DARK MATTERS by Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM/Canadian Stage). At the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). To March 3, Friday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $22-$99. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Puppets are taking over Toronto stages - from Ronnie Burkett's apocalypse survivors in Penny Plain to those noble steeds in the just-opened War Horse. Now choreographer Crystal Pite strings us along with Dark Matters, an intriguing dance/theatre hybrid that makes use of one sinister - or maybe just misunderstood - wooden marionette.
The show, part of Canadian Stage's season, is split into two parts. In the first half, a man (Peter Chu) creates a puppet, only to have the tiny creature take over his life. There are shades of Frankenstein and his monster here (maybe even Chucky from the Child's Play movies), but despite the occasional horror music riff in Owen Belton's soundscape, I don't think Pite's after mere thrills and chills.
Rather, she's getting at philosophical notions of fate and free will. Who's the puppet and who's the puppetmaster? Are we controlling our lives, or are we being controlled? That becomes clearer in the second part, which is full of the kind of vigorous dance that Pite and her Kidd Pivot troupe have become known for.
In the earlier section, the puppet is manipulated by several dancers clad entirely in black, bringing to mind Japanese Bunraku puppeteers but looking to contemporary Western eyes more like ninjas. In the second part, the dancers leap about in colourful clothes as in some retro Gap ad. Only one solitary ninja hovers on the edges, occasionally stepping in and manipulating a dancer, adjusting a light or sometimes joining the ensemble for an especially eerie effect.
The ninja appears invisible against the black wall of Jay Gower Taylor's set, suggesting an unseen force or mass: the dark matter of physics, perhaps, or a Jungian shadow. These things are open to interpretation. What's not, however, is the quality of the dance. Pite's performers execute their moves with total commitment, appearing at times to devy gravity or arc through the air in slo-mo.
Especially fascinating is how Belton's music is used. Repeated sounds of glass breaking or paper being crumpled seem to take on a physical dimension and affect the dancers.
And in a show that's full of cheeky wit and vivid imagery, it's hard to top the exciting finish to the first act, which - at least at the performance I saw - drew gasps from the audience.