Tonight at a performance of Bruce Barton’s YouTopia I was reminded of the difference between the mandate of University of Toronto’s “Drama Centre” (recently renamed “Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies”) and various theatre schools such as Ryerson or York, where actors learn their craft. No, this was no training ground for thespians; we were in a kind of laboratory exploring the possibilities of drama.
The work –or should I call it an installation?—is subtitled “A Vertical City Performance” and not, please note, a student show, as far as I could tell. As the program tells us
Vertical City is a professional Toronto-based interdisciplinary performance hub that has been operating since 2007, initially inspired by the desire to confront aerial movement with theatricality. Vertical City now focuses on a broad cross-section of intimate interdisciplinary intersections.
Yes, it looked like a laboratory.
YouTopia is many things:
- Sci-fi homage to the 1960s, complete with references to films & music
- A complex inter-disciplinary piece dense with meanings
- An enactment of a society out of balance. If we are on the verge of a precipice, how better to show that than to enact the physical reality of that precariousness in the air above our heads?
- The most meaningful use of aerial work I’ve ever seen. Vertical City supposedly seek to “confront aerial movement with theatricality” (or so it says above), but this goes one step beyond, inserting aerial movement as an essential expressive element.
It reminds me of opera. While singers tell stories with their singing, operas are usually written as a pretence for singing. There’s often a tension between singing for the sensuous pleasure of vocal beauty, and the drama being enacted (some works being more at one extreme than the other). Similarly in dance or ballet, we have works that use movement or dance for drama, balanced with dance that is an end in itself. And as with opera (at least), there is a back-forth between different discourses that build and release tension, one for action, one for passion. But instead of recitative and aria, we have cerebral (dense layers of speech plus some music) and physical (aerial movement) as the two chief discourses playing off one another.
While I was watching aerial movement –mostly Kiran Friesen—I couldn’t help thinking that the whole piece was a great excuse to get lost in watching the accomplished handling of bodies in the air, to marvel at clever compositions and configurations.
Entering the space, one is confronted with an astonishing construction filling the performance space. The set design is by Sherri Hay. I was reminded of two different Ring cycle designs and a current AGO show:
- Robert Lepage’s Machine, a representation of the protean world, but especially scary (to performers or traditionalists) in how it demoted the singers. As with Lepage, this machine is the real star. Much of the time Lepage’s set is like an installation, an ongoing meditation on the meaning of the operas in concrete form. So too, with Hay’s set, a kind of sculptural treatise on our material world.
Michael Levine’s Ring set is much more representational, but still at times a mixture of abstract & concrete, and often a big mess. At times it looks unsafe to walk on for the performers. That’s what I felt with Freisen and Adam Paolozza, bravely clambering around in this bizarro world.
- Ai Weiwei’s monumental piles of material came to mind. This is a very ambiguous set, that simultaneously seems infatuated with itself –a big technological aggregation—and ironic – as Murphy’s Law begins to rear its head, machines that break down.
Barton’s text is a funny mix, sometimes bleak & dystopian, but as often, invoking children’s stories & films.
YouTopia continues until September 22nd at the Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Ave.