Huge preamble coming. If you want to skip to the review itself, look under the photo.
I went to see AF and am daring to review it. I feel I need to say this after having read Yvette Nolan’s piece, responding to Yolanda Bonnell’s injunction.
Did you hear it? Bonnell made a demand that I can’t dispute, that her play bug (on at Theatre Passe Muraille) not be reviewed by white reviewers, but only by reviewers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour.
And so while I might have thought I could review it fairly I chose to skip it, wanting to respect her wishes.
I came to the opening of AF, a new show created by Red Sky Performance in partnership with Canadian Stage, treading carefully. I could point anyone seeking to take me to task to my critical statement of principles that I put out almost a decade ago, with the title “Steal this thought(?)”, where I think I make it clear I would never be the kind of critic that Nolan speaks of in her piece. I have the highest respect for her work, although I try to be respectful of everyone.
Criticism and dramaturgy are really the same thing in my opinion. I embrace Eugenio Barba’s definition from one of his books that I read back in my days at the U of T’s Drama Centre. He called it “the workings of drama in context”. Isn’t it awesome to have such a clean and concise definition? Any criticism that is helpful and not merely self-serving or destructive must come from the same place as dramaturgy, looking at two things really:
- Context (and all that this entails: a huge topic)
- How does it work (an even bigger cluster of topics, including the mechanics of the discipline, the choices of the performers and its reception: which connects to #1 of course)
I may dare to speak to how an opera works because I’m fairly confident about the medium, having performed it, coached it, written a couple and studied a whole bunch as well. Even so that doesn’t mean I understand the context, nor that I’d really grasp an original work trying something new. Coming to a piece such as AF which straddles boundaries, I’m mindful of Bonnell’s admonitions, wanting to be careful.
But I’m always careful. I can now say what I really felt about Hansel & Gretel, (now that my words won’t hurt the attendance), that I only hinted at in my 2 reviews + an interview. The dramaturg is supposed to have the director’s back, but clearly let Joel Ivany down, in not observing that his adaptation was getting a bit too loose, was full of inconsistencies (for example if you’re so poor that you’re starving why would there be a pile of Christmas presents? Why not, instead use –for example—tinsel or cheapo ornaments from a dollar store, that might signify wow to a child yet signify poverty to an adult…And then there’s the illogical search for strawberries in an apartment building, which could have been mitigated somewhat by better surtitles). The critic must be careful because they can be destructive, whereas the dramaturg is in the creative realm and therefore can try to fix what’s not quite right.
I may not understand AF, a daring piece of theatre, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen in 2020 so far. [inserting a morning after correction] I had been under the impression that AF comes from Orwell’s Animal Farm but that’s incorrect I’ve been told, AF means Anishinaabe Fire.
The five dancers (and that’s how they are identified in the program even though I’d be just as comfortable calling them “actors” or “performers”) are Eddie Elliott, Miyeko Ferguson, Thomas Fonua, Marrin Kessome, Michael Rourke and Sela Vai (we had five dancers perform tonight, presumably one person is an alternate). This was my second consecutive opening night, inviting all sorts of comparisons in my head. AF sits on the boundary between theatre and dance, the performers employing movement sometimes to signify & represent someone or something, at other times doing dance as dance. The movement vocabulary may be drawing upon something Indigenous, which is something beyond my knowing. I was reminded of all sorts of media, including the expressive hand-gestures you see from the Bolshoi, or the jagged physical movements we saw in Revisor, choreographed by Crystal Pite (whose new work opens at the National Ballet in a few short days… I hope she comes to see this). Director Sandra Laronde & choreographer Thomas Fonua accomplish something bold & new to my eye, encompassing theatre & dance but also ritual. At times the moves remind you of break dancing, but at other moments we’re watching humans moving a bit like animals; or is that just my weak attempt to connect the Orwell story? (AND, please note my assumption about the title was wrong, as noted above)
You will see athleticism to make you want to burst out in applause in the middle, but this nerdy theatre audience stayed quiet & focused until they erupted at the end. There are periods of tension brought about by the extreme physicality, people leaping and gesturing and using immense amounts of energy, followed by calmer reflective moments. The “dancers” are for me on the boundary because they’re more than dancers. At times the athleticism feels like circus performance for its power, its energy, its sculpture of bodies on the stage. This is stunningly beautiful, jaw-dropping work from all five.
There’s a live musical score performed by Rick Sacks & Joyce To, with vocals from Jennifer Brousseau as well as To. We’re told that Eliot Britton & Rick Sacks are the composers. In addition there are recorded performances further enriching the mix. Sometimes it feels Indigenous, especially during the vocals, sometimes it feels more like a highly rhythmic composition that straddles ethnicities & cultures. Whoever is responsible, I’m reminded of Christos Hatzis’ Juno award winning score for Going Home Star, a composition for Royal Winnipeg Ballet encompassing Indigeneity & European music in its story-telling. I hope they record it, as the music & sounds are already a wonderful achievement.
Answering the “why write” question is intimately connected to the “why see it” question, at a time when reconciliation has never seemed so pertinent, so urgent. The conversation with Canada’s Indigenous community must continue. We (speaking as a descendant of immigrants) have much to learn. And there is no society, no community without conversation: meaning especially the listening part.
AF continues at the Berkeley St Theatre until March 1st.
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