Christopher House is trying to get to the heart of the matter. And he’s got help from an unlikely source: Canadian writer and academic Anne Carson’s 1986 essay, Eros the Bittersweet, which examines “the instant of desire” as it plays out in the Greek concept of Eros or love.
The seminal work has been fertile ground from which to cultivate a dance piece, as the queer choreographer and Toronto Dance Theatre artistic director has done. His new work, Pteros Tactics, which was primarily inspired by Carson’s essay, opens at the Fleck Dance Theatre on February 16.
Using an academic essay as a starting point for a dance piece sure makes things sound heady. But if you’re exploring “the instant of desire,” isn’t it really just about sex?
“No,” laughs House, over his latte at a café on Parliament St. “We’re actually exploring Eros as the lack of something, as the desire for what is missing in your life.”
Also present is the idea that desire is only possible with a third party; two lovers can only have desire between them if a third person is standing in the way somehow.
“In performance, that’s the audience’s role,” he says. “I’ve become very interested in the relationship between the performers and the audience and in making the audience more complicit in the action. This piece literally spills off the stage at some points.”
Involving the audience in a more active way has been an ongoing theme for House in his recent body of work.
“I’m always asking the question ‘Why bother to have live performance?’” he says. “If you’re asking people to come to a theatre and sit quietly, you have to give them something beyond what you can get in a film.”
Pteros Tactics features a number of duets, exploring the negotiation between someone who desires and the thing that’s desired.
“Some of it is definitely erotic, but there are also many parts that are funny or whimsical,” he says. “Some of it is pretty harsh too. Carson talks a lot about love being bittersweet, so we wanted to explore that aspect too.”
Central to the imagery of the piece is the metaphor of Eros as a ballplayer.
“All through Greek mythology there’s the metaphor of falling in love as being hit with a projectile,” he says. “We have these golden balls that we are working with in rehearsal that the dancers are throwing and hitting each other with.”
Pteros Tactics also capitalizes on a piece of Sappho’s poetry that Carson references, which refers to love as a “limb-loosener.” It’s an obvious point of reference when you’re working in a medium that depends on limber dancers.
House created the work in collaboration with his company of 10 dancers, with the assistance of Belgian dramaturge Guy Cools. Typically acting as a sort of midwife to playwrights in the birthing process of new theatrical works, dramaturges are being used more frequently by choreographers.
“Guy’s role is to support the process,” says House. “He asks a lot of questions and he keeps me on my game. It’s a bit of a difficult relationship to describe, but he brings a tremendous amount of experience to the room.”
TDT has gone through some relationship changes this year, with long-time dancers Luke Garwood and Matt Waldie departing the company and newcomers Syreeta Hector and David Houle stepping up to take their place.
“There’s something nice about the landscape changing,” says House. “You get to know people and you can’t imagine working without them. But when even one new person comes in, it’s a whole new relationship.”