souls choreographed by holly small presented by Small and the Children's Dance Theatre at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West), December 6-8, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $16-$25. 416-973-4000.
here's the thing about choreo-grapher Holly Small. She cries. Mention the genesis of her four-years-in-the-making work, Souls, and she simply loses it."I can't separate this piece from being a child and learning about the Holocaust," she says of her epic-scaled but intimately detailed look at the after- effects of an undefined war in a timeless, nameless village.
"I always wondered why I was on Earth, why I was OK while there were starving kids in Biafra. Why was I so fortunate? Oh," she says, tears welling up in her pale eyes, "here I go!"
This isn't to suggest that the Ottawa-born Small is flaky. She's smart and articulate. She's a dance professor at York. But you get the sense that she cares -- too much. She's the queen of empathy.
"In rehearsal I try to diffuse my crying with a laugh or a joke," she confesses. "At times it feels like a handicap."
The results, however, speak for themselves.
At a recent rehearsal, Small leads six couples through an astonishing sequence titled The Darkening Sky, one of Souls' six sections.
The piece begins simply, with a men-going-to-war motif, but soon evolves into a look at loss and violence. One powerful image sees women nestling in the knees of their men. The climax shows a heap of bodies, with men walking away one by one as the expressive Karen Kaeja implores the sky for some answer to the atrocities.
The day after rehearsal, Small is eager to talk about the show. But she wants to avoid sounding stale. That explains the crying. She doesn't like putting her emotions -- or thoughts -- on hold. She has to be in the moment.
"In dance there are so many layers," she explains over a bowl of soup she barely touches. "Movement tells you what it wants to be. I love looking at, say, total strangers struggling to cross the street with their kid in a stroller. That's amazing. Look at all these people. Don't kill them. Feed them."
Her tears appear again.
An artist with a strong social conscience, Small is wary about people connecting her piece with the recent violence in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
"People are talking about the synchronicity, as if this piece is a shrewd business move on my part," she says.
"But come on, war and genocide are always with us somewhere in the world. Look at Kosovo. Why does no one care about Africa? Because there's no oil there and they use machetes instead of expensive munitions people can make money from."
Small's huge cast of dancers have found their own ways of dealing with the show's theme. Robert Glumbek, for instance, feels the work deals with displacement -- something he can relate to, having been displaced from Poland.
"Also, as dancers we're displaced a lot, going from one project to another."
The 45 dancers for the piece are drawn from several generations -- they range in age from 10 to 70 and include such notables as Glumbek, Carol Anderson, Ronald Taylor and Matjash Mrozewski. Scheduling is a nightmare. So is the budget. Although the work is heavily funded, Small's dipped into her savings to finance the piece -- "I haven't balanced my cheque book in ages," she sighs.
Souls marks the eighth piece Small has choreographed for the Canadian Children's Dance Theatre, a troupe she believes is underrated.
"I wish Toronto would realize how good these dancers are, and not be scared off by the word "children,'" she says. "People in general are afraid of the human body. They're also afraid of dance. And they think anything to do with children is stupid or juvenile.
"Everyone's saying what a great mentoring experience this show is, for the kids to work with experienced dancers. But the reverse is true, too."
Her dancers agree.
"These kids aren't just totally committed, but their brains work better," laughs dancer Rebecca Mendoza.
"They learn things quickly and remember. Holly comes into rehearsal and they're already working, while we so-called professionals are eating or talking about other things. It's good to be around that energy, that sugar energy."
"This is one of those shows that we'll be talking about for years," says Glumbek. ""Souls? Oh yeah, I was in that.'"