The Globe and Mail

DANCING EXPLOSIVELY INTO THE LIGHT

Written by Martha Schabas, Feb. 25, 2019

Title: who we are in the dark
Choreographed by: Peggy Baker
Composed by: Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara

A whisper is a low, soft sound made by the wind, by people, by thoughts that weigh on our conscience. It can symbolize intimacy, secrecy, subversion and fear. Choreographer Peggy Baker uses whispers both literally and metaphorically in her new work, who we are in the dark, which received its world premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto on Thursday night. The dancers mutter softly to themselves, to each other, to the rafters, while themes of veiled meaning, mystery and the unknown are subtly evinced.

Sound is central to this 65-minute work, which will continue on a six-city tour across Canada, and might be best described as a sonic-visual collage. Most crucially, it’s a collaboration between Baker and composer/violinist Sarah Neufeld, best known as a long-time member of the band Arcade Fire. The project had its genesis at Toronto’s Fall for Dance North in 2015, when the two artists, a generation apart in age, were paired together for an original commission they titled fractured black. Baker came out of retirement to perform the duet with Neufeld and, while the piece felt a little under-conceptualized, the latter’s muscular, fervent violin-playing seemed as physical and choreographed as Baker’s dancing.

In who we are in the dark, the collaboration is recast with seven dancers and two musicians. Neufeld is the centrepiece here; her minimalist compositions are textured, repetitive and rich, full of contemporary- sounding arpeggios with hints of atmospheric melody. Standing on a raised platform stage right, she’s accompanied by fellow composer Jeremy Gara,whose percussion adds volume, intensity and, in moments, some ambient grit.

The new work is also a continuation of Baker’s partnership with Fides Krucker, an artist credited for “vocalography” in the program – a term you won’t be able to Google, but that evocatively suggests the geography of a voice unmoored in space. Krucker is something of a vocal sorcerer; her unusual exploration of human-made noise has infused several of Baker’s pieces over the past five years. Here, she has the dancers emote on instinct, making noises that can seem either creaturely or preternatural. Synthesized with a body emotion, the effect feels primal.

Baker has said that she’s a point in her career in which collaboration has become a guiding principle and who we are in the dark feels structured accordingly. The work is divided into several chapters that seem organized by the music and visual effects, rather than any arc in the choreography. The piece is more episodic than sequential, which deprives us of a sense of cohesion, but does bring to mind the disconnected feeling of a night’s worth of dreams. The visuals are compelling, ranging from the late John Heward’s abstract paintings on fabric, which descend from above, and black-and-white projections that suggest static and electrical force fields. When Baker employs the whole ensemble in these sections, she is able to evoke chimeras of darkness and night. The choreography is always simple and unmannered, as though consciously eschewing drama and inflection. The dancers weave seamlessly around each other’s bodies, conjuring the flow of nighttime and, perhaps, the inscrutability of our unconscious thoughts.
The most interesting dancing comes from the sequences that suggest love and sexuality. A duet between David Norsworthy and Jarrett Siddall, performed in a rectangle of white light, has the intimacy of a conversation in bed. The men rest their hands on the back of the other’s neck, pulling their lover closer, delicately breaking apart. Their bodies are soft and reactive, waiting for their partner’s feedback. Two more couples walk onstage and dance their own private dramas beside them, so the effect has a surreptitious beauty, like peering into the windows of an apartment building at night.

In another arresting moment, Neufeld leaves the platform to perform in a cone of yellow light downstage. Her body appears to breathe with her violin and the dancers transform into mere shadows behind her. It creates what feels like an astonishing optical illusion: The music becomes more visible than the movement.