Martin Morrow

Toronto’s longtime avant-garde outfit, DNA Theatre, has finally come to Calgary and the High Performance Rodeo, ironically as a late replacement for farmed U.S performance artist Rachel Rosenthal (who had to cancel her appearance due to illness). I say ironically because DNA’s first major success, This is What Happens in Orangeville, emerged as the surprise hit of Montreal’s Festival de Théâtre des Amériques back in 1987, the same year that Rosenthal was one of the big names on the festival playbill.

DNA’s Remnants, a subdued solo show running under a half-hour, won’t be the surprise hit of this year’s Rodeo, but it’s welcome all the same. Part dance, part installation, the piece (and Remnants particularly deserves the word “piece”) comes across as a tantalizing tidbit, a small shard from some imagined larger work, a disembodied scene that asks us to make up a story to surround it. It made me think of the surviving poetry of Sappho—tiny, exquisite fragments—particularly in its dance component, which has dancer Angela Philip performing a series of small, isolated movements with captivating languor. The approach recalls Robert Wilson—small gestures writ large—but DNA director Hillar Liitoja (who once staged a Wilson-like, eight-hour deconstruction of Hamlet) doesn’t allow Remnants to become another one of those theatrical trials of endurance. Thanks partly to its brevity, partly to its suggestive imagery, it remains engrossing right up to that disappointing moment when Liitoja taps you on the shoulder and asks you to leave.

Ah, yes. DNA places specific requirements on its audience. To begin with, Remnants isn’t being presented at any of the Rodeo’s regular venues, but at a “secret” downtown location to which you are shepherded by One Yellow Rabbit’s staff (shades of the original Rodeo!). There, Liitoja has audience members entering the performance space in small groups and allowing them to move freely about the installation, but with the understanding that you have to leave when you’re told to go. It sounds a little silly, but it sets a suitable tone of mystery with which to approach the show.

The installation itself (designed by Liitoja and Steve Lucas) consists of the pensive Philip, clad only in a camisole, dancing upon a long wooden table in what looks to be the ruins of a kitchen or dining-room. The floor around her is littered with shattered pieces of crockery, like the aftermath of a Greek wedding or some hellish domestic dispute. The whole scene is contained within a wire cage, illuminated by candles, naked light bulbs and the blue flames of propane torches, and Philip does her slow, minimal dance to scraps of sound—Mozart, splashing waves—and sudden, startling explosions and flare-ups amid the rubble, which suggest the scene could also be a war.

Who is Philip’s character? Is her dance one of mourning, or of liberation (at the climax she transforms into a bird or angel—a Winged Victory?—and sets the table rocking with her feet). The overall effect is both ruminative and unsettling, but what you make of it beyond that is your own business. Theatre is always an exercise of the audience’s imaginative and DNA simply asks you to take that further and paint your own picture around its provocative vision. Is that asking too much? In this age of spoon-fed entertainment, I don’t think so.

Calgary Herald, January 12, 2000