Review: Paradise Lost (Janak Khendry Dance Company)

Paradise Lost-476-S

Beautiful dance brings the story of Adam and Eve to life in Paradise Lost playing at Toronto’s Fleck Theatre

There is something quite extraordinary happening at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre. The Janak Khendry Dance Company’s production of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is masterfully executed and utterly captivating. I have never read Milton’s epic classic, nor am I particularly interested in dance, so I was amazed at how firmly this show held me in its grip.

Paradise Lost tells biblical story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The story, I’m sure you know, goes something like this: Satan, having been banished from Heaven, uses his powers of seduction to fool Eve into eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. She then convinces Adam to do the same. The two are deeply ashamed, clothe themselves to hide their nakedness, and are cast out of paradise. The story is embedded in our collective psyche.

Aside from its Judeo-Christian trappings, it communicates ideas that are far older than religious tradition: it is about the birth of human self-consciousness and the creation of culture to mask the terrifying truth of our mortal vulnerability.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I don’t quite get dance. I find it most resonant when it is representational, when the dancers are doing obvious things I can recognize like fighting or seducing each other. But dance loses me when the movements are abstracted, when the meaning is coded in highly stylized gestures. Fortunately, Janak Kendry’s stunning choreography is full of both types, so you’ll be impressed regardless of how well you know dance.

In a way, this production has been in the works for fifty-five years. Kendry fell in love with Milton’s poem back in high school and it is clear that he has put many years of thought into this piece. Drawing on the parallels found in Indian scriptures, he has crafted an insightful fusion of East and West. The brightly coloured costumes (which he also designed) are of classical Indian design and are in perfect contrast to the black and white projections on the upstage screen. These projected images are Gustave Doré‘s famous illustrations of Milton’s classic.

The music by Eric Cadesky, Ashit Desai and Alap Desai is a blend of classical Indian and contemporary Canadian. I was particularly impressed by the clever use of sounds that I would never have considered musical—like the croaking of frogs.

Bradley Trenaman’s lighting design is mesmerizing without being flashy. He creates a very real sense of place out of the bare stage. The light seems to be a physical presence with which the dancers interact.

Eddie Kastrau and Kala Vageesan as Adam and Eve bring grace, charm and humour to their roles. There is something so genuine and poignant in their portrayal. From innocent cavorting to awkward self-awareness, I was fully invested in their plight.

Allen Kaeja plays Satan as a rebellious, sensual and mischievous hero. It was exciting to watch him battle Heaven’s angels. He manages to be at once silly, seductive and unsettling. When he appears to Eve as the serpent, his writhing across the stage is both sexy and profoundly creepy.

Watching Adam and Eve walk off stage at the end, I couldn’t help but think: what will become of them (and us)? There is something so touching in their final moments. A heavy burden weighs on them—for a taste of knowledge, they’ve traded their innocence, but they have gained something in the bargain—the opportunity to forge a society out of the wilderness.

And you, fellow humans, have a very small window of opportunity to partake of this delicious… ugh, never mind! I wanted to slip in an oh-so-clever forbidden fruit reference, but it’s a little too clumsy.

All silliness aside, you really should head on down to Harbourfront to see this wonderful show before it ends this Sunday.

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Photograph of the company by David Hou