Holmes at the helm

Director sets play about poet Gwendolyn MacEwen in motion

THE GWENDOLYN POEMS by Claudia Dey, directed by Eda Holmes, with Jerry Franken, David Fox, Barbara Gordon, Brooke Johnson, Tamsin Kelsey and Tony Nappo. Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Previews begin Friday (May 10), opens Wednesday (May 15) and runs to June 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday (from May 25) and Sunday 2 pm (except May 12 at 7 pm). $20-$28, Sunday pwyc-$20, previews $9.99. 416-504-9971 Rating: NNNNN

two operations on a blown-out knee will, obviously, change the life of a dancer. Just ask Eda Holmes. But realizing a few things about her life and work, Holmes made the disaster work for her.At 32, after spending nearly 15 years as a ballerina with companies in Europe and the United States, she left the dance world, met a Canadian she later married and was accepted into the directing program at Ottawa’s National Theatre School (NTS).

Her current project is Claudia Dey’s The Gwendolyn Poems, a new piece about poet Gwendolyn MacEwen.

“I understood that ballet is a hard world to fit into when you’re tall” — she’s exceptionally so, for a ballet dancer — “and have to worry about keeping thin and rigidly following the rhythm set by someone else,” she offers over a rehearsal latte break.

Gershwin’s playing in the background, and she can’t help moving her feet to the music’s pulse.

“One of the few strong roles I danced was Myrtha, the queen of the Wilis in the ballet Giselle, who pretty much tells the male lead, “Dance till you die, sucker.'”

Holmes follows her own lead now. Twenty minutes earlier, I almost had to drag her from the theatre. She was ready to stop and comment to the crew about the set they’re putting up or consult on how fine the sand should be under the actors’ feet.

Using her head as well as her body led Holmes to directing — her fellow students at NTS included Chris Abraham and Sarah Phillips — and to an early show in Toronto, Standing Female Nude, based on the correspondence between artists Oscar Kokoschka and Hermine Moos. At one point Kokoschka writes to Moos on long sheets of paper and she, reading the letter, wraps herself cocoon-like in it.

Holmes is best known locally for her work with talented playwright Morwyn Brebner on Music For Contortionist. The show, with its aura of Brechtian cabaret and with Shaw regular Nora McLellan as the bizarrely fascinating central figure, alerted audiences that Brebner and Holmes were two new artists to watch.

“The script’s first version had not only a contortionist but also a tightrope walker and trapeze artist,” recalls Holmes with a giggle. “The Tarragon’s Urjo Kareda loved it and said he’d produce it if Morwyn cut the tightrope and the trapeze. She did and he did.”

Holmes directs Brebner’s musical, Little Mercy’s First Murder, at the Tarragon next season.

But now she’s immersed in Dey’s vision of Gwendolyn MacEwen, the poet who published her first work at 17 in Canadian Forum and went on to win two Governor General’s Awards, one posthumously. It’s a six-actor play, quite different from Linda Griffiths’s one-woman show, Alien Creature, also about MacEwen.

Of course The Gwendolyn Poems has movement at its core. Holmes staged the first scene of the play four years ago, when she and Dey were at NTS together.

“My concerns are still with the link between mind and body, but there’s a difference in MacEwen’s case. As the mind becomes extraordinary, the body is ravaged by alcohol and other things. And you can’t stage the DTs without making them physical.

“Poetry is the verbal version of dancing. In each you have to find the most precise, parsimonious way of making a statement. There’s only one right word or image to capture what you want to communicate.”

Holmes sits thoughtfully for a minute.

“The verse is all Claudia’s, inspired by that of MacEwen. The play is her tribute to MacEwen, an elegy for the loss of a bard. Claudia doesn’t see MacEwen as a victim but rather as a poet who fought to articulate thought, and died because of it. She was an adventurer in the desert of her own mind.” jonkap@nowtoronto.comselectED RESUME


2002 The Gwendolyn Poems

2001 Little Mercy’s First Murder (workshop)

2000 Music For Contortionist

1998 Standing Female Nude

1997 Goat Show

1979-93 Principal dancer with San Francisco, Dutch National and Frankfurt Balletstheatre profile

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