Photo by: David Leyes
Recently, via email, I asked Christopher House, Artistic Director and Choreographer at Toronto Dance Theatre to provide some insight into the works he is bringing to Victoria, his process and from what sources he draws his inspiration to create.
Stephen White: In addition to Persephone's Lunch, Victoria will be treated to two of your earlier works entitled Island and Four Towers. What can you tell us about these two pieces and how do you see them fitting into your choreographic repertoire? (Were you interested in the investigation of certain ideas when you created these earlier works?)
Christopher House: Island was created in 1990. It was originally choreographed to reconstructed fragments of ancient Greek music, and the “ancient” feel of this music has very much influenced the style of the piece. Island has a very specific vocabulary, consciously evoking the early style of Martha Graham from her days with Denishawn. It evokes figures in a frieze or possibly on a shard of pottery. With the exception of the opening and closing solo by a male dancer, the women are the leaders in Island. They are Cassandra-like, communicating through a mysterious gestural language.
Structurally, Island is very tight. It uses intricate counterpoint to create complex spatial patterns, while marking the relentless beat of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood.
Four Towers was created three years later and is a very different piece. The lyrical themes by composer Robert Moran were originally created for an opera called The Towers of the Moon, based on the famous Japanese folktale called The Shining Princess.
The four musical sections range from gentle expansiveness to elegiac introspection to deep melancholy to triumphant joy. The choreography was created very specifically to this music, taking advantage of its emotional cues to create an abstract expressionist landscape.
Four Towers is a good example of my interest in the power of gesture to evoke a world of meaning.
SW: As a choreographer, you have been pretty prolific, a new full-length work almost every year in recent years. What drives you to create at this pace? And what is your process for creating - where do you start and what are the steps that take you to a complete work?
CH: My work is always motivated by curiosity and a desire to explore new ideas. Every new work is a chance for growth, for me and for the company. TDT is dedicated to the creation of new works that explore fresh ideas in choreographic expression, and my role is to fulfill this goal. I am always excited about creating a new work, as much as I know that it will be a challenging experience.
I begin a new work by asking myself lots of questions about the world today, how I feel about it, and how I can share these feelings in a meaningful way.
SW: How do you remain fresh artistically?
CH: I am always engaged in a process of learning, whether through travel, reading, meeting new people, taking workshops, exploring new physical techniques or exploring other art forms. Working with new collaborators is always exhilarating, whether with the rock group The Hidden Cameras or with a new set designer.
SW: Which artists (visual, musicians, writers and/or other choreographers) do you admire, or have been an influence on your work?
CH: Joseph Beuys, Genesis P-Orridge, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Igor Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Peter Greenaway, Jean Genet and Stephen Jay Gould.
SW: How much do you take into the studio when you are creating a new work and how much is built in collaboration with the dancers?
CH: The dancers play a major role in my process. We begin in silence, working in a playful way on movement ideas and images. This is very intuitive. I begin with a list of images, themes, ideas and problems that I expect to confront, but often I will abandon this list as something powerful begins to emerge in the rehearsal. I work with videotape and eventually assemble the work as one would assemble a film. The imaginative choices of the dancers make a gigantic difference in the direction I take any component of the piece.
SW: When you are auditioning dancers for the company - what qualities are you looking for?
CH: I look for interesting people who I would be happy spending the day with. I prefer dancers to have a sense of humour, confidence, imagination, musicality and strong professional skills. I look for dancers who I feel compelled to create for!
In purely technical terms, I look for strong, flexible and articulate bodies who are able to move with honesty and integrity. They need to be able to embody a real person, not just a “dancer”. My work requires lightness and speed as well as weight and sustained energy.
SW: Finally, how literal is Persephone's Lunch? Did you use the Odyssey as a spring board, or are there cues embedded in the work that help the spectator through the narrative?
CH: In a very loose way, the progression of Persephone’s Lunch follows the tale that Odysseus tells at the Phaecian court. It begins with a banquet. There are references to the Lotus Eaters (who supposedly lived on the present island of Djerba); the Cyclops and the escape underneath the sheep; the Sirens and the Whirlpool of Scylla and Charbydis; the nymph Calypso who kept Odysseus prisoner, Penelope pacing at home, and the sea maiden Ino who rescued him from the depths. The video segments evoke hero worship, the serendipity of the Odyssey’s journey, and the recipe for a drink that allows you to enter the Underworld!
I have taken considerable poetic license. Circe is represented as six women rather than one. I have also foregrounded certain parts of the Odyssey i.e. the fact that tears and crying play a major role, and the fact that Odysseus is often quite duplicitous and opportunistic in his responses. Many of the images of the Odyssey are filtered through the lens of current events. It is important to acknowledge that this piece was created in the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York.
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