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Review: HUMAN MEASURE at Canadian Stage

Review: HUMAN MEASURE at Canadian Stage

Dance piece probes joys and sorrows of heightened trans and non-binary visibility

In Human Measure, multimedia artist Cassils' first piece of contemporary dance choreographed by Jasmine Albuquerque, trans and nonbinary bodies are highlighted. In a rejoinder to Yves Klein's Anthropometries paintings, in which naked women were painted blue and then pressed or dragged across canvases as "living brushes," the active piece frames its subjects as creators rather than tools.

Challenging the passivity of Klein's female models on canvas, the dancers display their struggle with identity and relief in community while choosing the positions in which they will be immortalized. Bright, blinding flashes capture them on canvas, while the afterimages sear the audience's retinas. At the end of the 45-minute show, a cyanotype, blue like Klein's pieces but based in photography, has been developed live on stage. While the performance doesn't always completely connect, like the moments of blinding light, its flashes of brilliance can be dazzling.

Rising like mushrooms in a dark forest, the six mostly nude performers begin the show with the simple human act of reaching out to the audience and each other. A range of trans and nonbinary bodies, boldly on display, hold out their hands in invitation before dropping into a suppliant crouch. Only their knees are covered, taped in black; the protective covering is a nod to safety, but also gives the entertaining impression of a censor bar in an unusual place, contrasting with the unapologetic and unsensationalized nudity. Occasionally, the dancers hide their faces, instead of their bodies, in the unbearable vulnerability of being known.

As a community, the dancers draw on each other for comfort; this is displayed both in the simple, sweet joy of cradling each other in sleep, or a more heated eroticism in discovering each other's bodies and needs. At the same time, community can be complicated, and produce moments of isolation. A dancer's body ritualistically rolls back and forth on a board as if in punishment; in other moments, a crowd, fingers wagging, surrounds and shames an individual, or dancers begin to punch out.

In perhaps the most visually impactful sequence, the performers walk the purposeful trajectory of a busy urban street, passing back and forth around a central figure. This lone, highlighted figure, overwhelmed by the pace around them, grasps out, longing to be noticed. Each dancer gets a turn in the spotlight, trading off seamlessly, as the previous one is subsumed into the crowd and instantly replaced with another central wanderer. The spotlight is not a privilege, heightened visibility not giving that dancer power. Each one is simultaneously conspicuously exposed and yet unnoticed, silenced.

Layered on top of this is a soundscape composed by Kadet Kuhne which is designed to produce sensory overwhelm, especially when combined with the flashes of light (earplugs are provided). The music is loud, but very human in its use of largely unadorned, wordless vocals. My guest remarked that it brought to mind the fact that humans have been doing these things, singing, dancing, yearning, and changing, for tens of thousands of years.

In a sharp contrast to the loudness and dark-bright flashes of the first half hour, suddenly, the washing of the cyanotype is performed durationally, with only the lapping of the liquid and controlled breathing of the dancers disturbing the silence.

The quiet symbolism of the healing and renewal of bathing and water contrasts with the underlying acknowledgement that the trough of water does not represent complete safety; the chemicals involved in cyanotype development, gradually turn the liquid a bright green.

After the frenetic and purposeful earlier movements, this extended contemplative section is welcome, then somewhat uncomfortable, as the dancers' arc largely comes to an end in service of the piece of art. It felt as though more could have been made of this act of creation; the individuality of the dancers fades, now, and we see little reaction to the process or to the piece they are making. It's not helped by the fact that, at the foot of the stage and on the floor, the performers are difficult to see clearly in this section.

However, it is all worthwhile when the final product is raised and we witness the dynamism of the huge, bold final product, bodies splayed in active poses across the canvas. When we see the shadows of its creators, contemplating the work, we're reminded of the real people behind the images we see in the media: not "living brushes" for our entertainment, but humans.

Photo Credit: Manuel Vason

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