It is an all too rare occasion when a piece of contemporary dance gets revived. Months of workshopping, fundraising, rehearsing and grant writing go into a production; it gets three or four performances and poof! – the show is truly over.
Taking her title from a British term for gambling, Julia Sasso made her first full-length dance for presentation by DanceWorks in 1997. Energetic, menacing, dramatic, Sporting Life makes a welcome return in the current Harbourfront season.
It is a show of many moods, original movement and striking imagery: a frame upon which several narratives could hang. From the bursting entry of five dancers in men’s suits, the clatter of their oxfords on hard floor providing percussion, we sense imminent violence.
This is a dance that calls for terrifically skilled performers and character actors. Timing must be impeccable, their faces working as hard as their feet, their body slams demanding the resilience of a wrestler. Sporting Life recalls the great years of Serge Bennathan’s Dancemakers, when Sasso was both performer and choreographer.
Rushing and leaping, throwing themselves to the floor to rise up again like puppets on strings, the dancers are gradually revealed as individuals. It’s a few minutes before we realize one of them is a woman: Jesse Dell. Sporting Life is patterned into a fearful symmetry. Over the hour the dancers separate and combine in trios and duets, gaining identity with each shifting scene. Matthew Cuff wears a jacket with a plaid weave; Mateo Galindo Torres, Irvin Chow and Daniel McArthur with his shaved head have a similar gangsta mien. All five shed sportsjackets to reveal vivid shirts and ties, bringing to mind the colour-coded thugs in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
Eric Cadesky’s soundscape and musical composition drive the production. From a heavy electronic dissonance, to train sounds to siren-like violins to a moody saxophone, or a Johnny Mathis ballad, the music shifts as violently as the hard-driving choreography. In an especially affecting moment, two fallen dancers make a tom-tom beat with one of their shoes tapping the floor like sticks in the hands of a drummer.
Gabriel Cropley’s lighting design creates the settings on a bare stage: a cone of light with criss-crossed bars suggests a prison setting, a splatter of blue hexagons on the floor a ballroom.
The quick scene changes evoke still relevant themes: crime and punishment, torture, bullying, gender-bending, playing at dangerous games that could end in death.
Dressing and undressing becomes the motif for a lot of shape-shifting. Having stripped down to their skivvies (Dell’s hands over her breasts), they re-dress, re-combine and then in a momentary lull in the action put on black evening dresses, preening and applying lipstick in a line before imaginary mirrors.
This dramatic shift ushers in tenderness and celebration. Light shines on a final, poignant grasp of an unseen hand before Torres exits, parting from his companions in a heap on the floor.
It’s a winning gamble for Danceworks and Sasso, who leaves nothing on the table in this brilliant revival.