ABATTOIR Choreography by Allen Kaeja and Karen Kaeja, presented by Kaeja d’Dance at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). From Tuesday to Saturday (March 25 to 29), 8 pm. $18-$30. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
"Abattoir" dredges up images of bloody smocks, animal carcasses and other grisly sights that’d give even carnivores nightmares.
Don’t be afraid. None of those images will be on display – at least literally – in Allen and Karen Kaeja’s multidisciplinary piece with the stomach-churning name.
“It’s a great title, don’t you think?” laughs actor Aaron Willis, on the phone a week before Abattoir’s world premiere in Vancouver. “You can practically hear the blood splashing. But it’s talked about in the work, not shown. One of the major images is the idea of metal and flesh together.”
The show, several years in the making, was inspired by Allen Kaeja’s childhood spent working with his father, who ran an abattoir. Willis, one of the city’s finest actors and directors (The Russian Play, The Gladstone Variations), plays the narrator, a younger-Kaeja-inspired figure.
“The piece has to do with the act of killing, and how you associate with the creature you’re killing or dissociate from it,” he says. “If it’s your job to kill, what kind of toll does that take on your psyche? How can you exist as a human being in the world afterwards?”
Although there’s text – written by Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jason Sherman – as well as music and singing, Abattoir is informed by movement. The Kaejas are better known as choreographers and dancers.
“The movement was there before the text and music, and it’s the basis for everything else,” says Susan Lee, a dancer who’s performed with Kaeja d’Dance for over a decade.
Lee explains that the performers – who include Karen Kaeja, Tanya Crowder, Robert Halley, Ryan Lee and Tim Spronk – morph from animals to humans to something else entirely.
“Sometimes we’re a spiritual presence, like angels,” she says.
“But these angels take on many forms. They can guide you but they can also be angels of destruction or angels who bring chaos to the world.”
“Think of the angel in the Jacob and Esau story,” points out Willis. “That’s an angel you wrestle with.”
With Abattoir, Willis and Lee get the opportunity to see how their counterparts in the other performing arts put a work together.
“It’s been invigorating, seeing how dancers build a piece with blocks of choreography,” says Willis. “I’ve done some movement work with Theatre Gargantua, but nothing on this scale. I’m often dancing in unison with the dancers, I’m not standing on the side talking.”
Lee points out that dance and poetry can have a similar effect on an audience.
“They’re both abstract,” she says. “Both words and movement pique memories and emotions.”
“This is a genuine collaboration,” says Willis. “I think without the movement the narration is much less rich, and vice versa. The movement supports everything I’m saying. It illuminates it.”