By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
From the River Road at dusk, you catch a glimpse of something mysterious through the trees of Victoria Park. Rounded huts — hives? a village perhaps? — glowing from within, and strung with twinkling lights.
We’ve arrived at until the next breath, Catalyst Theatre’s Grand Act of Theatre — “marking the moment,” as the National Arts Centre says of its initiative to engage live, outdoor, one-off (COVID-safe) shows from 11 of the country’s most innovative performing arts companies.
From the parking lot the site looks like an exotic base camp at the North Pole. “Welcome back to the theatre!” says the masked person with smiling eyes working the (distanced, ski-jacketed) queue with hand sanitizer and new masks in the park Sunday night.
And, yes, it’s a thrill to be out. How did I ever take it for granted? Why did I ever get all ironic about the ubiquitous over-use of the word “journey” by theatre people? The virus has stolen so much from us, touch and even breath included. What it can’t steal is the excitement of being with real live people in the great outdoors on a lovely fall night.
There are 100 of us (the free tickets gone in a second), spread out in a beautifully thought-out way in the Victoria Oval, a size-large clearing in the trees. Ghostly masked figures in white surgical suits glide through the park. And we’ll find ourselves, human chess pieces, on individual squares of a giant grid measured out on the grass, with our own personal lit blue balloon bobbing gently and tethered to out spot.
There’s a kind of other-worldly hum in the night air that’s nearly music. We surround an encampment of silvery balloons, a beautiful galaxy of glowing moons and planets of every size, including X-large, under a shimmering, gauzy veil. They seem to float, and with every gust of wind, to breathe. The whole set (designed and lighted by Catalyst’s Bretta Gerecke) seems ready to levitate.
“I invite you to consider … your breath,” says a hypnotic voice. The until the next breath book and music, by Catalyst director (and artistic director) Jonathan Christenson, are all about that. The prevailing artistic metaphor of the night, which has visual and aural reverb in Christenson’s production, certainly struck a chord with me. It started with the abrupt way we had to catch our breath six months ago. The news was literally breath-taking, a huge collective gasp. And there’s a sense we’ve been collectively holding our breath in fear ever since.
What do we do now?
In a tense world where breath has become dangerous — we’re all masked because of it — the invisible voice, set to the yoga frequency, “invited” us to take another tack. Cool breath on the inhale, warm breath, heated by our own bodies, on the exhale. And the soothing voice persisted: breathe, to reach all the imprisoned parts of your body. It’s possibly the first time the word “buttocks” has ever floated through the night air in the Victoria Oval.
It’s the heart, however, that’s really engaged in Catalyst’s Grand Act, with its grand-sized cast of 50 actors, dancers, musicians, singers. The music has an incantatory quality, until the moment it turns to high-volume rock and chanting in an explosion of apocalyptic orange light, to evoke the instant the world changed … forever. Then, silence is deafening. Isolation is deadening. And (as we see) a simple physical embrace (by three cohort couples in the cast) is shocking.
As its archive attests, the Catalyst team of creators, led by Christenson and Gerecke, with choreographer Laura Krewski and sound whiz Matthew Skopyk, have always gravitated to the highly theatrical intersection where bold visuals, music, and physicality meet for the purposes of storytelling. And until the next breath plays with the metaphor of breath and breathing in inventive ways.
The present is uncertain. The future is unknown. But there’s hope in the exhale, a kind of rebirth as the cast emerge from their surgical suits and disappear into the darkness. At least that’s how I saw an open-ended finale that’s nothing if not enigmatic. The strings tethering the breath-filled planets to the ground extend in a multi-coloured palette of floating light as we leave. Is the earth exhaling too?
And we take our blue balloons, each containing a tiny light and “a wish for the future from someone else who attended this evening — a message of hope as we step together into an unknown future.” Thank you to the anonymous person who contributed “I hope for greater empathy and understanding in our new world.”