Two dance-inspired installations, including the photographic work of Mikhail Baryshnikov, coming to 1 Yonge Street

Two dance-inspired installations, including the photographic work of Mikhail Baryshnikov, coming to 1 Yonge Street

Lighthouse Immersive, the locally-based production company that has already wowed Toronto audiences with its blockbuster “Immersive van Gogh” and magical “Illusionarium,” is going dancing.

On Sept. 18 it will unveil “Looking for the Dance,” a special installation of the photographic work of dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. Then, at the end of September, Lighthouse presents the world premiere of “Touch,” an immersive interactive multimedia dance work choreographed by National Ballet of Canada star Guillaume Côté in collaboration with videographic wizard Thomas Payette of Montreal’s HUB studio.

For Lighthouse, formed in the fall of 2019 as the collaborative enterprise of Corey Ross (Starvox Entertainment) and Svetlana Dvoretsky (Show One Productions), these distinct but complementary dance presentations further their producers’ goal of developing the vast space of the former Toronto Star printing hall at 1 Yonge Street into what Ross describes as “an immersive multimedia creative hub.”

Although the architecturally iconic building at the foot of “the world’s longest street” is slated for major redevelopment within a few years, Ross and Dvoretsky are pushing ahead with plans to animate what are now three gallery spaces on the site with a variety of unusual offerings that use the latest digital projection technology, sometimes combined with live performance.

Dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov.

While shows such as “Immersive van Gogh” are the work of international creative teams, Dvoretsky says she and Ross are eager to explore collaborations with Canadian companies such as the recently launched Côté Danse whose stated goal is to amaze a broader audience “by making dance that is a different visual and emotional experience.”

A photographic exhibition might not seem particularly unusual until you consider the man behind it. Baryshnikov, who made international headlines when he defected in Toronto from a touring troupe of Soviet dancers in June 1974, is still best remembered as the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation. His post-tights career has, however, been artistically even richer as the multi-talented Latvian-born artist has embraced contemporary dance, honed his skills as a stage and screen actor and directed his camera at the very art form that first earned him worldwide fame.

Although “Looking for the Dance” is Toronto’s first opportunity to experience Baryshnikov the photographer, the seemingly indefatigable 73-year-old artist has already successfully mounted two earlier exhibitions, “Dance This Way” and “Dominican Moves.”

He is not the first dancer to trade ballet slippers for a camera. For example, former National Ballet of Canada principals Johan Persson and Aleksandar Antonijevic have both transitioned to become successful photographers.

The assumption, not unjustified, is that as former dancers they will know exactly when to press the shutter to capture the perfect moment; but as Baryshnikov has explained, for a long time he deliberately avoided photographing dance, preferring to concentrate on traditional landscapes, portraits and travel shots, mostly in black and white. Then, while exploring some classic books of dance photography, he realized that there are many different ways to capture the body in motion.

He was particularly fascinated by the expressive possibilities of blurring edges, of moving away from crystalline images towards amorphous figures that better capture the fleeting essence of dance. Baryshnikov describes “Looking for the Dance” as “an extension of my journey to capture dance in transformative moments.” Specifically, in this exhibition, he explores two highly contrasted styles, Argentinian milongas and South Asian Odissi. The densely saturated colours and sweep of movement in these photographs make them almost vibrate with energy.

Côté’s “Touch” is emphatically a product of the pandemic. While the initial idea of exploring the varied meanings, intentions and experiences of touch antedate the pandemic, Côté says working on the piece during lockdowns and other public health restrictions has given “Touch” a poignant intensity.

“It made me think about how we connect without touching. So, it’s very much born from the experience of isolation and this process now of constantly reassessing our boundaries with physical proximity and connection. Contagion can make us tense and paranoid.”

The immersive dance duet "Touch" was choreographed by National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Guillaume Cot� and Thomas Payette of Hub Studio.

The pandemic also shaped it physically as Côté quickly realized that a large-cast production would be impossible in the circumstances. Intimate bubbles proved to be the more practical course. Thus the 50-minute “Touch” is an extended duet, semi-abstracted yet with a narrative thread as it explores our experience of contact over the span of a human life.

“We see two dancers exploring various states of interaction and stages of intimacy,” Côté explains.

“Touch” will be performed by three different casts, twice each day, Wednesdays through Sundays. Thanks to Payette’s digital magic, dancers and audiences will be enveloped by computer-mediated imagery that responds to their movements. It’s about as immersive as you can get.

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