Review: Who we are in the dark? Perplexed

Kate Holden and Sahara Morimoto in who we are in the dark. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh Photography

I always have high hopes when I go see a dance performance that features live music. Whether it’s a classical ballet with full orchestra or a contemporary work featuring a small ensemble, live music can add layers of spontaneity and intimacy to the choreography. In the best examples, the visual and the auditory elevate each other. Unfortunately, in who we are in the dark, a new work by Canadian choreographer Peggy Baker supported by NAC Dance, dance and music are both so flawed that they serve as anchors around each others’ necks.

It’s been some time since I’ve been to a show so irredeemable that it made me want to ditch professional duty, stand up, boo, and leave. I can add who we are in the dark to that short but regrettable list.

The choreography is weak and repetitive: over and over the eight dancers run about in vague spirals, arms flailing, then link up into chaotic little knots or snaky conga lines before all falling to the ground. Most of the work is visually low, when it’s not actually on the floor.

Clearly, Baker wants us to feel… something? Devastation? Loneliness? Whatever her intent, it doesn’t hit home. Not having a narrative is one thing, but Baker’s images are too rudimentary, slapdash and emotionally hollow to stand on their own. Nothing has shape, focus, clarity or energy: not the ensemble spirals or circles, not the duets or solos, even the costumes — black tunics and wide pants — lack any kind of presence.

Perhaps because the dance language itself is so mumbly, Baker feels the need to augment it by having the dancers vocalize throughout (Fides Krucker is listed in the program as the ‘vocalographer’). Panting turns into guttural grunts, shrieks, moans, bizarre humpback whale sounds. It came across like one of those excruciating high school drama class exercises — “now try to really connect your voice to your body, just let it all out” — and triggered giggling and snickering in the audience. One felt embarrassed for the poor dancers.

The set is hung with tall, painted canvas banners that look vaguely East Asian. But since the dancers don’t engage with the verticality of the space until almost the last few minutes, for most of the hour-long work, the drops just add clutter and noise.  In what has become a contemporary dance cliché, video projections of faces and geometric shapes flash at speed on a backdrop screen. A lit platform for the musicians dominates one side of the stage.

A lot of hype for this work was built around the participation of two members of Arcade Fire, violinist Sarah Neufeld and drummer Jeremy Gara (a 2015 collaboration between Neufeld and Baker is cited as who we are in the dark’s genesis.)

Neufeld and Gara certainly know how to perform, but scratch beneath the surface of the intense posing and there’s very little musical substance.

Neufeld gives us an hour of aimless, lazy noodling, deploying all the snake-oil tricks violinists use when they want to impress an audience without expending much technical effort: endless repeating loops of bariolage, double stopped shredding and fast arpeggios on open strings. Intonation was clearly an afterthought.

Gara was more rigorous, but save for one more liberated solo, he returned again and again to a narrow set patterns and effects, playing almost exclusively with appeared to be timpani mallets (I’m sure percussion experts will correct me). Whether he was constrained by directives or his own choices wasn’t clear.

The piece had its premiere in Toronto in February, and opened at the NAC Friday night. The audience reception in Ottawa was noticeably lukewarm, barring perhaps a few hardcore Arcade Fire fans. For a work that makes a show of going through all the motions of connection and intimacy, who we are in the dark achieves neither.

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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.