Stage Door Review 2019

Marienbad

Jun 3, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Christopher House & Jordan Tannahill

Toronto Dance Theatre, Winchester Street Theatre, Toronto

May 23-June 1, 2019

“Le long des allées rectilignes,... en train de vous perdre, pour toujours, dans la nuit tranquille. Seule avec moi” (Épilogue de L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961)

Having missed the premiere of Marienbad in 2016, I was glad to be able to catch the revival of this dance piece this year before it closed. Toronto Dance Theatre Artistic Director Christopher House and Jordan “Is there anything he can’t do?” Tannahill co-created this duet about two gay men and performed it again in the revival. What precisely the story is may be enigmatic, but there is not doubt that Marienbad is an exciting dance piece that will long continue to fascinate audiences with its punishing choreography.

In terms of dance the most notable aspect of Marienbad remains the fact that it is performed not a flat surface but on a set of risers where seats for an audience normally would be placed. The lack of a flat surface for dance has many effects. Longitudinal movement is inhibited by the width of the tiers. Latitudinal movement is made more dangerous by the changes in surface height. Whether House, Tannahill and designer Cheryl Lalonde mean these constraints to reflect somehow the precarious territory of the gay male is not clear, What is clear is the notion of hierarchy that such a dance space implies.

Marienbad is choreographed as sequences of action punctuated by periods of rest. At the very beginning of the piece and during most of these periods of rest, House, clad in boxer shorts, a T-shirt and high tops, places himself standing on the second last upper tier stage left or sitting on the uppermost tier stage right. These two corners seem to provide his character with a vantage point over the whole set of risers in the midst of which Tannahill, clad in boxer shorts, a long-sleeved hoodie and low top sneakers, often reclines. Do these positions mean that House’s character has a superior point of view or are these corners his places of retreat? Are we meant to see House’s comfortable position higher up the steps distant from Tannahill as a reference to his greater age (born 1955) compared to Tannahill (born 1988) and experience? 

Titling the piece Marienbad inevitably recalls Jean Resnais’s 1961 film L’Année dernière à Marienbad, known as both one of the greatest and yet most puzzling films ever made. The film concerns a couple who may have met at a luxury spa hotel the previous year and may have begun an affair. The way the film is constructed it is impossible to know what is really happening, what is recalled or what is imagined. 

Given such a reference House and Tannahill may have had such an indeterminate structure in mind. Nevertheless, unlike the film, it is possible to imagine a linear narrative in Marienbad. The first part of the piece is taken up with much pacing about. House’s nameless character, whom we’ll call “H”, notices Tannahill’s nameless character, whom we’ll call “T”, but T does not notice or pretends not to notice H. The two stride in patterns the length of the risers seeming not to look at each other until at one point they find they are climbing up the steps at exactly the same pace. This only leads them to break away from each other deliberately and to resume their restless walking. 

We wonder if the two will ever interact when H approaches T, who is sitting in his usual position halfway up the risers, and, for the first time, sits next to him. Then ensues a suggestive but artful sequence where H and T climb over and around each other in innumerable ways, one licking or biting the other’s ear or forehead or other exposed patch of skin. After this apparent intimacy the two abruptly seem to avoid each other and return to their restless roving past each other without looking. Gradually, this develops into a pattern of what looks like one attempting to show off to the other even if the other seems not to pay attention. 

T performs unusual steps mingling yoga and martial arts poses with complex hand movements along a mid-level riser. H performs more conventional, dancerly exercises along the upper-level riser. Both collapse onto the steps in what look like painful face-downward or face-upward positions, the difference being that H recovers almost immediately after every collapse whereas T may remains sprawled over the steps for such long periods that we might think T suffers from narcolepsy. In general the more exuberant T’s showing off, the longer his recovery period. 

In one of several moving sequences, H approached the unconscious T and with great delicacy examines his limbs and head as if T, despite T’s outward strength, were actually very fragile. We have no sign that T is ever aware of this. T’s tenderness toward H comes primarily through lifting H. Each time H then proceeds to wind about T like ivy around a tree. 

We do see that the showing off between the two becomes more playful and that the two do stop pretending not to notice each other. In a humorous sequence H, quite near T, dances old fashioned moves from the Charleston and other 1920s dances as if making fun of his age. For his part, T emphasizes his athleticism running as fast as possible up and down the steps or, quite precipitously, running in circles the full height of the risers. 

Eventually, the two find themselves in opposite positions. H is at the stage right bottom corner of the risers and T at H’s old position at the stage left upper corner. Facing and clearly observing each other, the two attempt to communicate to each other with hand and arms signals but their meaning is not clear. Both make welcoming open arm gestures at some point but both also make crossed forearm gestures as if to say “Keep away”. Following this exchange, T moves down the stage left side of the risers slowly, making complicated hand gestures seemingly to himself and, for the first time in the piece, showing expression in his face. Whether T feels joy or pain is hard to tell but we feel that finally T has allowed himself to be emotionally affected by H.

One could easily construe the action as that of an older man, H, showing interest in a younger man, T, where the younger man attempts to ignore H. All pretence of indifference vanishes when the two give in to a purely physical encounter, but, for the greater part of the piece the question then becomes whether this encounter is merely a one-time fling or should become something deeper.

Keeping in mind, however, that House and Tannahill have entitled the piece Marienbad, we have to wonder whether the linear narrative we seem to see cannot be construed in other ways. The most obvious possibility, given that H is positioned primarily as observer and T as the observed, is that H as an older man could be looking back at T as his younger self and trying to reconcile the wayward and disdainful attitude he used to have with the longing he feels now. Or, more directly influenced by Resnais’s film, we have to wonder what encounters are real or which only desired between the two men? Retrospectively, the linear narrative we have constructed to make sense of the action presented to us becomes increasingly polyvalent the more we consider it.

Just as the dance vacillates between movement and stasis, Matt Smith’s sound design vacillates between found sounds such as dogs barking or seagulls screeching and looped songs that take on a pulse and sound very much like some works by Steve Reich. 

It should be no surprise that House is a consummate dancer. He brings a naturalness and grace to his movements that Tannahill does not, and is not meant to do. That Tannahill creditably shares the stage with House is amazing in itself. His character is meant to be more rough-hewn, athletic and expressionless than House’s and Tannahill fits the bill perfectly, yet it is a relief when Tannahill’s character finally does show emotion and we feel some breakthrough has been reached.

Marienbad is an example of physical theatre pushed to its logical conclusion in becoming dance. What House and Tannahill have created is a theatrical experience exciting to enjoy at the time and fascinating to ponder after the fact. In exploring the tensions between an older and a younger gay man, it explores ageism in the gay community and beyond as well as whether we are capable of enough empathy to see aspects of ourselves in people younger or older than we are. Marienbad may be puzzling but not because it lacks meaning. On the contrary, it is an experience that evokes a rich multitude of possible interpretations.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Christopher House in red shirt and Jordan Tannahill in blue hoodie. © 2019 Ömer Yükseker.

For tickets, visit tdt.org.