REVIEW: Workshop Performance of The Blood Cycle Explores Family, Fidelity, and Being an Immigrant on Stolen Land
Bearing witness to The Blood Cycle, the most recent offering from queer theatre company lemonTree creations, feels a bit like watching Bambi take his first steps: shaky and a bit unsure-footed, but glimmering with potential.
Now in its second phase of development following a January 2017 workshop as part of Factory Theatre’s Foundry Unit, The Blood Cycle is being featured as part of Theatre Passe Murraille’s new play workshop series, BUZZ.
I was invited into the rehearsal space for an interview by playwright and performer Indrit Kasapi, director Cole Alvis, and assistant director and choreographer William Yong. We spoke not only of The Blood Cycle, but of lemonTree creations (which Alvis and Kasapi co-steer) and the company’s mandate of “seeking equity” in all aspects of their practice. This interview greatly informed my viewing of the piece later that week.
From the beginning of the evening at BUZZ, the working-nature of this showing is clear. Prior to entering the space, spectators are given survey questions about the piece’s narrative clarity. The actors stretch on stage prior to the show and are free to mix and mingle with the guests filtering in. Costumes are sweats, the house lights remain on, lighting cues are spoken, and the actors carry scripts in hand. In the casual pre-show chat, Kasapi sheepishly reveals that he gave the actors a new draft of the script earlier that day.
Before the performance, associate artistic producer at TPM Jiv Parasram delivers a speech acknowledging the land we are situated on, and the Indigenous communities who traditionally took residence here. Although times and practices are changing, many land acknowledgements I have witnessed in Toronto (Tkarón:to) are brief, scripted, sometimes recorded, and usually delivered by a white person. They are mandatory “further ado.” When Parasram speaks, however, he not only names each caretaker of the land, but describes the metaphorical origins of the Dish With One Spoon Territory. In reading the program notes, it appears that this particular acknowledgement comes from lemonTree themselves.
The Blood Cycle opens on Ermal, the central character played by Kasapi (who is Albanian-Canadian), a young Northern Albanian man cracking under the weight of a twenty-seven year blood feud between his family and the one next door, a violent inescapable sentence that has claimed the lives of two generations of men in his family, including, most recently, his older brother Besnik (Dylan Evans). Responsible for Arjola (Tavia Christina), his sister and only living relative, and consumed by the memory of his brother, Ermal is rattled by the revelation that the truth in this blood feud may not be what he thinks it to be.
In its current iteration,The Blood Cycle is a uniquely story-based contemporary dance and theatre hybrid, an anomaly in a form that is often abstract and non-narrative. Yong, the Dora-nominated mastermind behind Zata Omm Dance Projects, creates inventively beautiful physical shapes with the three proficient dancers. Overall, the dance elements work best when a specific prop is utilized within the choreography to advance a particular mood: a pivotal moment involving three metal poles transforms into a hypnotic trio performed in unison that, when paired with composer and sound designer DJ Classic Roots’ minimal but rhythmic recordings, is orbited into another hemisphere of beauty. A bloodied shirt; a sprig of flowers; three identical metal buckets lead to similarly meaningful expressions through dance. The dance elements seem less effective when they are married to narrative text; in these segments, the actors appear preoccupied by the complexity of the task, and the narrative sense becomes muddier and harder to follow. This synthesis of text and movement would no doubt come with more rehearsal time and repetition, but without which it’s hard to say whether this experiment between narrative text and dance is completely successful.
It is not relevant whether or not the performance I witnessed was technically successful, however. “Right now, the work, the story, and how we’re doing it is the thing,” Alvis tells me, and Kasapi agrees that, while there is a workshop presentation scheduled next year, they are cautious about rushing a formal production of this piece. In an artistic moment where common culture is product-based, particularly in competitive Toronto, it’s refreshing to talk to a group of young artists so willing to give their work the exploration time it needs to breathe, evolve, and grow.
Before engaging with this theatrical experience, I worried about my ability to connect to a piece about the North Albanian practice of murder-as-law-enforcement known as gjakmarrja, which plays such a central role in The Blood Cycle. When speaking to Kasapi, however, he is clear in his intentions of writing this story for a largely English-speaking Toronto audience. The Blood Cycle is about being an immigrant on stolen land. It is about reconciliation and acknowledgement, and whether or not either thing is really enough. It is not a piece that offers answers, and instead invites the spectator to investigate their own relationship with land-ownership and privilege; with the ongoing effects of colonialism; with privilege and complacency.
Kate Croome is a Toronto-based writer, performer, administrator and theatre-goer. She is a graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, where she developed her critical eye through a praxis-based curriculum. Currently, Kate works in the Development department at Canadian Stage, where she enjoys not only spectating contemporary performance work, but also fundraising for it.