Efer by Parts+Labour_Danse: Danse Danse

Maika Giasson & Brianna Lombardo in Efer. Photo by Bobby León

Choreographers Emily Gualtieri and David Albert-Toth, who together comprise the Montreal company Parts+Labour_Danse, made their Danse Danse debut this week with Efer, an absorbing and meditative piece performed by seven dancers. 

“Efer” translates as “ashes” in Hebrew, and the 65-minute piece touches frequently on mortality and mourning, but shifts gears several times to include bursts of life-affirming energy and even mordant humour. 

It opens in stillness with a spoken word prologue giving way to a fade-in of the casually-dressed dancers, dispersed across the bare stage and bathed in a wash of lurid light and dry ice. They begin to come alive in slow, unfolding movements, each of them occasionally making a furtive surge forward before retreating back into languidness. (I couldn’t help wondering if the choreographers, whether consciously or not, were here borrowing from the “Green-light-red-light” sequence from the recent mega-hit Squid Game.)  

This contrast also manifests itself in the way elegantly arcing sweeps of the arms give way to quick bursts of a weird Simian strut across the stage. Something to do with the ethereal alternating with brute earthiness, maybe?

Arms are often stretched out as if in supplication, or grieving. Falling motions are a common motif, whether it’s earth being ritualistically trickled from outstretched hands, or bodies slowly falling backwards with hands stretched to the heavens. At one point, all seven join together in a group hug. Then each dancer falls through the others’ arms one-by-one, until just one is left, looking bewildered and vulnerable. It’s impossible not to think how, especially during these times, intimacy and closeness can kill as each dancer slowly exits into the shadows.

There’s a sharp change of mood when Antoine Berthiaume’s haunting pulsing music blasts out like the Biblical final trumpets. It brings the dancers back to life, and they’re transformed from affliction to a sense of joyous assertiveness. For a few moments, as a thudding beat kicks in and the dancers respond with an ecstatic, in-synch routine, it’s as if we’re watching a rave. But even here the celebratory mood is short lived as ecstasy turns to desperation to torment under the hellish red glow of the lighting. 

It’s unusual that spoken word is included in a dance piece as it is here, both with the opening monologue, Viking, and a mid-way poem, Curtains. True, the previous Danse Danse show, Ballet Jazz Montréal’s Vanishing Mélodies, included an actor speaking lines, but that was billed as a dance/theatre hybrid. There’s no reason why disciplines can’t borrow from one another. But the second poem, especially, struck me as the least effective part of the show. This didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the writing, but it just didn’t seem to be adding anything to the piece that the dance element wasn’t already conveying. In fact, it felt like a distraction, a bit of a mood-killer. Which is another way of saying that, this section notwithstanding, Efer is a beautifully evocative meditation on death, decay, rebirth and the life that exhilaratingly and all too-fleetingly pulses through us.

Efer by Parts+Labour_Danse, performed at Cinquième Salle, Place-des-arts Nov. 16 to 20, 2021

About Jim Burke, Special to Montreal Gazette

Occasional writings about theatre by Jim Burke, theatre critic of the Montreal Gazette and Montreal-based playwright
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