Gabriela Guerra Woo in Collision. Photo by David Wong

Exploring concussion through dance in Collision

The show by dancer Gabriela Guerra Woo and choreographer Tiera Joly Pavelich is on now at the Fringe Festival.

Collision, performed by Gabriela Guerra Woo and choreographed by Tiera Joly Pavelich in collaboration with Woo, is a dance concerning “the life-altering effects of concussions and traumatic brain injury.” Pavelich draws on her own experiences of concussion, and judging from Collision, she likens the experience to being murkily trapped under water.

The first act of Collision features a bare bulb tracing an increasingly frenetic path through the dark room, guided by Woo, a gesture to which Pavelich will later return. Much of the middle of the piece is devoted both to Woo’s exploration of the space itself, and of us, her audience, as she at one point picks her way through the seats. For an expression of traumatic experience, the atmosphere is very calm.

The total darkness beyond that initial arresting glow of the light seemed to call for a more industrial score, but the musical backdrop to Collision strongly suggested a children’s choir trapped under the sea. A better score could do wonders for the emotional timbre of the piece, but as it stands the tone is perplexingly gooey. The oceanic metaphor reaches its squirmy zenith during a spoken third act in which “tears…bubble up to towards the surface.” I can forgive the inner urge towards poetry, however cloying, but let the physics of your imagery remain cogent!

Woo remains delightfully springy in her use of space, dangling her lightbulb like a bioluminescent pixie, regardless of the choice of song. However, we do increasingly wonder how this all drags back to the concussion. The leaps of reasoning in Pavelich’s choreography feel all-too ambiguous.

Woo is a charming if sometimes tepid mover. In particular, she possesses quietly engaging hands and feet. Her face, when not totally obscured in darkness, projects an intriguing earnestness that triggers a deeply protective sensation of sympathy. At her best she’s also theatrically limber, but at her worst, clunkily suggestive of those sleepy emotive moments in otherwise dazzlingly aerobic gymnastic floor routines. Some of this impression is owed to the showy flexibility being asked of her in a piece far stronger in its calmer moments, as when Woo at one point looks up at the audience in a mixture, seemingly, of bewilderment and innocent adoration.

The idea of addressing injury through movement is a compelling jumping-off point to a dance precisely because the machismo of a grin-and-bear-it mentality is as ingrained in dance culture as it is in professional kitchens. Complaining, obviously, is taboo. Pavelich would be wise to examine her motivations in creating Collision and to strip the work of its poetic frills. A humbler version of the work could be more candid and convincing, in the end. ■

Collision continues at Studio Jean-Valcourt du Conservatoire (4750 Henri-Julien) on June 8 at 9:45 p.m., June 9 at 4:30 p.m., June 11 at 9:30 p.m., June 15 at 2:30 p.m. & June 16 at 6:30 p.m., $8–$12