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Acclaimed dancer/choreographer Christopher House visits SCPA

Toronto Dance Theatre's artistic director came to perform and guest teach a block week course


Photo by Alejandro Santiago

By Aurélie Maerten

Christopher House is an award-winning choreographer, performer, director and teacher. He has been the Artistic Director of Toronto Dance Theatre, one of Canada’s leading contemporary dance companies, for more than two decades.

This month House visited the School of Creative and Performing Arts, to guest teach a block week course and perform his solo adaptation of Deborah Hay’s I’ll Crane For You.

Teaching

House guest taught a block week course on Performance Generating Systems to dance, drama and music students, together with Music PhD candidate Valentina Bertolani, and led by Assistant Professor Pil Hansen.

“Performance Generating Systems are semi-closed forms of instant composition in dance and theatre, that are limited by the performers’ responses to pre-identified tasks, rules and sources (such as short stories, lyrics, movement phrases, or specific memories),” explains Hansen. “

These systems are different from structured improvisation, in that the latter is open to more sources and associations and less restricted to specific tasks and rules.  In generating systems dancers can for example be tasked to never stop moving, avoid planning, and also not repeat the same movement twice over 75 minutes.

“In such a simple system, they must consciously recall and prevent movement of the recent past, while moving in novel ways in the present, and remaining aware of any trained movement habits that emerge in order to make a different choice,” says Hansen. “When performing in these systems artists are engaged in both physically active and intellectually conscious processes at the same time.”

Students enrolled in the course researched how performance generating systems affect the performer, by analyzing case studies, but also by immersing themselves in workshops, and experiencing performance generating systems firsthand.

Research

“Performance generating systems train performers to attend and perceive differently, to process very large amounts of sensory stimuli, to inhibit automated responses, and to solve problems – all at the same time,” says Hansen. “From a psychological perspective such training is likely to enhance the dancers’ cognitive capacity. In this research we were testing whether or not students’ cognitive and learning capacity is enhanced through their participation in the block week course. “

Performance

House also presented his adaptation of Deborah Hay’s solo I’ll Crane For You.

Hay is known as an experimental, postmodern choreographer, who emphasizes unique creative processes in performance.  It’s a radically different approach than most traditional choreography, where dancers are executing specific movements or dynamics that can be repeated over successive shows. Instead, in I’ll Crane For You, Hay’s choreography relies on a score, a list of tasks and questions, which is interpreted by House and allows him to respond in the moment. This means that every performance is a different response to the same challenge.

“As a spectator, I am drawn in by House’s physical and mental concentration on stage; by the traces of decades of dance practice that form his body; by the many questions, proposals, and choices that he engages with in front of us; and by the humility and confidence with which he meets the impossible complexity of Hay’s tasks,” says Hansen.

“Systems like Hay’s are so demanding of the performer that they produce an incredibly powerful expression of physical and mental concentration, which few of us will have an opportunity to achieve in life. At first the movement seems arbitrary, difficult to take in, but soon House’s gentle invitation and vulnerability takes us on the inside of his tasks, his questions.”

House’s last adaptation of one of Hay’s solo scores was nominated for a Dora award, and his adaptation of I’ll Crane For You ended up on the Globe and Mail’s “Top 5 Dance Events of 2015”.

I’ll Crane For You was performed Jan. 9 and 10 in the F.R. Matthews Theatre.