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Peggy Baker Dance Projects

Silence/Light – 'Portal'

by Penelope Ford

6 March, 2008 -- Betty Oliphant Theatre, Toronto

There are many reasons that the choreographer might chose to create and perform a solo work; a returning to home, as one's own body is the natural beginning for a choreographer's experimentation; for the sake of clarity of one's ideas, since solo work requires neither translation onto another body, nor to take root in another's mind. And, lest it be said, as a measure to face the economic realities that often impinge on a choreographer's ability to create new dance works. It is, however, also true that once you have seen a truly great solo, you will never forget that dancer. For those acquainted, each will recall the euphoric sensation at seeing the performance that cemented the place of that dancer dancing that part in their heart forever, and the intimacy of the solo needs no further recommendation. Acclaimed modern dance artist Peggy Baker brings her long history of creating remarkable dances to light in her recent work ”Portal” , a solo that transcends the solo.

It has been observed that Baker has rarely been a soloist in the formal sense, nor does she actually consider ”Portal” to be a solo work; from her perspective it is a duet between her and the light, and upon witnessing the visionary lighting by Marc Parent, this metaphor for existence lingers with me. Despite the stark absence of collaboration, Baker, a proponent of live music and a frequent collaborator with some of Canada's finest musicians, did not approach the creation of this work with a mindset of anti-collaboration. What need would there be? When Baker is on stage, her dance is your captor. Baker has a clever methodology behind her choice of creating a solo dance in silence --to enliven the awareness of the audience to their own physicality, which has surprising effects.

The silence washes over the theatre with a heavy intimacy that belies the depth of the stage and regular rows of tiered audience seats, and senses tingle for the darkness makes them eager. The dance takes the form of the dancer, Baker, being momentarily lit, and then plunged into pitch darkness again. In the first instance a sharp beam opens up the stage; her face contorts with anxiety, turned skywards into the drenching chamois light. This body has dance written into its skin; a long history of expression inscribes every sinewy muscle. Aging has not dared encroach on her still dreamily elastic extension, but perhaps enhanced the drama running through her supple, kinetic hands and feet. If gravity left us, it seems those feet would remain firm to the floor. But such groundedness takes effect through oppositional lightness, fingers flying with a freedom of motion Baker commands. With no music to manipulate the emotions of the audience, her dance reproduces stories that grow from what her body merely suggests, and slowly my curiosity is drawn to the next illuminated epithet. Without cognition, my senses are wound around Baker's elusive movement. When she releases her breath, I realise I was holding mine. With her arms waving crazily like a colossal tree dashed by a storm, she tears through light, only to be swallowed by darkness. Tormented by the pitch darkness that stole her again and again, I hungered for the sallow shards of light to expose her bearing, while heeding the dying impressions still incandescent before my eyes.

The dialogue between Baker and the light becomes even more obscure as she gradually slips from the focus of illumination; at one point, there are moments of light all around, and though she is given to none of them, she is obvious to us, centred but seemingly displaced at once.

I heard it murmured in the theatre that perhaps Peggy Baker doesn't exist at all, and wondered whether the dance was ”just a dream”. The cloud of impressions formed by the afterglow in the conscious tip me into a just-waking state; hazy, dreamlike memories still haunt me as Baker is illuminated again. What is ”seen” in the dark is no less part of the dance that what is ”seen” in the light.

Baker, known for her acting prowess, is a skilled performer, and although her performance is emotive and honest, the dance does not degenerate into naked convulsions of the soul. Because she is a precise choreographer, I trust her, and follow her throughout the darkness, and near-madness. Yet in harmonious conclusion, Baker is remote, embraced by light, and ”Portal” reminds me that the great moments of transition in life are taken alone.

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