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Fall for Dance North – UNBOWED: 2023 Signature Program 2 –

Credit: Erin Baiano. Company from Oh, Courage.

Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator

Fall For Dance North did it again!

Toronto’s Premiere International Dance Festival is back with its ninth season chock full of eclectic dance companies of unparalleled talent and artistry. Creator and Artistic Director, Ilter Ibrahimof curated a rapturous 2-hour compilation of the dynamic dance stylings of four visionary companies, including one Canadian Premiere. FFDN “celebrates, nurtures and amplifies established and emerging Canadian dance artists…” offering mixed bills that include performances by large and small-scale local and international companies with EVERY seat for the incomparably low price of just $15. Extraordinary value for extraordinary performances!

I caught this year’s program on the closing night of its two-week run. The energy from the audience and performers on this Thanksgiving weekend was palpable as the curtain rose to a Canadian premiere by a Tony-award winning choreographer, a collaborative piece with graduates of Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Performance, a stunning duet with long-separated African brothers, and a poignant portrayal of the life and career of a civil rights icon. The stage was mostly bare with occasional simple props and inventive, evocative lighting.

Act one began with the Canadian premiere of “Oh Courage” performed by the Gibney Company and choreographed by Tony and Emmy-Award winner Sonya Tayeh (Moulin Rouge, So You Think You Can Dance). The eight-member troupe performed to original music composed by The Bengsons (who were to play live on stage, but a band-member’s recent illness prohibited their travel, so backup recordings filled in).

The company mastered Tayeh’s intricate modern style, mixing athleticism, and creating unique shapes and levels with their bodies. An ease of fluidity followed each hard-hitting beat. With a bare stage save for set designer Rachel Hauck’s quadrangle of four lights on tall stands with a stack of speakers at its centre, the company used the space superbly, allowing each member of the company to impossibly writhe, kick, bend, and flex. Costume designer Marion Talán de la Rosa’s baggy, three quarter length pants and loose-fitting sleeveless tops, enhanced the dancers’ movement allowing them a mesmerizing freedom. Asami Morita’s overall warm, dim, and moody lighting sometimes left the stage too dark, often masking facial expressions.

The occasional use of strobes and bright beams shooting into the audience served more to blind this reviewer than add any artistic value. I wasn’t sure what story Sonya was telling, but it didn’t matter. This company told it with passion and artistry.

Next up was Light-Print, choreographed by Jesse Obremski and performed by a dozen recent graduates of Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Performance. In the explainer video preceding the performance, Obremski explains this modern piece to be a personal discovery of what it means to be analytical and factual. The performers begin in what seems to be a lab or research facility (an inspired design by Margaret Steinbach) exploring how ideas can overwhelm, ignite, and excite our conscious and collective energies.

Though the program notes proclaim how this piece intends to “enlighten and remind us about the importance of constant self-discovery”, I wasn’t always clear on what the discoveries were and why they were important. Even the lab coat costumes by designer by Keiko Obremski, in collaboration with TMU's wardrobe department, didn’t fully convey the self-discovery these characters were supposed to be experiencing. It was all a little muddled.

Lighting designer Asami Morita’s overall dim lighting is punctuated by the amber hits from hanging fixtures, swinging cleverly at different heights, and providing a unique interactive prop in addition to being highly practical. An original melancholic, bellicose, score by composer Trevor Bumgarner provided a rich musical canvas for these young dancers to stretch, writhe and roll to. While this cadre of dance grads showed impressive technique and superhuman flexibility, their movements lacked the passion and intent that was in such abundance in the evening’s other offerings.

After a brief interval Act 2 opened with the exquisite narrative, “My Mother’s Son”, a duet performed by South African brothers Siphesihle and Mthuthuzeli November and choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November (who also provided the music). Both talented dancers, the brothers were separated as children to study at ballet schools a world apart – Siphe, here in Toronto at the National Ballet of Canada and Mthuthuzeli with Ballet Black in London, England. They come together for the first time since their childhood in Zolani to dance an incredibly powerful work inspired by their relationship as brothers. The result is simply breathtaking!

The thoughtful and emotive choreography speaks to the pain of geographical separation and the enduring bonds of fraternal love. The intimacy is often overwhelming, the emotions raw and authentic, the dancers; magnificent! The narrative is impeccably told through not only the expressive choreography but through superb lighting that transports us through time and place. The shafts of harsh light beaming down from above perfectly evoke the trees of an African jungle, where we first encounter the brothers.

The changing of shapes, angles and colours superbly and subtly accentuate their emotions of the love, angst, regret, sadness, reunion, redemption, and celebration. Clad in their own traditional African kilts, the story-telling these men do with their bodies is simply captivating. Siphe has been an undeniable force and integral part of the National Ballet of Canada while Mthuthuzeli’s work as a dancer and choreographer in London, England with Ballet Black continues to dazzle and win prestigious awards. No wonder then that after not breathing for 25 minutes, the audience leapt to its collective feet in rapturous applause.

The evening concluded with another absolute gem – Ballet Black’s “Nina: By Whatever Means”. This love letter to musician, performer and civil rights activist Nina Simone isn’t just a dance number. This is theatre, a “playlet” brilliantly combining spoken word, ballet, jazz, and blues. Again, choreographed by Mthuthuzeli November, and performed by the captivating company of artists of Black and Asian descent, this thrilling and imaginative piece takes us through Simone’s turbulent and influential life. Jessica Cabassa’s period costumes are spot on, from Simone’s post war early life in the Methodist deep south, to her swanky high life in Atlantic City nightclubs, cuts, fabrics, and textures were accurate and convincing. David Plater’s inspired lighting design easily transported us through his use of soft, muted, amber tones evoking Southern heat while adding harsh, confining spots to piano classes, dressing rooms and nightclubs. Music by Mandisi Dyantyis and Mthuthuzeli November (and recordings of Simone herself) is beautifully punctuated with original vocals by the Zolani Youth Choir.

This review wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the extraordinary company of dancers, Isabela Coracy, Ebony Thomas, Taraja Hudson, Sayaka Ichikawa, Helga Paris-Morales, Mthuthuzeli November, Megan Chiu, Love Kotiya and Bhungane Mehlomakulu. Their phenomenal technique and ability to fuse their skills in ballet, jazz, lyrical and contemporary was simply incomparable. Special shout outs to the captivating Isabela Coracy as Nina Simone and Ebony Thomas as The Husband. Their expressive pas-des-deux, performed within the confines of Simone’s tiny dressing room was simply breathtaking, combining raw emotion with seemingly effortless facility.

If you love dance or just want to be swept away by dazzling, ground-breaking, thought-provoking theatre that resonates with a modern audience, don’t miss Fall for Dance North’s ten-year celebration next year. Tickets are still $15 each! That’s a value that’s simply unheard of in today’s theatre scene.

I can’t wait to see what Mr. Ibrahimof has up his sleeve in 2024 as FFDN celebrates ten remarkable years making audience fall in love with the transformative power of dance.

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