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Review: How to improve a dance show by failing better

By Alejandro Bustos on June 7, 2015

Failure is considered by many as a badge of honour in Silicon Valley.  “Fail fast, fail often,” is the supposed motto of this technological superhub.

While this mantra is largely overblown, it does contain an important lesson: Don’t be afraid of failing because it’s through your errors that you will improve.

Which brings me to Voyager, the opening event of the Canada Dance Festival that took place on Saturday, June 6 at the National Gallery of Canada.  Performed by the Toronto Dance Theatre, Voyager consisted of several dancers moving slowly in the Gallery’s Great Hall with nonstop movements.

Accompanying the dancers was singer-songwriter Jennifer Castle, who played disjointed piano chords, hummed the odd harmonica riff, and sang seemingly random lyrics.

Depending on your imagination, the dancers looked like they were mimicking vain people staring in a mirror in slow motion, or alternatively, like mannequins coming to life.

Choreographed by Ame Henderson, the idea behind this work is interesting, i.e. looking at how nonstop movement impacts bodies and relations.  As a work of art that might appeal to audiences, however, it had mixed results.

Which brings me back to Silicon Valley and its reputed respect for failure.  Without a  doubt, Henderson is an imaginative choreographer, the dancers quite good, and Castle a creative musician who is not afraid of taking chances.  We should celebrate this and is why I would definitely see another performance by the Toronto Dance Theatre.

That being said, the hour-long Voyager has flaws that need to be ironed out.  On top of the list is its relation with the audience.  For about 20 minutes, I watched the dancers move slowly around the majestic Grand Hall while sitting on a chair.  At first, I found the performance somewhat interesting, but then quickly got bored.

To expand on this point here is a comparison: Jeremy Harper from Alabama has the world record for the largest number ever counted.  For three months, he counted until he reached 1 million.  He streamed the event on the Internet while raising money for charity.  While this quirky undertaking is definitely original, there is no way I would spend more than a few minutes watching him count. (Click here for the last few moments of his epic endeavour).

Similarly, observing dancers move with repetitive, slow movements for 60 minutes while sitting in one spot is not that interesting.  So I did something that I normally couldn’t do in a regular theatre: I got up from my chair and started watching the dancers from different locations.  This changed everything.

Photo of dancer Naishi Wang by Ömer Yükseker

Photo of dancer Naishi Wang by Ömer Yükseker

Seeing the dancers from multiple angles — e.g. cross-legged on the floor like a child; standing as an adult; looking down from the second floor of the gallery; observing only a few feet away while on the main floor — allowed me to enjoy the show in a completely new way.  The great National Gallery space, and the freedom it gave to audience members, made this possible.

So if I were to make a friendly suggestion, I would encourage Henderson and company to actively encourage the audience to move around the next time they perform this work.  This would not only advance their interesting ideas about movement, but most importantly keep the audience awake.

“Fail better” is another motto linked with Silicon Valley.  In the case of Voyager this definitely applies, because while this show has a lot of potential, it does need to be reworked.

In the meantime, I look forward to seeing what other bold experiments will take place at this week’s Canada Dance Festival that runs until June 13.