Mambo the blues away
Since 2016, many creators have used their art to try to reckon with “the Trump Era.” Much of this art have been sad and didactic. Choreographer and Ryerson graduate Alysa Pires (Performance Dance ’12) has gone the other direction.
MAMBO, external link, her playful new dance piece, uses Latin swing and jazz standards by Dean Martin, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan, and others as a rejoinder to an increasingly dark and despairing political moment. Part of Fall For Dance North, external link, a five-day festival of cutting-edge dance, the piece will be performed at the Ryerson Theatre on October 2 and 4.
The piece emerged from a commission from the British Columbia-based Ballet Kelowna for a new work in 2017, which came in the early days of the Trump presidency. “It was getting colder in Toronto, and winter in Kelowna is also quite grim, and the world seemed – and continues to seem like - we're in a perpetual winter,” she says. “I often make work that is connected to what I'm concerned with in the world, and that's been a lot lately. It felt very overwhelming. I made a lot of works about protest and revolution, and I was drained.”
By chance, she stumbled on Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo” in her iTunes library, and something about that Eisenhower-era music felt warm in a cold, cold winter. “It's really light and goofy, and you can't help but dance to it,” says Pires. “I thought, this is such great music, and I needed to make a 20ish minute piece... I wondered if I could find more music in a similar vein.”
Pires embraces the joyful, slightly kitschy music with tongue-in-cheek humour but not an ounce of snark. MAMBO invites audiences to connect with both the music and the dance on a very basic level. “People can find contemporary dance very alienating, but when you have music like Dean Martin and Perry Como and all these amazing artists that people love, you're kind of extending a hand to your audience, and saying: 'It's okay, please come...'
“I like to think that dance is actually one of the most accessible art forms, even though people don't think it is. MAMBO is a great example to show that it isn't all the same, and that contemporary dance isn't always serious and cerebral. It can be, but it also can be light and joyful and goofy.”
For Pires, dance is uniquely equipped to depict and evoke the most primal emotions. “My argument to people is always that: we all have bodies, and they all interact with the world. We all know the feeling of getting good news and being so excited you feel like your whole body is vibrating, or getting bad news and feeling your body back away, or when you're in a really tense situation and you see somebody you love and care about, and you feel that melt away. You can tell when you're talking to someone and they're uncomfortable. We all understand these physical expressions. That's what dance is.”
Pires has created work for Ballet Jorgen, Citie Ballet, Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre, and many others, and her company, Alysa Pires Dance Projects, debuted at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival. Her work has roots in the School of Performance, external link, where she graduated in 2012.
“Choreography is an interesting art form, because it’s not the same as a writer or composer or visual artist who can get up at 2 in the morning if they have an idea and work,” she says. “A choreographer can do that, but they also need space and they need bodies. I was afforded the opportunity to access space and bodies and practice. And not everything I made at school was good, but that was very important to developing.”
The Fall For Dance North festival will mark the first time Pires has seen her choreography on the Ryerson Theatre stage since graduating, and she looks forward to the homecoming. She last stepped foot on this stage during her convocation—an occasion that had special significance.
“I remember someone saying to me before convocation, 'This is very special, because for many, the theatre is something they've never been to before.’ For me, that was the stage I had literally bled and sweat and cried on. It has a very special place in my heart. To come back as a professional is really exciting.”