Credit: Dave MacLeod

The connection between oral traditions and dance is a sturdy one. Not only is dancing believed to have been a way to transmit myths in ancient times—a kind of mnemonic device that uses the body to preserve epic stories in the mind—but oral transmission is, even today, the principal way newcomers to ballet companies learn centuries-old ballets.

In Eesti: “Myths and Machines,” Canadian choreographer Peter Trosztmer delves into his family history, received orally and in fragments, and interprets it through a series of dances.

At its core are the “myths,” the deeds of his fisherman grandfather who, at 20, resisted the Soviet occupation of post-World War II Estonia by ferrying people to Sweden, until he was found out, hunted and tortured, and forced to flee to Toronto with his immediate family in 1945. Instead of emphasizing his grandfather’s heroism and ingenuity, Trostzmer focuses on his bad luck, and he resists fetishizing his homeland. Eesti means “Estonia,” but it’s also derogatory French slang for the body and blood of Christ.

Trosztmer’s dance seems to reach into an inner, wounded-animal past and affront it with machines of the present. “Machines” here represent a swirl of ideas—instruments of war, of communication, of transportation, of torture—and there actually is a machine of sorts on stage, a sculpture made from found objects, riddled with microphones that catch tinny vibrations that are the basis for the ghostly score. Hulking and slow, the contraption becomes for Trosztmer something like fate, an unstoppable force dragged slowly across the stage by a powerful winch that he must fight against.

When Trosztmer encounters the machine, he comes unhinged—at the joints, not at the neurons—skating and gliding on his knees. The dance evolves from quadrupedal to bipedal, his strong animal body gradually usurped by a creaky, battle-torn one, dragging itself through the dirt. When a voice of a woman offstage tries to call him back to the present to get him to recite more of the story, he ignores her, and when she confronts him physically, he reacts to the mike like it’s an inoculation and he’s a feral dog at the vet.

He devolves even further: he uses rubbery arms to mimic flagellar propulsion at the cellular level. Descending into an ur-dance risks attenuation: reality thins until it becomes insupportable. One might wander off so far as to make reversing the line, repeating the same steps, and facing the machine, impossible. But in a happy accident, the machine tuckers out. And in a tour de force worthy of Odysseus, Trosztmer reclaims his footing, shooting from the primordial soup into a bootslapping dance as triumphant Estonian folk music blares.