Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Four Horsemen Project at the Great Canadian Theatre Company

Settling into your theatre seat at GCTC (910 Gladstone, Ottawa), you notice that the set design is minimal. More than minimal - the backdrop and floor are as white as two blank sheets of paper. A writer's nightmare? Relax. As the performance begins, words on film flit across the stage, interacting with the four performers who, in the multi-media spirit of the show, dance and sing as they recite poetry, singly or as an ensemble. And the poetry? Sometimes it is simply one phrase repeated over an over (like the opener, "a drum and a wheel"), or a list of words, spoken in chorus or all at once in a whirl of sound and light. Sometimes, it's a song written by the late bpNichol for the 80s TV show Fraggle Rock. A recurring motif throughout the show is bp's classic piece "What is a poem (is inside of your body)."

All the poems, in fact, were written and/or performed by Nichol and his fellow members of the Toronto sound-poetry group The Four Horsemen. The group had a great run, creating both new work and a climate of experimentation that helped many other innovative writers flourish. But in the two decades since the death of bpNichol their work has been somewhat neglected, so that when the creators of the show staged at GCTC first heard one of their pieces played on CBC radio, they assumed it was "A) brand new; and B) created elsewhere." In fact they had been listening to a 30-year-old recording made in their home base, Toronto.

Ross Manson, director of Volcano theatre, and Kate Alton, director of the Crooked Figure dance company, set about to revive interest in the Four Horsemen, and sound poetry generally, by creating this visual feast. They enlisted the animation company Global Mechanic to take the Horsemen's visual poetry and set it in motion on stage, and found four dancers from the Crooked Figure company who bring vocal talents as well as grace and beauty into the intermedia mix. This shouldn't be surprising, since the Crooked Figure company says that it "exists to create absorbing and socially relevant text-based dance creations."

Of course, the four performers - Jennifer Dahl, Graham McKelvie, Naoko Murakoshi and Andrea Nann - don't play the roles of Horsemen Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, Rafael Barreto-Rivera and bpNichol. They bring their own charm and the directors' interpretations to the word-fair. Nearly everything about the performance is slick and professional. Yet there's something missing - the raw energy that the original Four Horsemen brought to their improvisations. The second-by-second edginess of poets exploring the resources of the language, and of their bodies, always innovating, always on the verge of some new discovery that might set off new ideas among the four collaborators. As Kate Alton says, "I don't know that anyone other than the poets themselves could truly do justice to this work, but my choreographic interpretations are all created in the spirit of play, admiration and tribute."

The Four Horsemen Project is not so much a reasonable fascimile as an admiring tribute, and it is a lot of fun. It may well succeed in bringing sound poetry and intermedia performance to the attention of audiences and artists in a variety of media. To fully appreciate the Four Horsemen's work and its aesthetic underpinnings, poets will need to go back to the original sources, or go talk to Paul Dutton who continues to work as a solo sound poet in Toronto. More likely, poets will leave the theatre thinking, "Just imagine what dancers could do with my poems."

The Four Horsemen Project continues in Ottawa until April 1. And if you can't get there, the production is prepared to travel to your town.

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