Nancy McAlear’s new work, The Contract playing at the PCL Studio Theatre until March 15, is a response to Marguerite Duras’ Les yeux bleus, cheveux noirs (Blue Eyes, Black Hair), a novella about a man who sees a man with blue eyes and black hair and instantly falls in love with him, even though there is no chance he will see the object of his affection again. To fill the void he hires a woman, also with blue eyes and black hair, to come to his apartment so he can study her and remember the attraction he felt to the man with blue eyes and black hair.
The Contract is told through physical theatre: a combination of movement-based and text-based performance methods. Having done a little research on the novella but not having read Les yeux bleus, cheveux noirs or its English translation in advance of the performance, I didn’t expect the themes of loneliness and desire for a connection to be so prevalent. Don’t expect a show about romance and love being inexpressible through words – the characters in this piece have caught a glimpse of what love could be, but have spent their lives without deep human connections.
While Nancy McAlear’s choreography did have beautiful moments of love and connection, they were interrupted by long sequences emphasizing the disconnection the characters spend most of the show feeling. In particular I loved the sequence when performers Richard Lee Hsi (the main character) and Vincent Forcier (the man Richard’s character desires) were mirroring each other’s movements from across a large space, creating this feeling of connection that traverses distance. However, even in this same movement sequence, the choreography that was synchronized was interrupted by periods where the two performers were out of sync – the choreography seemed to place each performer just one movement out of sync with the other’s choreography, which emphasized the failed effort to connect.
Caught in the middle of these two men who never quite connect in the way that they want to is the wonderful Ainsley Hillyard. Her character in The Contract is the one person who has not quite accepted her loneliness and lack of connection, who still holds out hope for some meaningful connection. Time after time her advances are rejected by Richard’s character who – as Ainsley’s character comments – doesn’t know what he really wants, instead swinging from curiosity to disinterest. Particularly heartbreaking was a scene where Richard spoons Ainsley while she’s sleeping on the floor and the almost mathematical precision with which their limbs briefly intertwine before Richard pulls away.
Although the piece focuses on loneliness and disconnection, a scene I thought could have been extended was the one at the beginning of the performance focusing on the moment Richard’s character sees the man he falls in love with. Nancy’s choreography features a couple sequences showing the emotion each man is feeling during this momentary connection across a hotel lobby, however I think this moment could have been elongated even further to establish the fleeting feelings the main character is chasing throughout the rest of the piece. As it was presented in this production of The Contract, I cognitively understood it but would have benefited from having a more visceral understanding of the love/lust/connection the main character was feeling in that moment.
The arrangement of the playing space itself also played into the sense of disconnection the performers were portraying. It’s not uncommon for the PCL Studio at the ATB Arts Barns to be arranged (as it was for The Contract) so that the playing space is a long rectangle in the middle of the room, with chairs on either side. To be honest, it’s not my favourite arrangement, although I understand it’s purpose. Arranging the space that way allows the director to force the audience to choose which performer to watch when they are at opposite ends of the playing space. Or, at least, I’ve never sat in a seat when the PCL Studio is in this arrangement where my field of vision is large enough to see the full actions of both performers when their blocking puts them at opposite ends of the playing space. Being so used to seeing all performers at once, I usually choose to move my head back and forth to try and see what each performer is doing. As much as it mentally frustrates me to watch a performance in that way, conceptually it worked well in The Contract to emphasize the disconnection and physical and metaphorical distance between the characters, especially the two men who were rarely in my same frame of vision.
The script of the show is a collaboration between Nancy McAlear’s dialogue and Liam Coady’s poems and is written mostly in the third person and delivered without emotion. The text was full of wonderfully complex metaphors, but I found it hard to fully understand. While the script and the movement complimented each other, I found it hard to understand all of the information in the two ways it was presented. For myself, seeing only a handful of dance pieces a year, movements communicate viscerally by allowing me to feel echos of the performer’s movement in my own body and understand what emotions and experiences those movements are born of. While I only have a basic understanding of the brain, it was as though I could feel myself processing the meaning of the script in a different part of my brain than where the meaning of the movement was being processed. This dichotomy between the two different sets of sensory information, created a situation where I felt I had to choose which type of expression to focus on at each particular moment, as trying to absorb both made me feel as though I didn’t fully understand what either was communicating. I fully admit that this is likely because I don’t have a wide knowledge base in dance and that an audience member who has seen more dance will certainly have a different experience of interpreting the combination of the two storytelling methods.
Nancy McAlear and The MadFandango Theatre Collective have created a piece that’s outside the norm of what we see in most Edmonton theatres. While in the end I found the two types of storytelling methods a little hard to absorb and interpret, I do admire the way with which The Contract both portrayed loneliness and disconnection and created that same feeling in the audience.
PS – Check out the I Don’t Get It Dance podcast’s Season 2 Episode 15 for an interview with the cast of The Contract.