The presentation of Electric Company Theatre’s Studies in Motion is superficially important as part of the reinvention of the Canadian Stage brand in Toronto. I’m grateful to CanStage for giving us another look at one of the important companies working in Canada.
I had this curious sensation in my stomach, as if I felt the centre of the country shifting to the west. Dissing Toronto is as Canadian as hockey and poutine, yet I’ve had little reason to regret being a Torontonian. While Ex Machina advertizes the brilliance of certain Quebecois, Lepage’s shows always seem to follow the money to Vegas, to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and to Toronto. Electric Company Theatre are simply better than what we’re seeing in Toronto, which is why i felt the earth move.
There are so many ways to understand Studies in Motion. It’s an eclectic mix of dance, spoken theatre, music, projections in elegantly simple mise-en-scène. We see a meditation right on the interface between science and art, on the nature of beauty, and the mysteries of time forever slipping away like a river. There’s nudity and a stunning combination of delightfully normal bodies reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheatre, who dared show us average people moving and dancing. The mix of disciplines isn’t quite like anyone else, no matter how many reminiscences they may call to mind.
When I see something really brilliant I wish I could somehow be involved in the magic.
And yet, while I enviously googled the “Electricians” (as they call themselves on their website), I stumbled across something to erase any jealousy, an unbearably painful loss at the heart of the company. The husband and wife team identified by the company as their Artistic director & Artistic Producer, namely Kim Collier and Jonathan Young lost their only daughter, one of three young family members lost in a cabin fire in 2009.
While I understand that there’s an earlier version of the play, I can’t help wondering whether the solidly grounded sensibility of this creation begins in the agony suffered in the summer of 2009 by Collier & Young. I came away with a sense of the sacredness of life in the moment, in their un-sentimental meditation on what it is to be a human animal.
I thought I was going to talk at length about the buttons Studies in Motion pushes for me, the influences I think I see. But in the end I wonder if any of that matters. For example, there’s an earlier piece from the 1980s with music by Philip Glass call The Photographer concerning the same subject, namely Eadweard Muybridge. Musical minimalism –which in Glass’s case means a lot of repeated patterns of eighth-notes—seems particularly well-suited to a visual subject consisting of endlessly repeated patterns of single frames that combine in a way analogous to what the music does. And some of the music in Studies in Motion could be called minimalistic. But after seeing Studies in Motion I don’t believe the Electricians were influenced by Glass’s work, if they were even aware of it, given that the music in Studies in Motion is perhaps its weakest link.
The work exhibits the tension-release pattern we see in opera (thinking of baroque opera with the recitatives and arias) or in musicals (where numbers are separated by patches of dialogue). At times Studies in Motion resembles these other multi-media theatrical forms, as the two (or more) types of discourse carry key functions in partnership, where the text would advance the story while the movement supplied what the words could not, articulating passions, emotions which could not be articulated in words.
When media are mixed I demand more than just eclecticism for its own sake. In some productions one encounters, the eclecticism can feel like mere eye candy; for example, that was my impression of the period dance in the Tarragon Theatre’s production of Sabina Berman’s Molière in 2008. I remember Peter Hinton once saying that the musical elements in a work must be inevitable and inescapable or at least seem that way: otherwise why bother. Sometimes it seems that music theatre or puppets or circus are just what we do, a pathway of procedures and a culture of shared assumptions without the kind of illumination Hinton demands. Electric Company seem to be truly eclectic, bringing all those separate pathways and subcultures together.
I was persuaded by the combinations Electric Company employed. In an exploration with such a strongly physical element –concerning movement and its analysis—the absence of choreography and a thoughtful vocabulary of movement would be unthinkable.
Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, the biases of someone much older than the creators of this work, but I found the balance a bit off for my taste. Whenever the bodies were moving without any speech or text, it was pure gold (ha… or maybe more of a sepia?). Studies in Motion concerns bodies moving in time, a subject that was fully comprehensible in what we saw, wonderfully choreographed by Crystal Pite; but movement is also foregrounded by the staging, lighting, by the rhythms of Studies in Motion. At times I felt the text explained a bit too much, as if we couldn’t be trusted to decode the profundities before our eyes. If, as I suggest above, the work is operatic in balancing words and movement, where the movement corresponds to the passionate arias and ensembles, Electric Company have included too much recitative, more exposition than necessary. While one needs some explanation, their words strip some of the mystery from the work; but then again I love opera, a medium where we’re accustomed to printed synopses spelling out impenetrable plots & philosophical overtones that are otherwise impossible to discern upon a first viewing. Electric Company made everything very clear, including multiple layers of meaning concerning life and death; I should be grateful.
Another problem is that words are much more finicky than mute bodies; when an actor says something like “let’s do this”, a colloquialism that sounds ridiculously current, it pulls me out of the illusion with its accidental anachronism. Music and movement, being more purely abstract are more forgiving.
Even so I am quibbling. There is much to admire in the work: beauty and depth that has me wanting to return for another taste. Studies in Motion continues at Canadian Stage until Dec 18th at the Bluma Appel Theatre.