Review: Wonderland & Heaven

During a two-night stretch Regina played host to two performances that pretty much spanned the gamut of dance. March 17, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented Wonderland at Conexus Arts Centre. Choreographed by Saskatchewan ex-pat Shawn Hounsell, it was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland.

March 18, New Dance Horizons presented Heaven at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. Choreographed by Toronto-based Sasha Ivanochko, it was a frankly sexual work inspired, she revealed in an early March phone interview, by her desire to explore “the dynamics of a threesome.”

The RWB production was truly lavish, with numerous video-projections and other multi-media effects, dozens of exotically costumed dancers in lead and support roles and a percussive score punctuated by a beautiful Strauss interlude. Heaven, meanwhile, was danced without musical accompaniment, and with Ivanochko and her male dancers (Brodie Stevenson and Brendan Wyatt) entirely nude.

It doesn’t get more spectacular (in the first instance) or minimalist (in the second) than that. And to be perfectly honest, I enjoyed Heaven more than Wonderland. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate the effort Hounsell and his crew of composers, videographers, costume and set designers made to inventively reinterpret Carroll’s surreal tale. Sometimes, though, I found the elaborate staging distracting. But there very definitely were some exquisite “chapters” in the condensed narrative. Most in the second act, while in the first act Wonderland too often flirted with bedroom farce with Alice (Jacelyn Lobay) and the other dancers rushing madly about with little consequence.

At 65 minutes, Heaven was half as long as Wonderland. There was an overflow crowd at the MacKenzie, and I sat off to the side. Several times during the performance dancers left the floor and passed within meters of me. In my 20 years as an art critic, I can count on less than two hands the number of times I’ve encountered nudity during a dance or experimental art performance. But I have encountered it. So it was no big deal — except, the theme here was overtly sexual. Most times when artists use nudity in their work they’re interested in stripping away artifice and exposing harmful attitudes in our culture toward the human body.

Heaven certainly had some of that. Along with a poke at Judeo-Christianity for fostering some of the disconnect and discomfort we too often have with our bodies, sexuality and our broader relationship with the natural world through its fervent focus on the divine and spiritual. But as Ivanochko noted in our interview, she was primarily interested in exploring sexuality.

“Breeding” and “Making Love” — those two terms pretty much encapsulate the continuum of sexual reproduction. Driven by instinct and powerful hormonal urges, animals breed. Humans, though, with our greater emotional capacity, are capable of more nuanced sexual interaction. But as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, we are still heavily influenced by instinct and hormones.

Often, social progressives shy away from embracing a reductive view of human nature because it seemingly excuses some really Neanderthal behaviours. But having operated in our ancestral lineage for millions of years, they are deeply ingrained, and won’t be expunged through a few decades of consciousness-raising. That’s not to say that they won’t one day be expunged — just that it’s not going to happen overnight.

In the animal kingdom, what typically happens is that females go into heat, and males compete with each other for the right to mate and pass on their genes on to the next generation — which, biologically-speaking, is the purpose of life. In Heaven, that scenario played out repeatedly, with Stevenson and Wyatt competing for Ivanochko’s attention.

Scientists have done experiments that indicate younger females observe and mimic older females in their mate selection. One visual cue of genetic fitness that females rely on is male ornamentation. Thick manes, florid plumage, large antlers and tusks — none serve especially useful purposes. But if a male is able to devote scare resources to grow and maintain them, it must mean he’s relatively well-off and therefore a desirable mate. Stevenson and Brodie didn’t possess any of those accoutrements, but at various times they did strut and preen to showcase their physiques and bravado for Ivanochko.

In human society, mate selection is idealized as a function of love and romance. But as an ideal, it’s a relatively recent invention. For most of history, marriage has been intricately tied to economic, socio-political and religious imperatives. Still is — and yes, that’s not an easy truth to acknowledge. But if we’re really serious about eradicating patriarchal domination and other forms of inequality in our world it’s important we do. Invanochko’s work gave us that chance.

Life lessons exist in Wonderland too. But they’re overlaid by a rich layer of fantasy that makes them harder to detect. Portraying the Queen of Hearts (Tara Birtwhistle) as an aging silent film star in the mode of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard certainly points to the role Hollywood and other facets of the multi-trillion dollar entertainment industry play in helping people escape the mundane reality of daily life.

The desire to play, to wonder, to create new realities and reinvent ourselves — done in moderation, none are especially damaging. Indeed, they’re important catalysts in human growth and development. But if we surrender to the passive voyeurism and shameless exhibitionism that pervades our culture and ultimately lose the capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality … well, as per the Queen of Hearts’ directive, we might as be decapitated, because we’ll no longer be autonomous actors in life.

I can’t imagine living my life that way. I don’t think Alice was a fan of it at the end, either.

Author: Gregory Beatty

Greg Beatty is a crime-fighting shapeshifter who hatched from a mutagenic egg many decades ago. He likes sunny days, puppies and antique shoes. His favourite colour is not visible to your puny human eyes. He refuses to write a bio for this website and if that means Whitworth writes one for him, so be it.