by Jessica Hein
On a recent July evening in a downtown Toronto neighbourhood, a large crowd gathered in front of a small, two-story brick home. People spilled across yards, onto the sidewalks, and into the tree-lined street. They arrived by foot, bicycle, and skateboard and came with their children, friends, neighbours. As we stood before a tiny front garden, two teenage girls ran down the front steps to face the crowd. The beats and rhythms of an electro house track swept the street, musicians picked up their instruments to lay down notes in between notes, and the girls began to dance as if they were alone, in their living room. A woman in her late fifties opened her screen door and, with movements both ordinary and unexpected, she commanded the attention of the audience. Her body shifted and turned, at times graceful, abrupt, sad, and raw. These were movements that came from the everyday, that were familiar, but that somehow pushed beyond the commonplace and into a realm that was beautiful and also disruptive.This was the beginning of Sheer, a contemporary dance performance that was the result of collaboration between professional choreographer Allen Kaeja and the Thompson family. As part of Porch View Dances, Sheer was one of seven performances in the annual community dance festival. Held on the front porch and in the yard of playwright Judith Thompson, Sheer offered a glimpse into the inner workings, intricacies, and stories of the Thompson household. It also invited viewers to open their eyes and their senses to the neighbourhood—to strangers, friends, and neighbours, to the houses, windows, and yards that often go unnoticed, to the space of the street and the sidewalk—all that is ordinary and everyday.
So often in the city, we refuse to be fully in tune with our surroundings. The sights and sounds—the conversations of strangers, the steady stream of traffic, the barrage of advertising—can be overwhelming and so we turn inward, mentally, by closing off our senses, or physically, through the sound barrier created by MP3 players, cell phones, and earbuds. The spectacle of the city and its commerce can at times numb us to our environs. It affects how we relate to one another and to our neighbourhoods. In many instances, the results are anonymity and places without pause.
It is possible for art to jolt us awake, slow us down, or shift our perception of a site. It can break our usual rhythm or create a slide in time. In this way, art can act as a counter-site that exists in between the spaces of the everyday. Through the performance of Sheer the viewers were asked to slow down, stop in the middle of a street, and witness the performers, each other, and the local environment. People passing through the neighbourhood were drawn by the sounds of music and voices, and by performances that turned front yards into stages, everyday gestures into contemporary dance. This was a performance that both activated and created a place of pause in a neighbourhood. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Slowness is an act of resistance, not because slowness is good in itself but because of all that it makes room for, the things that don’t get measured and can’t be bought.” She is writing here about a deeper and broader kind of experience of place, one that is expansive, indefinable, and full of possibilities. By slowing down and engaging with our environments, we can also open up a space within ourselves—a space in which there is the possibility of poetry, epiphanies, pleasure, interpretation, and purpose.When a community gathers in a street, when the doors of houses are flung open wide, and when bodies move through joy, sorrow, and desire in order to express the stories of their lives, a gap can open in the everydayness of life. As viewers we were pushed beyond our commonplace expectations of neighbourhoods and were invited to wonder about the inner lives of the houses on our streets. The philosopher Jacques Rancière considers the relationship between contemplation and community. He writes, “An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators.” Viewing, he argues, is not passive. It is a vital part of learning, connecting ideas, and layering stories. The engaged spectator is able to transform an experience, confirm an idea, or understand one place by comparing it to another. We can take what is before us and link it to a story we already know, have experienced, dreamt, or invented.
The performance of Sheer interrupted the daily rhythms of a neighbourhood with moments of poetry, spontaneity, and possibility. It offered the community a space that was at once separate from and connected to the myriad facets of life. Through a pause in the street, through a performance that was a reflection of intimate moments, and through a shared witnessing, viewers were given the opportunity to see glimpses of themselves in one another and to create a space in which new community narratives could form.
Featured image: Aria Evans
Solnit, Rebecca. “From the Faraway Nearby: Finding Time.” Orion. September/October, 2007, p2.
Rancière, Jacques, and Gregory Elliott. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009, p22.
 Ibid, 13.