Toronto Dance Theatre's Gail Skrela performs Christopher House's world premiere Persephone's Lunch.
Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Toronto Dance Theatre

Toronto Dance Theatre

Premiere Dance Theatre
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
November 27–December 1, 2001

Reviewed by Deirdre Kelly

Homer's ancient epic poem The Odyssey, which describes the long and elliptical journey its hero takes on his way home to Ithaca from the battle at Troy, has always been a rich source of inspiration to artists of all stripes—James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Derek Walcott, and the Coen brothers among them.

Into this illustrious crowd now strays Canadian contemporary dance choreographer Christopher House, who excavated parts of The Odyssey for Persephone's Lunch, a world premiere. Performed by and created in collaboration with his Toronto Dance Theatre, the hour long work is fragmentary and eclectic in style and content—Homeric in the sense that it moves freely through time and the imagination. It toys with epic themes: identity-building; the transformational powers of art, and specifically, the power of dance to transcend and alter consciousness.

But its biggest fault, and this is what will keep it forever out of the canon, is that it yields no joy in discovery. The Odyssey's power lies in describing us all. Persephone's Lunch instead describes a choreographer's limitations within the context of a gold-mine text.

In a voiceover at the start, House pronounces that he is "floating on a text," and invokes Umberto Eco, who once said that The Odyssey is a search for a story that does not exist, but will unfold. And it comes into focus in subtle, imaginative ways. A group of men on all fours suggests the transformation of Odysseus's male crew into beasts at the hands of the comely witch, Circe. Jessica Runge's whirling dervish of a solo that follows a video/voiceover account of the making of narcotic drink quite wonderfully suggests the transporting powers of movement, as she voyages to "the other side" of consciousness.

Designer James Robertson's set design of slatted wooden grates suspended from the ceiling suggests a shipwreck, while the more than two dozen dangling water bottles (also symbolic of the sea) recall Penelope's rowdy suitors perpetually at banquet (hence the "Lunch" in House's title).

Peter Roelof Snipe's exotic lighting design, meanwhile, is a rose-fingered Grecian sunset that bathes the low-lying banquet table, surrounded by sheepskins and crowded with pomegranates—Persephone's symbol—in a sultry twilight glow. And meandering Odyssey-like around the globe, Phil Strong's original score incorporates enticing Middle Eastern undulations of sound with the desultory echo of lapping waves.

While the poem lends the dance philosophical purpose and a distinct sensual feel, The Odyssey is just background. House created Persephone's Lunch as the final installment in a trilogy that has enabled him to successfully expand the horizons of his artistic talents over the last three years. In both Nest (1999) and Severe Clear (2000), he stuffed eccentric bits of information to show that the artist is a reflection of his times. The formula worked great twice. But the third time is not so lucky.

In Persephone's Lunch, the arcana (a laundry list of sheep diseases narrated by House in a voiceover) and the non sequiturs (a jokey on-screen closeup of Brad Pitt's abs on the December cover of Vanity Fair) are delivered through a multimedia pastiche of video, text, and fleet, sensual movement endowed with a gestural language that looks like ancient hieroglyphics.

For the most part, the eclecticism comes across as miscellaneous nonsense—largely because House has not been able to pin it to a concrete idea. The free-flowing theme of artistic and intellectual investigation only seems confusing, without end. Worse, it seems a kind of dead-end shtick, a repeat performance of techniques that yielded magic in previous works but here just look hackneyed.

In the final analyis, Persephone's Lunch has the whiff of someone winging it. And it's this lack of conscientiousness—real or imagined—that ultimately feels like a ripoff for the viewer.

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