‘Evil Queen’ in Grimm-inspired immersive dance project inspired by performer’s gender fluidity

Dancer Joey Arrigo, in subtle makeup and with stubble peeking through over Zoom, doesn’t identify as non-binary.

Rather, they’re gender fluid. “Not neither,” in Arrigo’s own words, “but both.”

And they’re also not just a dancer — far from it. Arrigo, who uses the pronoun they, is a drag queen, a Cirque du Soleil alum and, as of the last few months, the Evil Queen in the Toronto-based immersive dance show “A Grimm Night,” produced by the TranscenDance Project at the Great Hall on Queen Street West.

Arrigo’s approach to the Evil Queen was a collaborative one with TranscenDance artistic director Julia Cratchley. Together, Arrigo and Cratchley imagined an antagonist rooted in the historic and twisted Grimm fairy tales, but with an androgynous approach to gender.

“Aesthetically, we chatted about how this person wanted to present,” Arrigo said of building their take on the Evil Queen.

“In drag, I tuck everything away. I asked Julia bluntly: ‘would you like this character to have a penis or a vagina?’ Julia thought it would be best to throw off the audience, to see gorgeous, feminine energy, but with a penis. And that’s what we did. I did a more androgynous version of my drag makeup. I showed my muscular legs. But all the feminine movement came out in moments of seduction and anger.”

Cratchley jumped in, offering context from a casting perspective.

“The way I cast roles has almost nothing to do with how they physically look,” she said. “It’s what feels right, regardless of gender or anatomy.”

For Arrigo, the Evil Queen is a formative role in that it mirrors Arrigo’s real-life androgyny. The part’s sinister, sometimes-spooky choreography is informed by a flexible approach to gender and, in part, by Arrigo’s previous dance and acrobatic projects — particularly those with Cirque du Soleil. Arrigo toured Europe with Cirque’s “Kooza” at age 21 and later had the chance to move to Montreal to create a new character, Waz, who became the protagonist of “Volta.”

The journey from “Kooza” to “Volta” was another fluid one, entailing crossing the threshold between trickster and hero. “Kooza” saw Arrigo luring a lead character into a magical-yet-deceitful world of wonder — for “Volta”’s Waz, on the other hand, Arrigo originated the role of the person being tricked, a blue-haired “loser” figure in a social media-obsessed world.

Imagining a Cirque du Soleil lead was a rewarding challenge for Arrigo. Not only did they need to have excellent dance and acrobatic chops, but they had to develop a keen understanding of this new character’s inner psyche while still flexing that athletic prowess.

“I had to think of what was in my mind and my heart and channel that into my movement to tell a story,” Arrigo said.

“I took myself from being just a dancer to also being an actor and an artist. The work became so much deeper for me.”

While touring “Volta” in the United States, the pandemic hit, sending Arrigo home to Toronto. But despite initial heartbreak — a hopelessness felt across the entire performing arts sector in March 2020 — the pause from Cirque du Soleil was fortuitous.

“I came home. I started my journey as a drag queen. And then Julia called me to join ‘A Grimm Night.’”

“A Grimm Night” — inspired by Grimm fairy tales and immersive experiences such as “Sleep No More” in New York City — has had growing pains of its own due to the pandemic. May 2020 and January 2021 productions of the dance piece were scrapped six weeks and two and a half weeks before opening, respectively. COVID closures left dancers and Cratchley alike frustrated.

Cratchley, in particular, has been dreaming of realizing an immersive dance experience in Toronto since 2015. In her estimation, there’s no time to lose in making that vision a reality.

“I’ve always wanted to create my own work,” said Cratchley.

“I was traveling and seeing all this immersive work,” continued Cratchley, speaking about performances that involved the audience. For “A Grimm Night,” audience members followed performers from space to space and were able to see the action up close.

“It was so clear to me that this sort of thing was missing in our city. I trained in a contemporary ballet conservatory — being in that concert world of dance is amazing, but it isn’t always translatable to a general public. Sometimes there’s a disconnect, and you miss a market. You miss the chance to bring general audiences in to see art, to see dance. ‘Sleep No More’ had such mixed audiences — date nights, people going out with friends — it was such a different crowd from a contemporary dance show. We need that in Toronto.”

The dream for “A Grimm Night”? A longer performance run. After so many rescheduled shows, “A Grimm Night” was open to audiences for just one weekend in April.

“The city is craving it,” said Cratchley. “We get incredible feedback. In a perfect world, these shows would run for a month or two.”

All Cratchley can guarantee for “A Grimm Night,” featuring the gender-bent Evil Queen and an entire corps of talented dancers and acrobats, is a remount in Toronto in early 2023.

She’s ready for the challenge that remount will entail.

“It’s a lot of work, any show is a lot of work, but when it’s immersive that becomes tenfold,” said Cratchley.

“I love having to figure it out. I love challenging myself and my creative ways. I love creating the spiderweb of an immersive show.”

Arrigo agrees. After a career under Cirque du Soleil’s big tops and on dance stages around the world, they have a keen understanding of what should be next for dance in Toronto: More experimentation and more fluidity.

“Classical dance and immersive experiences. Gender bending, experimenting. Not neither, but both.”

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