even more subdued. He’s not too interested in mugging for NOW’s photographer, and some of his poses look downright contemptuous.

“I think I’ve cracked the structure of the work,” he says afterwards. “It’s interesting what can happen in 48 hours. Tomorrow we’ll start to put it all together.”

Sounds weird, but I believe him.

Creating this new work is difficult because it’s inspired by The Odyssey, an epic poem that readers know well. House isn’t sure he’s going to deliver what people expect. Or want.

There won’t be dancers playing Odysseus, Penelope, Circe. Instead, there will be a series of images, some inspired by the poem, others not.

“I always find ambiguity more interesting,” he says, “the mystery of a gesture. I also like that beautiful thing that happens when a dancer, through their presence, summons up a deep world of feeling without acting it out.”

That’s the standard choreographer’s line. The image is more important than the idea. Ambiguity rules. If you find something resonant, fine, even if the choreographer didn’t intend it.

In a sense, modern dance is more akin to visual art than to theatre — something House acknowledges.

And what about ideas? House sees The Odyssey as a feminine, feminist story — this despite the fact that it’s essentially about a guy going off to do his thing while his wife remains faithfully at home.

“Remember that Athena is Odysseus’s patron god,” he says. “The whole thing is her game. She reveals herself when she wants, brings up the winds, enshrouds him in mist.”

Conveniently, the TDT is filled with lots of strong female talent, including senior dancer Jessica Runge, also an accomplished choreographer. So maybe there’s a practical reason why House is so intrigued by the poem’s women.

“I’m impressed that Christopher’s able to let things go,” says Runge, an always watchable performer who exudes strength and passion onstage, even if she’s hard-pressed to talk about her art offstage.

“There are movements that look beautiful but don’t fit. He’s able to take them out.”

As for the title, House admits Persephone hardly figures in the classic. “It’s a problem,” he laughs, sharing an inside joke with Runge. “I’ll reveal that in the context of the piece.”

And will he be in the work himself?

“I know it sounds disorganized, but I won’t know until everything’s done. My speaking voice is in the piece. But as of today, I’m not in it physically.”

glenns@nowtoronto.com

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