October 2008

The Sun Ra Arkestra + Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie
at the third annual X Avant Festival of New Music
October 21, 2008 Palais Royale Toronto
Hymn to the Universe – Out There in Space
by Tom Sekowski with photos by Damian Jankowicz
With no preconceived notions whatsoever, I walked into the grand locale that was Palais Royale on that gravely chilly autumn night. What was waiting behind the doors was a ball of mystery wrapped up in two disciplines. In the musical category, we had Sun Ra Arkestra, while taking up the dance discipline; we had Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. Under the sturdy direction of Marshall Allen, the Arkestra hasn’t withered a fraction since last time I saw them in town, more than two years back. Represented by thirteen sturdy players, they played music like there was no tomorrow. These were the sounds of the universe in a spooky hall, filled to the brim with smoke, lights and modern-day gadgetry.

Immediately, we were reminded why Palais Royale was chosen to host this multi-dimensional gathering. Its luxurious floor-space is second to none and the inclusion of a stage meant the band could fit comfortably within its confines. Moreover, the floor was just large enough to fit the nine dancers of the dance company that wowed all present that evening. With the slim, longhaired Carol Prieur acting like a total lush who couldn’t get hold of her cognitive powers, the “Hymn to the Universe” started with a bang. While Prieur was accosting various audience members and dancing up a drunken storm, the Arkestra played a be-bopping number of the most tipsy proportions. Her steps were quick, yet unsteady as she danced in perfect rhythm to Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” blasted joyfully by the Arkestra.

The show was broken up into three sections. The first section “Seeing” featured mostly a jovial mood. With five chapters and titles such as “The Advent of Life”, “We Came Silently into This World”, “The Threshold of Reflection”, “Searching and Invention and The Within of Things”, the dancers were keen on getting a reaction that was purely positive from the audience. There were moments of pure joy as Peter Chin, Robin Poitras and Won Myeon Won pretended to be pregnant men, swaggering heavily across the stage, a few times clumsily grabbing food from the neighbouring tables, as if to reinforce the blatant faction in their humour. During the second section, entitled “Omniverse”, “Hominization” featured a great rendition of “Body and Soul”. Featuring percussionist Art Jenkins on vocals, the dancers’ movements reflected the song’s moving purpose to its very core.

The most difficult of all sections to grasp was the finale. Entitled “Attunement”, its over-riding characteristic was a slew of the most complex routines the dancers would perform that night. “Noogenesis” saw Bill Coleman cavort with a skeleton. As if to show human reliance on technology and science to make eternal improvements to our bodies, he tap-danced across the stage like some sort of a mummy that merely moments ago he was so tenderly caressing. The choreography (all put together by Bill Coleman in collaboration with the dancers of the troupe) was flawless. The bodies writhed in pain. They were ancient and they were renewed. Each one danced in quick succession alone or with a variety of partners. “The Deployment of the Noosphere” featured Carol Prieur and Bill Coleman standing hypnotized being dressed and undressed by various members of the troupe, while a couple of them were throwing flower petals generously all over their bodies. The show’s closer was the most jubilant piece of the night. In fact, in the spirit of Arkestra’s audience involvement, “World in Involution” was dance along that involved many of the audience who wanted to join in the fun. Cavorting wildly around the stage, audience, dancers and many members of the Arkestra trotted around playing, dancing and singing without a care in the world. “We Travel The Spaceways” was heard being repeated ad infinatum, while wide-grinned smiles didn’t leave anyone present for a minute.
The Arkestra’s many highlights included Fred Adams and his wild trumpet calls, Marshall Allen’s cacophonous alto work, Dave Davis and his affectionate trombone slides and Farid Barron’s highly intuitive piano work. Add to this a tight rhythm section — percussionists Art Jenkins, Elson Nascimento, and bassist Arthur Edward Booth — and Danny Ray Thompson’s affectionate flute work, and you’ve got a rallying call. They played with an oomph, stride and love of music that I’ve rarely heard before. Equally as great were the dancers. Each one threw themselves into the work. Their bodies were flexible, their steps beat with the music and when they improvised, they did so with the keenest attention to the smallest details. Even the most difficult and challenging passages were full of grace and total human understanding.

To call this performance an event would be a blatant lie. This wasn’t simply an event or a happening or a kick off to another successful X-Avant Festival. What we witnessed that night was a true collaboration that worked in droves. Forget about the fact that the Arkestra rehearsed this piece with Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie for a few days prior to the show. What matters is that all artists pulled off a stunt that rarely works this well. Across disciplines, they were able to affect the human soul and cement the audience’s appreciation and love for the music and choreography that were such sheer delight. “Hymn to the Universe” was a complex homage to the space above and beyond our sheer imaginations.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Tom Sekowski
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