Fire Exit Theatre & Corps Bara Dance Theatre Search For God in Absence

Corps Bara Dance Theatre rehearsing "Cleansing," one of six dance pieces in Absence. Photo Credit: Char G. Photography

Corps Bara Dance Theatre rehearsing “Cleansing,” one of six dance pieces in Absence. Photo Credit: Char G. Photography

What is the value of faith in a world full of injustices? This is one of many tough questions Fire Exit Theatre and Corps Bara Dance Theatre fearlessly tackle in Absence. Blending theatre and dance, Absence explores the doubt, fear, and perhaps even anger that some experience in their personal relationship with God.

Written and directed by Val Lieske, Absence stages three characters (played by Brendan Andrews, Jennifer Beacom, and Sarah Irwin) who feel utterly overwhelmed by the world. So overwhelmed by the world, in fact, that they are spiritually exhausted. For if God is everywhere, as he claims to be, then why do bad things continue to happen in our world today?

For these socially conscious youth, it is the poor and the downtrodden who suffer the most from God’s absence. And what frustrates the youth is that the marginalized are asked to remain firm in their faith. But how can one, the youth ask, trust in God when he has failed them, and so many others at home and abroad?

And their shared frustration reflects a larger phenomenon regarding youth and traditional teachings. For youth, of what relevance does the Bible have today in our chaotic world? How can we apply its teachings to unprecedented levels of disaster and conflict? And this scrutiny extends to the church where youth retention is a very present issue. What can the church do to help alleviate the dissatisfaction youth feel towards the Bible and its inadequacy to make sense of their everyday experiences? Lieske suggests that the church needs to modernize and acknowledge current affairs. Singing gospels can only get one so far in their spiritual journey, especially when there are so many questions to be asked. And so, the church needs to welcome and foster critical discussions where youth feel they can raise questions that challenge the foundations of faith.

Unfortunately, Absence lacks a central narrative to tie its main arguments together. The characters simply debate amongst themselves various positions regarding God’s inexplicable absence in the world. And they do so by making vague, heavy handed observations on politics, crime, and the media. So when there is a truly potent question raised, it has no support to carry it where it needs to go in order to have a real stimulating effect. Instead, the question becomes engulfed in an exasperating amount of talk.

Where the production does manage to hold our interest is in its six dance pieces led by Corps Bara’s dance ensemble (Laura Barcelo, Jessalyn Britton, Sarah Curtis, Valentia Dimitriou, Jason Galeos, Natalka Lewis, Sylvie Maquin, Caitlin Unrau). The reason being is that each piece is focused on one or two central ideas.

One particular piece that stands out is Cleansing, choreographed by Amy Meyers. Downstage centre, there is a bowl of holy water atop a pedestal. And the dancers each try to bring themselves to it, but they cannot for they feel unworthy. Externalized here is the spiritual agony that doubt creates. And it reads across the dancers’ faces and bodies as they frantically circle the holy water. The piece ends when finally, a dancer gives herself over and smashes the water with her hands. It is a striking image that brings the first act to a close.

And then, there is Cinch, choreographed by Krysten Blair. Setting up this piece is talk surrounding the debate between faith and reason; religion and science. And this piece explores this conversation with a recurring phrase of movement where the dancers pull apart threads or, depending on your perspective, split atoms. For once we apply scientific rationality to religious beliefs, we fall into an almost infinite series of questions that only lead to more questions.

These physical meditations of the soul are executed gracefully by the dancers.

But regardless, the sort of dramatic interest needed to fill an approx. two-hour run time is not here. The elements of the show operate in segments that result in a bland pattern of “acting/dancing/acting” and so on. There is no cohesion between the acting and dance segments until the end, but then it is too late. The audience is ready to exit the theatre.

Absence suffers from pacing issues and clumsy dialogue. While its dance pieces are exciting, the overall production lacks the necessary momentum to truly leave an impact on its audiences.

Fire Exit Theatre in partnership with Corps Bara Dance Theatre presented Absence at the Lantern Community Church, Feb. 25 – Mar 1, 2015.

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