The range of work included in this triple bill showcased not only Davida Monk’s depth as a narrative choreographer in Ashes for Beauty, but also her skill as a contemporary dancer in Helen Husak’s solo The Return and a duet, For Antigone, by Paras Terezakis.

Based in Calgary, Monk has been performing and choreographing for more
than three decades. Her impact was evident during the post-show talkback when many of the dancers cast in Ashes for Beauty, who are now based in Vancouver but have previously worked with Monk in Calgary, conveyed the significance of her mentorship.

Davida Monk in Helen Husak ‘s The Return
Photo: Chris Randle

A richly layered work inspired by alchemy and metamorphosis, Monk’s 2017 Ashes for Beauty takes its title from a line in the Bible, Isaiah 61:3, that begins “Give unto them beauty for ashes.” Every element of the ensemble work for seven dancers embodied metamorphosis, from the layered costumes to the evolving movement and distinct sounds. As the dancers transitioned from one section to the next, they seemed to shed their past to explore a new aspect of their identity.

It opened with the dancers spinning in place, their long jewel-toned robes extending their swirling motion and creating a mesmerizing sea of colour. Mouths opening with a silent scream, they began to move in diagonal lines, hunched over with fists and elbows bent in stiff, angular lines. The elbows often led the movement in the first section, until they removed their robes, signalling the first transformation.

The music, composed by Allan Gordon Bell, transitioned from pan flutes and drums to electronic sounds. Matching the sharper music, the dancers moved in quick, tense bursts with their fists still clenched.

Another transformation saw them work in pairs to unspool and unravel intricately woven fabric to remove the next layer of their costumes. Unencumbered by the heavy layers, and with hopeful piano accompaniment, their movements became smoother as they glided in and out of a cluster formation. Lowering their fists from in front of their faces, they suddenly came to a standstill to look expectantly into the audience.

Embodying the strong, fearless title character in the premiere of Terezakis’ For Antigone seemed to come naturally to Monk. She was joined by Arash Khakpour as Antigone’s uncle, King Creon.

Originally from Greece, Terezakis is artistic director of Vancouver company Kinesis Dance somatheatro and his work is often inspired by Greek classical theatre. While the piece isn’t meant to be a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, the relationship between the two characters is clear despite being left unresolved. In the play, Antigone specifically fights for the right to bury her brother, but beyond that she is an iconic figure representing any fight for dignity and respect.

The dramatic tension was heightened by the difference in the dancers’ ages. Monk is in her mid-60s while Khakpour is about half that age. Both were fully invested in their characters in a competitive sequence that had them holding each other’s head and using their weight to manoeuver and try to stay one step ahead. This climactic moment seemed to present them as equally matched adversaries.

Amidst their frantic clashing, there were a couple of striking moments. When Khakpour slowly lowered a crown onto his head upside down, the tension mounted, and when Monk was left alone onstage at the end, her intense, worried gaze held our attention until the last moment.

Monk’s strength of character was also on display in The Return. Husak, an independent choreographer based in Calgary, took inspiration from two poems by American poet Mary Oliver for this inward-looking solo. In a trance-like state, Monk slowly ran back and forth as if attempting to shed the grief that had a hold on her. The music, again by Bell, was eerie and metallic at times and included a section of breathy demonic vocals that added to the ominous tone.

The antlers that were arranged in three corners of the stage were a visually interesting scenic element that, with their bleached white colour and arrangement in clusters, resembled piles of bones, adding to the sense of grief and loss.

Oliver, who passed away in January 2019, wrote about the natural world and simple pleasures. The fragments of her poems quoted in the program note — The Journey about finding your way in life and Wild Geese about the human condition — provide more insight into the antlers’ potential significance and the overall themes of the work that aren’t, however, completely evident onstage.

A surprise finale ended the evening: a duet from Monk and an uncredited boxing partner. The graceful sparring was full of drama and humour as Monk’s strong punches connected with her partner’s pads. With all the predictability and polish of a movie fight scene, it was a refreshing end to an otherwise serious evening of intelligent, literary contemporary dance.

— TESSA PERKINS DENEAULT

DI FALL 2019