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Dancer’s fearless artistry pushes audience to the edge

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Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers held nothing back as they opened their 58th season with the presentation of Daina Ashbee’s Serpentine, a bold, brave and, in its own startling way, beautiful full-length solo work created in 2017.

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Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers held nothing back as they opened their 58th season with the presentation of Daina Ashbee’s Serpentine, a bold, brave and, in its own startling way, beautiful full-length solo work created in 2017.

The meditative, 75-minute production performed completely nude by Mexico City-born Irene Martinez also includes an effective, “less is more” rumbling electric organ soundscape by Jean-François Blouin.

Audience members flank three sides of the Rachel Browne Theatre’s slickly oiled stage, injecting them into the performance as an all-immersive experience while further heightening the show’s intimacy.

IAN DOUGLAS PHOTO

Irene Martinez slithers, slides and crawls across an oiled stage in Serpentine.

Named as one of 25 to watch by American publication DANCE in 2018, the prolific, 32-year-old Métis/Dutch Canadian choreographer has already cut a swath through the international dance community with an arresting artistic vision. Her cutting-edge works have now been seen in more than 15 countries worldwide, including France, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, the U.S., Croatia and Mexico.

Ashbee has also garnered numerous major awards and prizes; she was named the recipient of the prestigious 2022 Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award mere hours before Thursday night’s preview, which was performed with a live audience and the British Columbia-based choreographer in attendance.

Following its three-show local run, Serpentine, billed as an “intense summary” of Ashbee’s prior works — Unrelated (2014), When the Ice Melts, Will We Drink the Water? (2016) and Pour (2016) — slithers off to New York City for additional performances.

There arguably isn’t a lot that happens in this highly sculptural, introspective show, performed at glacial pace.

In the work composed (mostly) of three extended sequences of movement vocabulary that creates its own insistent, ritual ethos, Martinez, displaying a fierce focus, traverses the stage by sliding, crawling, or most powerfully, propelling her body across the floor with sensual, snake-like, rippling undulations.

Her sudden breaking into violent, percussive body slams, brutally throwing her belly and legs into the floor while grunting like a primal beast, are harrowing, as compelling to watch as a train wreck (it’s worth noting the show carries a trigger warning for victims of sexual assault).

However, despite being performed nude, the work is also not sexualized in any way or overtly suggestive; Martinez’s dancer-toned body, every  masterfully controlled sinew, bone and muscle gleaming under the lights, is as wondrous to witness as the rounded marble of a Rodin sculpture.

As good art should, Serpentine successfully creates a wide-open canvas for personal interpretation, evoking embryonic images of birth, struggle, pain and triumph, inviting viewers into its own created, ambiguous landscape.

It also breaks the fourth wall and pushes audience members to the edges of their own comfort zones. Martinez staring individual viewers dead in the eye after finally rising to her feet creates interactive moments of trust, connection and discomfort, with audience members now feeling like voyeurs to her difficult narrative.

In a modern-day world fuelled by quicksilver changing tastes and the next best thing, the third repetition of Martinez’s movement series begins to feel overly predictable, with a false ending created by the conclusion of the second. It demands the viewer take a leap of faith and suspend any sense of quantitative, chronological time to enter the qualitative state of “kairos.”

However, when the lights go black, and the stage empties, one can’t help but be struck by Martinez’s yawning absence, her fearless artistry as compelling as a serpent’s offered, forbidden fruit.

Serpentine runs to Sunday at the Rachel Browne Theatre. For tickets or further information, visit: winnipegscontemporarydancers.ca

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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