Dancing Americas Conjures Up Spirits

By Susan Walker

Toronto Star Dance Review, Sunday, March 30, 2003

Matthew Pheasant's grass dance at the opening of Red Sky's Dancing Americas was a reminder of how much rarer it is to see North American indigenous dance on a Toronto stage than, say, a 1,000-year-old dance from Southern India or Korea.

Red Sky's artistic director Sandra Laronde is out to change that. Dancing Americas, which had its final performance last night at du Maurier Theatre Centre is a Canadian-Mexican production forged in a new idiom to express the pre-contact cultures of both countries.

Laronde, choreographer Peter Chin and Mexican composer Antonio Zepeda collaborated with five dancers – Toronto's Mark Johnson and Yvonne Ng and Mexico's Carlos Rivera, Andrea Zavala and Marina Acevedo – to create a dance communicating a sense of shared spiritual belief.

A shrouded figure lay on the floor at the opening of Dancing Americas, as Rivera summoned the audience with a low howl and outstretched arms. What followed might have been the celebration of life, or a retelling of a legend in dance and music. The dance had no specific narrative elements, yet a narrative was implied in Chin's highly gestural language and adoption of native rhythms.

Pointing little fingers into the air, drawing lines from the sky through the body to the earth, the dancers appeared to be channeling some life-giving current. The heavy intake and exhalation of breath was another motif suggesting the invocation of invisible forces. The women danced in a circle, establishing a percussive foot-stomping pattern that kept recurring like a chorus.

On a balcony above the stage, Zepeda played ancient instruments – skin drums, clay pots, conch shells and a clay flute shaped like a bird that were augmented with recorded music to make the sound of many musicians. The dancers moved in formation backward and forward, then broke into duets and solos, Laronde taking the role of a kind shaman. The movements sometimes suggested the hunt; sometimes the animals hunted. Their cries seemed to invoke the spirits of the past and, from time to time, one dancer or another would appear to enter a trance or become possessed. Johnson, a powerful stage presence, took on a priest-like demeanor. Ng was like a darting trickster.

Pounding the ground with their fingers, or making tongue-lolling or chattering gestures at each other, the dancers sometimes appeared to be imitating native masked dances, but Dancing Americas is not an exercise in ersatz native culture. Inspired by the Monarch butterflies Laronde saw in a Mexican sanctuary, the dance makes an original statement about the continuity of continental cultures that speak to each other and to us, across the centuries.

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