THE BETRAYAL PROJECT choreographed by Julia Sasso, with Michael Trent, Ray Hogg, Darryl Tracy, Molly Johnson and Neil Sochasky. Opens Tuesday (January 31) and runs to February 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm. $21-$38, stu/srs discounts. Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). 416-973-4000.
Julia Sasso knows what she wants. Sitting dead centre in the audience section of the dance studio, she's rehearsing her latest full-length work, The Betrayal Project. If she doesn't like something, she won't hold back.
"No, I want you to cut through the linked arms," she says to dancer Darryl Tracy during one complicated move.
"Close," she says, when he repeats the movement with a bit more vigour.
Chalk up the directness to Sasso's no-nonsense American roots. Forget that Canadian-style "Well, maybe if you tried this..." approach. Sasso grew up outside Detroit, the only girl among three brothers. She knows how to make herself heard.
And she's equally direct with the compliments.
"That looks fantastic," she says as dancer Ray Hogg cups Molly Johnson's breasts through a plexiglass screen. "Just fantastic."
There's a lot riding on The Betrayal Project. Sasso, a star performer for 16 years with Dancemakers, debuted her first full-length choreography, Beauty, in 2003. The work, an energetic yet lyrical look at the various stages of life, announced the arrival of a potentially major player. The Betrayal Project could either solidify that rep or make it seem like a fluke.
"Beauty taught me that I was capable of going a lot further than I expected," she says after the rehearsal, in wool cap and chunky glasses, her intense concentration now focused on me.
"I learned that there is always more potential. As soon as you feel you've arrived, when you say, 'I am the best choreographer,' that's when you stop being the best choreographer. There's always room to go further and deeper."
She chose the theme of betrayal for the new piece because it felt like fertile ground, and it also provided a contrast to the more upbeat or affirming themes in Beauty.
"Betrayal is all around us," she says, an American accent still evident after living here for decades.
"Life is a betrayal from the moment you're born - you're going to be betrayed by your body, you're going to die. But there's also betrayal as something positive: breaking away, being liberated from the status quo."
Speaking of betrayal, Sasso makes me promise not to reveal the work's big secret concerning a prop that the dancers use. I agree not to betray her. How could I? And face her wrath?
Sasso knows she's going to raise a lot of eyebrows because of the piece's exploration of sexuality, which includes violence, masturbation and very theatrical hard-ons. For inspiration, she made a collage consisting of sex ads, some cut from the back of this paper.
"Something about those ads suggested betrayal to me," she explains. "Often, the eyes or mouths or genitals were blacked out, dehumanizing the people. Their real names were taken away. That's why we use a long wall in the piece. For me, betrayal is about walls, layers, things that are hidden or partially seen and not quite understood."
Sasso admits she's interested in just how graphic or explicit you can be in a live theatrical setting without faking things or hurting people. The stakes are raised by the fact that there's one female dancer to four men.
"It's not a feminist diatribe about women being betrayed by the patriarchy," she says. "Everybody gets betrayed. I just find it interesting to have a less balanced mix. We don't often get to see so many men dancing together, and as a female choreographer, I like seeing how my movement looks coming from a male interpreter."
Not all the dancers who began work on the show in its three previous workshops were comfortable. Why?
"They and I didn't feel they could go to the place where I wanted them to go," she says simply. "Listen, I would never exploit artists to sell tickets." Pause. "We're not putting on a sex show."
As for the new government, she lets out a great big nervous laugh.
"My concern with a Conservative government wouldn't be about getting jailed for a piece like this, but about funding for the arts."