by Holly Harris

There’s little doubt that HIV/AIDS has changed the dance world forever, with many artists lost since the pandemic first took hold during the 1980s. It has also fueled generations of choreographers to create powerful works as an artistic response. The premiere of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers As Though I Had Wings by artistic director Brent Lott, inspired by the work and social activism of late American visual artist Keith Haring, and the rallying cry of “silence = death” by AIDS coalition ACT UP, is the latest offering in that sober legacy, presented in January at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

Based on evocative poetry by Jaik Josephson (Lott’s life partner), the 54-minute production for seven dancers is infused with the pulsating energy of Studio 54 in New York, which became an incubator for the deadly virus. Winnipeg-based composer Shirley Grierson’s driving score includes poignant songs performed by the cast, with upright bassist Ashley Au creating fascinating sub-text as an all-knowing witness.

The show’s potent images unfold as a series of vignettes. There are suggestions of eye exams (which led to diagnosis), where the dancers, seated on wooden cubes, blindly stare into space as Johanna Riley waves a finger in front of their faces. In another, moans of pleasure morph into shrieks of pain, a visceral testament to AIDS’ razor’s edge of love, sex and death. One of the most striking moments comes when silhouetted dancers, holding hands, balance and tiptoe across cubes as if they are stepping stones. This evocation of childhood paper dolls speaks to the fragility of life.

At times, Lott’s often gestural choreography felt underdeveloped, with an overabundance of unison movement appearing even more one-dimensional when cast against video designer jaymez’ starkly graphic images. The show also arguably would have been stronger had there been a greater emotional arc.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented its annual mixed repertoire program, held across the street from its usual Centennial Concert Hall at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre for a three-show run at the end of January. Performed with recorded music, it provided a rare opportunity to see the 77-year-old company return to the stage where it first found its footing as a world-famous company under its late, legendary artistic director Arnold Spohr.

The eclectic 90-minute bill featuring four works showcased two Royal Winnipeg Ballet rising stars: corps de ballet dancers Saeka Shirai and Yue Shi reprised their Don Quixote Pas De Deux, which earned them a silver medal at the 2016 Varna International Ballet Competition. Shirai’s pristine lines and confidence beyond her years easily handled Marius Petipa’s choreographic bag of tricks, among them fouettés, pirouettes and piqué turns, while Shi’s sky-high scissor leaps seemed suspended in the air.

The program also featured the company premiere of American choreographer and Paul Taylor muse Lila York’s Celts (1995), which premiered one year before the Riverdance phenomenon swept North America. Fueled by a pastiche score including music by the Chieftains and Celtic Thunder, the New York-based choreographer (who created the RWB’s 2014 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) fuses ballet, modern, classical and Irish folk dance into an explosion of sights and sound.

Bodies fly on and offstage. Yosuke Mino appeared like a grinning leprechaun during his Green Man solo, while Jo-Ann Sundermeier as the Red Woman and Dmitri Dovgoselets, the Red Man, deliver an exuberant, rhythmically pounding duet. Sophia Lee displayed flawless control during her Brown Woman solo.

The male ensemble was a highlight, with Dmitri Dovgoselets leading the charge as six bare-chested men in costume designer Tunji Dada’s short, velvety red skirts shake their fists, tumble, cartwheel and hurl their bodies at each other like rutting bucks.

William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, last staged by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2012, is a kaleidoscope of kinetic movement. The company dancers, wearing Stephen Galloway’s lime green tutus and red bodysuits, kept pace throughout its highly technical demands, executing Forsythe’s nail-biting choreography with crisp precision.

Montreal-based  Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture (1992) is an architecturally conceived, 25-minute work that juxtaposes angular movement vocabulary with fluid lyrical lines in an ode to the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle. Several sections, such as the men’s ensemble, appeared funkier than the prim Shakers might have allowed, feeling out of place even within Godden’s contemporary aesthetic.

However, the stark visual images of the corn brooms and wooden Shaker chairs, with their slats at one point suggesting prison bars for the women to peer through, are evocative. And Godden discovers the passion behind the piety, with a stirring finale danced to Aaron Copland’s iconic arrangement of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts.

Finally, RWB artistic director André Lewis, with late Cree elder and activist Mary Richard, and Cree activist/producer/actor Tina Keeper, have been awarded a Canadian Meritorious Service Medal for 2014’s Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation. The ballet, choreographed by Godden and featuring Christos Hatzis’ Juno-nominated score, was supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.