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They've just jeté-ed in from Berlin

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

International dance companies touring to Toronto are a vanishing breed, and Christopher House believes that the local dance community has to step up and help fix the problem.

“Artists,” he says, “have to take up the responsibility for bringing an international dialogue to the city. Both audiences and dancers need that challenge.” The artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) is making his own effort with the Berlin/Toronto Project, which opens at Toronto's Winchester Street Theatre May 21. Thanks to funding from the Goethe-Institut and the Canadian embassy, House is bringing two Berlin choreographers to set works on the TDT dancers. Both men are also giving workshops, while German dramaturge and dance scholar Susanne Foellmer is presenting two pre-performance lectures and mentoring discussions.

The idea was born when House attended Tanz, Berlin's international dance festival, last August. Franco-Ontarian André Thériault is co-artistic director of the festival, so House's lament about Toronto's fading international dance experience fell on sympathetic ears. Thériault conducted the initial screening of potential choreographers for the project, and House followed up with interviews.

One of their first finds was Christoph Winkler, 41. Says House: “You could immediately sense his passion for what he's doing. He practically danced through the entire meeting.” Felix Marchand, 35, then became involved when another choreographer withdrew because his wife was pregnant, and his alternate, a woman choreographer, became pregnant as well.

Marchand came highly recommended, and House liked his energy and sense of humour. Both choreographers are known for being innovative risk-takers.

Born in the small town of Turgau, in then-East Germany, Winkler was always drawn to physical expression. The club scene was one of his interests, along with weightlifting and judo. “I'd do a solo on the dance floor and people would clap,” he recalls, “and this translated into a need to dance.” He started ballet classes when he was 16, and at 18 had to make a choice. He was accepted into an international business course at university, but he turned it down for a place at the State Ballet School in East Berlin, later moving on to study choreography.

After Germany's unification, Winkler travelled to West Berlin to broaden his horizons. There had been virtually no contemporary dance in East Germany. He's been an independent choreographer in Berlin since 1998.

Marchand, who was born in Mainz, West Germany, also spent a lot of time in dance clubs. He says he didn't graduate from high school because all the late nights made it impossible for him to get up early. Marchand opted for community service instead of the army and was sent to Hamburg to work with the handicapped. In the evening, he took dance classes.

His main dance studies were at schools in Hamburg (pedagogy) and Arnhem, Holland (release technique). He settled in Berlin in 2002. Winkler changes his choreographic approach with each new dance piece. “I like to work with different structures,” he says. Marchand focuses on collaboration and a close relationship with the dancers. And while Marchand's movement remains grounded in anatomical principles, he too is changing his choreographic exploration. “I used a lot of text in the past, but lately I'm interested in pure movement again,” he says.

While the choreographers differ in their style and choice of content, they share a predilection for breaking down the fourth wall to include the audience. The work they do could be called “performance pieces,” or dance with theatrical elements.

Winkler's piece is called Toronto Files and is built on the personal stories of the five dancers in the piece. “I wanted the dancers to have a real exchange of information. In fact, they all learned things about each other that they didn't know. These biographical stories are the motivation behind the text and movement.”

Marchand's droll sense of humour is apparent in the title of his work Awareness Étude for Six Dancers and an Audience. The common ground for the six dancers in it is their anatomy, or what Marchand calls their bones, muscles and blood. “We created a language together,” he says, “and they have to be super-aware of their composition in relation to both space and each other. Images are revealed by moments. Stories and relationships are told through physicality.”

Both choreographers appreciate the TDT dancers' high level of training and the fact that they are so open and enthusiastic. Says House: “I can't stress how important new ideas are to the developmental experience of dance. I hope we can continue the project with choreographers from other countries.”

The Berlin/Toronto Project runs at the Winchester Street Theatre May 21 to May 30.

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