Matthew Armet had the kind of upbringing any queer kid would envy. His mother, Valerie, was a super-mom: driving her sons to countless dance classes and hockey practices, sewing Matthew’s dance costumes late into the night and supporting her gay son when he jetéed out of the closet. Her death from cancer two years ago left Armet devastated and struggling to make peace with his loss.
Until then, he had enjoyed a blossoming career in dance and theatre with roles in Ross Petty’s Peter Pan and Feist’s 1234 video, but Armet set everything aside to nurse his mom during her final days. Returning to his career was therapeutic, but it wasn’t until a fateful dance class with master instructor/choreographer Faye Rauw that Armet found an artistic outlet for his sadness.
Rauw was soliciting ideas for a piece she was creating and warmed to Armet’s idea of exploring the different aspects of loss and healing. Together, they created Grief: Another Common Bond, opening Sat, Mar 13 at the Winchester Street Theatre in Toronto.
“When I first told my councillor that I created this show, she told me that it was the best kind of art therapy possible,” laughs Armet, a lanky redhead with a sweet smile. “I’d been going through the grieving process, and it was really interesting to put myself back in my own shoes from two years ago. It was hard for me to go back there when I’ve worked so hard to get away from it.”
Working with friends made it a little easier: Armet went to the same dance class as castmates Kristi Frank and Natalie Krill in their hometown of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, while Rauw hails from the town of Humboldt, just northeast of Saskatoon. “It’s weird how many of us are from the same place,” he says.
There are 12 dancers in Grief, with different pairings and groupings to represent facets of the grieving process; death isn’t the only common ground on this stage.
“Faye and I are playing the mother and son based on me and my mom, but it’s just one arc of the story,” Armet says. “We split the stories up in the theme of a soap opera.”
Breakups, reunions and lost childhoods are expressed in Rauw’s athletic but graceful choreography, with occasional voice-overs of text written by Armet. Ballet meets hip hop and modern dance as the dancers flow across the stage in a scene that recalls equally Swan Lake and a Snoop Dog video. It’s exciting, fresh, accessible and beautiful.
It’s a fusion that Rauw favoured during her years in the Vancouver Dance community and hopes to see more of on Toronto stages.
“It seems much more segregated here,” she says, “but we all speak the same basic language, and shows like this try to bring our industry together.”
The audition process for Grief may have been a little unusual for some of the cast. Armet and Rauw put prospective prancers through their paces, but also asked a fairly personal question.
“We asked everybody what grief meant to them,” says Rauw. “It was very interesting. It wasn’t just death related – it was losing a job, losing a contract or a possession. Seeing how everybody experienced it and dealt with it made it so much easier to relate to each other.”