Review: Propeller Dance compelling; Capital Chamber Choir shines in Sing Ottawa en choeur

A scene from Propeller Dance's full-length production.

Who deserves to dance? This is the question Propeller Dance asks in Living the unDesireable Life, a new production created for the company’s 10th anniversary.

Co-founded by Renata Soutter and Shara Weaver, Propeller is an integrated contemporary dance company that employs professional performers of diverse abilities. Since its inception, Propeller has challenged traditional concepts of what dance can be, of what a dancer looks like and moves like. Its latest creation, which premiered Friday evening as part of Canada Scene, forces the audience to question uncomfortable prejudices and biases with grace, love, and unflinching honesty.

The show uses the dramatic device of the TV news segment to expose how people with physical, cognitive and social disabilities are undervalued and underestimated. A reporter (Nathalie Joanisse) condescendingly comments how nice it is that “these people” are “allowed” to dance, but keeps insisting she needs to interview a “real” dancer. She looks mournfully down at her crutches and sighs, “I used to dance too you know.” Over the next hour, the company proves to her that they are all, in fact, “real dancers”, and that she can still be one if she lets go of her fear.

Word is the production came together quickly, and the piece could use some disciplined editing. Some sections, like a prolonged fight scene between two dancers, lack clear shape or direction. Transitions were choppy, and the cute ending doesn’t fit the power of the preceding scene. Additional rehearsals will help iron out some final wrinkles, especially technical issues with the sound. We’ve become used to cleaner, tighter work from Propeller.

Still, it’s compelling, powerful material. There are striking images, such as the tender closing duet between Joanisse and and Elizabeth Winkelaar. There’s also lots of humour, including at Para-Transpo’s expense.

A particularly poignant moment occurs when one of the non-disabled dancers — the expressive Amelia Griffin — is made to feel ashamed that her strong, curvy body doesn’t fit the waif-thin Balanchine ideal. The glorification of arbitrary physical perfection in dance can come at a high cost: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, paralyzing insecurity. Integrated dance’s most revolutionary idea isn’t showing that people can do pirouettes with wheelchairs and tendus with canes. It’s that the love of dance is enough.

Sing Ottawa en choeur is a three-day choral celebration of Canada 150, featuring new and rediscovered compositions from Ottawa and beyond. On Friday, the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal performed music from New France and Quebec, under the direction of Andrew McAnerney.

Saturday evening at St. Joseph’s Church, the Capital Chamber Choir presented a collection of contemporary Canadian music, including Nicholas Piper’s exceptional The Delight of Paradise, which took up the entire second half.

Piper’s composition grows more seductive with each hearing, as the intricate details come into focus: the fractal-like development of the main three-note motif; the billowing, modal harmonies; the reference to medieval innovator de Machaut in the final movement.

In a very short time, the Capital Chamber Choir has established itself as Ottawa’s premiere small vocal ensemble. Jamie Loback has developed a sound serene and urgent, cerebral and spiritual, with immaculate tuning and laser-cut precision

Sing Ottawa en choeur continues Sunday with a panel discussion on working with kids’ choirs (1 p.m., Knox Presbyterian); a program of Canadian music with the Ottawa Regional Youth Choir and Ottawa Children’s Choir (St Joseph’s Church, 3 p.m.); and the grand finale featuring the massed voices of the Cantata Singers, Ewashko Singers, Capital Chamber Choir, local women’s choir Aella, and the Ottawa Choral Society, a professional orchestra, plenty of audience participation (St. Joseph’s, 7:30 p.m.). Visit for details.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.