Review: Ghosts of Violence (Atlantic Ballet Theater of Canada)

Saturday night the Atlantic Ballet Theater of Canada presented Ghosts of Violence, “an emotionally charged choreographic landscape” honouring women killed as a result of domestic violence. The performance combined ballet with artful multimedia projections, exposing stories and scenarios which are too often hidden from public view.In the lobby, life-sized cutouts of women who have been murdered by a husband, partner, or acquaintance (part of the Silent Witness Program) were flanked by national and international agencies which actively fight domestic abuse. Before the curtain rose, Hon. Bob Rae (among other government officials) rubbed elbows with bigwigs over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. It was as much performance piece as public outcry mandated to raise awareness and share resources with every city on its ambitious three-year tour.

The show consisted of a pattern of vignettes with the elegant dancing of Anya Nesvitaylo weaving together the individual stories. Her extension was fabulous, by the way! The scenarios were divided by public and private moments: where bustling population flourished so did safety, and the inverse staging lauded regrettable results. Full company choreography was enhanced by colourful projections and complex classical music by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alfred Schnittke. Soon after, the couples broke away to their isolated, sombre realities and darker tones foreshadowed the Ghosts of Violence.

In many ways, the dancing was everything one would wish from a professional ballet: beautiful, expressive, not pandering to overt representation. Every performer had her/his moment in the spotlight. The projections were also individually compelling and beautiful. But the weight of the subject matter eluded the combination of the two. Rather than convey the oppression of abuse, the dancing and projections sought to convey how that abuse is realized. It was more storytelling than public service announcement – and given the heavy preamble, my date Candace and I were prepared for (and looking forward to) being incited to action.

There was one scene which galvanized this separation: after the beginning of the last murder scene (predictably following a happier one) the staging, projection, and choreography forewent emotional impact for dramatic retelling. The woman cowered on the floor, bathed in red light, beneath the intimidating form of her angry partner.

As he lunged for her, an iconic “slashing” image reminiscent of a Marvel Comics Wolverine scratch appeared on the projection screens. She faded into darkness, and he danced a triumphant solo. Candace turned to me with a quizzical expression. “Is he doing a happy dance?” What was intended as intensity melted into hokiness, and suddenly the mandate of Ghosts of Violence vanished.

After the show, Candace turned to me and said, “I feel like that show was choreographed by a man”. I flipped through the programme, and sure enough: the sole female voice was that of Sharon Pollock as dramaturge. Otherwise, the entire team of choreographer/director, projection designer, set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer were all men. It’s interesting that Candace could sense the subtle disconnect that comes from telling a story of abused women rather than creating a performance which shows the experience of living through abuse.

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– Ghosts of Violence had its Toronto debut at The Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Saturday May 26th, 2012.