Smart theatre: Dancers, musicians tell love story in adaptation of By Grand Central Station

By | March 13, 2020

It says something about Winnipeg’s support for live theatre that not even a global pandemic kept some local theatre fans at home Thursday night.

As Broadway shut down and other theatre companies around Canada cancelled shows, Prairie Theatre Exchange had the bad luck of opening its new show on the very day Manitoba announced its first presumptive cases of COVID-19.

While there were certainly more empty seats than usual for an opening night, roughly a couple hundred theatregoers were out Thursday night for the premiere of By Grand Central Station — an intriguing and achingly human blend of poetry, music and dance that explores the agony and ecstasy of love.

The production itself has had a winding route to the stage.

Inspired by Canadian Elizabeth Smart’s much-praised 1945 prose poetry novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the Winnipeg music duo Heavy Bell — Royal Canoe’s Matt Peters and local stage mainstay Tom Keenan — crafted their 2018 concept album By Grand Central Station.

The show now onstage at PTE, in turn, draws its inspiration from that album, with director Thomas Morgan Jones’s production featuring another half-dozen musicians supporting Peters and Keenan, and adding two dancers.

Dancers Bohrn and Garrido are sometimes graceful, sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic as they deliver performances that convey the varied emotions that come with being in love. (Leif Norman/PTE)

Like Smart’s novel, By Grand Central Station is not a linear, plot-driven piece — but it does tell a story of sorts. Smart based her novel loosely on her 18-year on-and-off relationship with fellow poet George Barker, with whom she had four children — in spite of his marriage to another woman.

Here, that story is told in part through Heavy Bell’s music — Smart’s poetry set to songs by Peters and Keenan. Most of the songs are ethereal and haunting, while others rock out with a soaring, invigorating energy.

Contemporary dancers Carol-Ann Bohrn and Alexandra Garrido, in flowing white dresses suggestive of a wedding, deliver performances that don’t so much tell a story as convey the emotions of love. That means they’re sometimes graceful, sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic.

Taken all together, By Grand Central Station is consistently captivating — it has a free-flowing, poetic and dreamlike quality, enhanced by striking lighting design by Jaymez — but it doesn’t feel like its individually fascinating parts always gel into a greater whole.

By Grand Central Station’s blend of music, poetry and dance is consistently captivating, though it feels it is not always entirely cohesive. (Leif Norman/PTE)

Bohrn and Garrido are talented dancers and their choreography is precise and polished, but it sometimes begins to feel repetitive, even in a show that runs a very lean 60 minutes.

It also feels like they’re sometimes upstaged by the music — I found my attention frequently drifting to the talented eight-member band on stage with them.

That may not necessarily be a bad thing. By Grand Central Station could be seen as a musical performance with dance, or a dance piece with live music — but for me, it wasn’t entirely successful in marrying its artistic disciplines.

In spite of that, though, it does succeed in evoking powerful emotions, and reminding us of the joy and pain of that very human, messy experience of love. 

Bohrn and Garrido are backed by a talented eight-member band made up of Matt Peters (piano), Tom Keenan (guitar), Julie Penner (violin), Natalie Dawe (cello), Natalie Bohrn (double bass), Derek Allard (percussion), Andrea Dicks (horn) and Aja McMillan (trumpet). (Leif Norman/PTE)

That may be just what we need at times like this — a fact Jones alluded to in his pre-show remarks to the opening night audience.

“With all that’s going on in the world right now,” he said, “it’s very special to be surrounded by community.”

By Grand Central Station runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until March 29.

Winnipeg theatres respond to coronavirus

On Friday, after the province recommended cancelling of postponing events involving more than 250 people, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre announced it is cancelling its next show.

RMTC’s production of A Thousand Splendid Suns was set to open March 19 on the theatre’s John Hirsch Mainstage. The theatre will contact ticket holders to make arrangements.

“We’re hopeful the run of The Legend of Georgia McBride [slated to open April 23] will proceed as planned but this will be determined at a later date,” the province’s largest theatre said in a statement Friday afternoon.

The last performances of Women of the Fur Trade, which closes at the smaller RMTC Warehouse theatre on Saturday, will go ahead as planned.

Meanwhile, performances and classes are continuing at Prairie Theatre Exchange, “but we are following the government recommendation to limit audiences to 250 or less,” the theatre said in statement on its website Friday. PTE will exchange tickets with no fees.

“Our decisions may change as the situation evolves and are guided by the health and safety of our audience, volunteers, staff and community,” the theatre’s statement said.

Manitoba Theatre for Young People has also cancelled its next show.

The Australian company that was slated to perform Beep at MTYP from March 20-29 has decided to cancel its tour, the children’s theatre said in a Facebook post.

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