March 30, 2020

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Floating along with the music

Emotions soar as dancers and musicians team up for passionate interpretation of novel

Leif Norman photo</p><p>Carol-Ann Bohrn (left) and Alexandra Garrido</p>

Leif Norman photo

Carol-Ann Bohrn (left) and Alexandra Garrido

Elizabeth Smart’s famous 1945 novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the semi-autobiographical story of her affair with the married poet George Barker, is light on plot and heavy on poetry.

When Winnipeg musicians Tom Keenan and Matt Peters, together known as Heavy Bell, turned the Ottawa-born writer’s words into the lyrics for gorgeous chamber-pop songs on their album By Grand Central Station, they rendered it even more abstract.

Leif Norman photo</p><p>Carol-Ann Bohrn, left, and Alexandra Garrido bring eloquent feeling to By Grand Central Station. </p>

Leif Norman photo

Carol-Ann Bohrn, left, and Alexandra Garrido bring eloquent feeling to By Grand Central Station.

The newest iteration of the project, now on at Prairie Theatre Exchange, sees a chamber orchestra — Keenan (guitar/piano), Peters (piano/guitar), Natalie Bohrn (double bass), Derek Allard (percussion), Aja McMillan (trumpet), Andrea Dicks (horn), Julie Penner (violin) and Natalie Dawe (cello) — joined by an eloquent pair of dancers, Alexandra Garrido and Carol-Ann Bohrn, who worked from the impressionistic songs to create a 50-minute interpretive work.

The result is a refraction of the overwhelming passion of Smart’s love affair, in which the specifics of her story are transformed into a universal one, inviting the audience, as the poet would say, to "float away in a flood of love."

That’s not to imply everything is easy and sweet; after all, a flood is a natural disaster. There’s madness here, and guilt and anger, as well as languid moments of peace and uncomplicated beauty. When Garrido and Bohrn leap joyfully into the air, you can feel your heart leap with them.

The black-clad musicians are ranged in a row along the back of the stage, while the two dancers, wearing filmy white gowns, are in the forefront. On a stage as austere as this, lighting is paramount, and the work by Jaymez here is unflashy but extremely effective.

The band remains lit from above in a golden glow at all times, while the dancers are illuminated in ways that convey power or frailty, in dramatic starkness or obliquely from the side, allowing the shadows of their strong legs to be visible through the gauze of their long skirts.

Leif Norman photos</p><p>Dancers Carol-Ann Bohrn (front) and Alexandra Garrdio, backed by Matt Peters (piano), Tom Keenan (guitar), Julie Penner (violin) and Natalie Dawe (cello).</p>

Leif Norman photos

Dancers Carol-Ann Bohrn (front) and Alexandra Garrdio, backed by Matt Peters (piano), Tom Keenan (guitar), Julie Penner (violin) and Natalie Dawe (cello).

In the program notes, director Thomas Morgan Jones calls the work "an emotional narrative" as opposed to a linear narrative. That feels like a pat phrase that could be used to describe any work of contemporary dance, but By Grand Central Station does indeed take viewers on a wrenching journey.

The strange, wonderful alchemy of music paired with movement is unique in its ability to convey ecstasy and despair, especially when you have the sobbing sounds of strings and the forlorn tenor of a French horn at your disposal.

However, although it’s possible to be swept up in the often breathtaking loveliness of this show, one might wish for marginally more clarity or perhaps more overt symbolism from a theatrical production; our brains are wired to search for narrative.

It’s not clear if the two female dancers are meant to represent Smart or other characters from her story — they may merely be vessels for the emotions of the songs — but it’s difficult to assign them roles.

Leif Norman photo</p><p>Carol-Ann Bohrn</p>

Leif Norman photo

Carol-Ann Bohrn

What we’re seeing is an interpretation of an interpretation, and the result is like an artistic game of Telephone, where some meaning may be lost. For those familiar with the source material, it may be frustrating to see so little detail of Smart’s tragic romance — she literally went to jail for love — make it to the stage.

Another important thing that’s missing here is sex. It feels too abstract to have two women interpreting a famous heterosexual affair — their interactions feel tender or aggressive, sometimes even sensual, but never display any animal attraction.

Make no mistake about it: Smart and Barker were not the platonic ideal of love; while they had a meeting of the minds and perhaps the souls, they also had a meeting of the groins, and her account of their relationship is positively torrid.

By Grand Central Station might have been a better fit with PTE’s more experimental Leap Series, where audiences are more prepared to do the work of using their own experiences to relate to the material, but those willing to let go and immerse themselves in the work will likely reap rewards of pure feeling.


NOTE: PTE's next show, Gingerbread Girl has been cancelled due to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus pandemic

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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Updated on Saturday, March 14, 2020 at 9:28 PM CDT: Updates info that play's matinee show on Sunday, March 15, will be the final show.

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