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Vivid look at a life lived large

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The book title By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept evokes an image of a woman bereft and alone.

Elizabeth Smart, who wrote that 1945 prose-poetry classic about her troubled affair with a married British poet, stood defiantly alone in her choices. She willingly bore four out-of-wedlock children by her neglectful lover in the 1940s.

97 Positions of the Heart, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers' new production tracing Smart's emotional journey through the 20-year affair, had a preview performance Tuesday and opens Friday at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

Most of us don't dare live as boldly as the Ottawa-born Smart did. But in the hands of choreographer Brent Lott and his longtime partner, poet Jaik Josephson, the 75-minute piece strikes universal chords. It's a vivid, heart-wrenching story of a woman's search for herself.

George Barker, the hard-drinking, exploitive lover who could never be a "slippered husband," is portrayed by young, slight Mark Medrano, the lone male dancer, who is shorter than most of the five women.

His physical presence is weak. But the casting works because George is a sort of shadow, slipping in and out of women's beds. In many ways, he's an illusory projection of Smart's wish to scandalize her mother and find her own voice as a poet.

Josephson has penned a book's worth of gorgeous poems that are spoken by the six barefoot dancer/actors. The five women all portray Smart by turn, delivering words that so beautifully express her tumultuous inner life, you can easily forget you're not hearing her actual writings.

Some poetry has been added since the show was presented in draft form last year as Bash on Regardless. There's also a new, understated score by Shirley Grierson and Tim Church that is nearly perfect in its evocation of alone-ness.

The show's opening is its least successful element. The spacey music is too loud, so you have to strain to hear an "obituary" of Smart. An overlong solo by Lise McMillan unnecessarily foreshadows later scenes.

As soon as the narrative flashes back to Smart's privileged childhood, it finds its feet. Sensitive young "Betty" feels invisible in the eyes of her domineering mother, who only wants her to be socially correct.

Soon, Smart is fleeing on a voyage to Europe, ready to "christen" her new bohemian persona. Grimy refugees who roll and flop at the mercy of the ship are Smart's kind of people -- untethered outcasts.

The duet in which Smart (Emma Rose) first couples with George -- performed on the floor, like many strong scenes here -- is intimate and sensual, the poetry addressed to her mother as she deliberately transgresses with the man she calls "my thunderclap."

A less coherent scene, where Smart gives birth to her first "beautiful bastard," has dancers forming a totem pole and oddly delivering a sort of martial chant.

When the erotic By Grand Central Station is published, we hear "Mummy's" cruel, shaming letter about burning the book while Rose embodies Smart's wounded reaction in a broken, contorted, piercing solo.

The next love duet with Kristin Haight as Smart is rougher and more desperate. It leads into a fierce, witchy solo by Johanna Riley in which she vents her ugly bitterness at being the disrespected other woman.

Sarah Roche, who shines the most as an actor, gets a superb solo when Smart escapes her children -- and briefly herself -- at a wild 1950s Soho party.

When dawn breaks and reality returns, the "George Barker glitter" has to be swept up. The stage space goes black with a starry lighting effect, and Roche dances an extremely poignant, yearning solo.

The story shifts into moving memories of the affair and, ultimately, Smart's letting go. In the end, she's become a character much bigger than the man on whom she fixated.

Smart was , indeed, larger than life in her unapologetic quest for authentic experience and rapturous love. Every one of the 97 positions into which she contorted her heart was a poem in itself.

Editor's note: After this review was filed, tonight's performance was cancelled because dancer Mark Medrano has a broken foot. Kayla Henry, the understudy for all the roles, will dance in Medrano's place Friday through Sunday, a WCD spokesman said.

Dance Review

97 Positions of the Heart

WCD, Rachel Browne Theatre

Tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. (pay-what-you-can matinee)

Tickets $25 (students/seniors $20) at Ticketmaster or 452-0229

Four and a half stars out of five 1/2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2012 D5

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