BAcKBoNE choreography by Jera Wolfe, Thomas Fonua, Sandra Laronde and Ageer (Red Sky Performance/Canadian Stage). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to November 12. $39-$69. 416-3683110, canadianstage.com. See Dance listings, this page. Rating: NNN
For a work inspired by the geological backbone of the Americas (the mountain ranges that run from the Canadian Rockies down to the Peruvian Andes), Red Sky Performance’s Backbone is curiously missing a spine.
The dance explores ideas of our connection to the land and each other, a shared sentience and interdependent circuitry that is inherent to many Indigenous cultures.
The dramatic opening scenes set up great expectations: the nine-person ensemble sticks close to the floor, breathing in time to a persistent drumbeat, arching backs and articulating rib cages in tight unison.
Occasionally they whip their arms across torsos to loudly strike their shoulder blades. Here the unified movement is thrilling. But the effect diminishes as scene after scene rushes by without developing a discernible throughline.
This fragmentation may be a function of mixed choreographic inputs that have not been edited or assembled with an eye to coherence. Individually, there are many exciting dance moments to savour.
I loved the slow moving and sensual duet for contortionist Samantha Halas and Jera Wolfe. With circus-style solemnity, Wolfe supports and pushes Halas as she showcases the range of the human spine in a way that feels primordial. The details delight – balanced on her pelvis with legs stretched to the max to graze her ears, Halas wiggles her toes to demonstrate complete control.
An acrobatic sensibility pervades Backbone – in many sections the part- nering includes complicated lifts, the dancers using their knees and feet for leverage and to rotate each other. Sometimes we see glimpses of animal behaviour, action fragments that recall mammoths or bears.
Though much of the movement feels aimed at the ground, some sections utilize lofty jumps and barrel rolls. Ageer – who hails from Mongolia – is especially ferocious as he rails and leaps, staring down audience members in the intimate confines of the theatre.
But near the end, the 50-minute work seems to run out of ideas and steam, and the ensemble dances take on a showy, aerobic feel. Composer Rick Sacks’s recorded sounds augmented with live percussion and Andy Moro’s flowing low-key backdrop projections both add some interesting dimensions.
But for all the onstage dynamism, Backbone doesn’t fulfill the promise of the premise. KATHLEEN SMITH
Backbone’s unified movement is often thrilling.