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Dancers Deliver a Pedestrian Performance
Susan Walker

The note on the press release for Phalanx promises “No clowns, no stilts, no monkeys, no mimes.” In other words, this isn’t just street performance or busking; it’s theatre.

Like a procession of medieval penitents, the nine performers appear out of nowhere in a wedge formation to circle the Catholic church at the corner of Bathurst and Adelaide. Audience members follow and watch in silence, as if they were sitting in the seats.

The latest in a long line of Hillar Liitoja’s efforts to break down the conventions of theatre, this show makes drama of the symbiotic bond between performers and audience.

Phalanx is a piece of controlled anarchy: Precise and impossibly well-timed choreography up against the random elements of the urban environment. When the noise of traffic subsides, the dancers are accompanied by the sound of birds’ songs. At nightfall, streetlights illuminate them.

In front of the soaring church front, dancers form a moving frieze, like animated statuary. Passersby join the spectators at the sight of five women stripped to the waist on the church porch, like living vestal virgins. Forming a line in a crosswalk that stops traffic on Bathurst, the dancers, with their blank stares, go through their steps, oblivious to the honking of horns. 

The ancient Greeks invented the phalanx, a military formation to fend off armies with a concentrated body of armed soldiers. In this piece, nine dancers move as one, or as an 18-footed beast, generating an almost mystical force. Bursting apart in a park or parking lot, they seem propelled by the energy gathered in solidarity. One by one they are picked off, abducted by a mysterious man who arrives in a white van.

Phalanx makes active participants of its viewers. When one dancer is left behind, curled up on the sidewalk, half the audience moves on and half remain with her, as if by silent consent.

Overly long, and not always engaging as dance, Phalanx nevertheless is an important excavation of the fundamentals of theatre.

Toronto Star, June 25, 1999