Mortality’s Tales

mortality a collaborative dance theatre project by Carol Shields, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Stephen Dobyns,.

a collaborative dance theatre
project by Carol Shields, Tomson
Highway, Paul Quarrington and Stephen
Dobyns, directed by Ross Manson,
choreographed by Kate Alton, with Peggy
Baker, Martin Julien, Julia Aplin and
George Leach. Presented by Volcano in
association with the Theatre Centre (1087
Queen West). Previews from January 12,
opens January 16 and runs to February 3,
Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, Sunday 2:30 and
7 pm. $15-$26, matinee pwyc, previews
$10. 416-872-1212. Rating: NNNNN

it’s taken three years, but ross Manson and Kate Alton are finally becoming aware of their own and others’ Mortality.That’s the name of the new dance theatre piece they’ve collaborated on with some of the top talents in the country.

Consider some of the names: writers Carol Shields, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Andre Alexis dancers Peggy Baker, Julia Aplin and Sarah Chase musician John Gzowski.

It’s the Gosford Park of the theatre season.

“The arts community in Toronto is like a small community in the Maritimes,” says Manson, who’s conceived, arranged and directed the work, opening Wednesday (January 16) at the Theatre Centre. He’s also responsible for corralling the talent.

“Because there’s no money, everyone’s used to helping each other out.

“But instead of asking, “Do you have some wood? I’ll stack fer ya,’ it’s “Do you have lights? We’ll give them to you.’ Or it’s asking Peggy Baker, one of Canada’s greatest dancers, to work on an experimental piece in a little theatre and her saying “Sure.'”

Manson got the idea for the show three years ago after reading a poem by the American writer Stephen Dobyns. The poem used bullfighting as a metaphor for mortality.

Intrigued by the multidisciplinary possibilities of mortality yet realizing he’d never get funding for a work inspired by an American, Manson decided to commission four Canadian writers to write on the subject, pairing them with specific performers before they wrote.

Some performers left the project because of other commitments or injuries. Of the four writers, only Alexis’s piece isn’t in the final show. It didn’t fit in stylistically and structurally.

As it is, the works, written in the first person, form a natural progression.

Quarrington’s piece, performed by dancer Julia Aplin, looks at the death of childhood. Shields’s work, performed by Baker, examines mature death (inspired by the author’s experience with cancer). And Highway’s work, about the death of his brother, dancer Rene, and performed by actor George Leach, probes life after death.

There’s also a mysterious character played by actor Martin Julien who helps connect the sequences.

Sound complicated? Not to worry. It’s all part of Manson’s experimental process — not that he wants the word experimental to concern us.

“My modus operandi is to make the experiment invisible,” he says. “The experiment is for the creators, not the audience. There’s lots more for the audience.”

In fact, the audience forms a crucial part of the show. There’s no fourth wall.

As for the dance element, there’s the double challenge of creating movement for two actors not used to dance (Julien and Leach) while having dance artists Baker and Aplin work with text.

“In earlier versions, Ross had built these places into the script that were basically, “Insert dance here,'” says choreographer Kate Alton. “I work more intuitively. What we’re trying to achieve is a necessary and inevitable integration of movement and text.”

Alton and Manson have also learned a valuable lesson: don’t prevent dancers from doing what they do. Last year’s workshops tried to force the dancers not to move. A mistake.

“It’s impossible for dancers to not be physical,” says Alton. “Their physicality is actually a comment on the text. And being physical frees them up as actors.”glenns@now

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