Holly Treddenick has a feel-good message for patrons of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University. “Heroes are real!” she tells us, flashing a broad grin as she hangs above the stage in “In the Fire,” an inspirational work of aerialist dance-theater that received its local premiere Nov. 10 at the Alexander Kasser Theater, and runs through Nov. 13.
This is happy news indeed, as a quick glance at our surroundings may reveal more evidence of chicanery and racketeering than stout courage. Cynics have been telling us for some time that heroism is a fraud, and altruism a fairy tale fit only for children. Yet cynics overlook the firefighters and rescue workers among us; and they forget that old-fashioned virtue, so démodé that we can scarcely pronounce the words without snickering — filial piety. Treddenick, however, has not forgotten.
Call her old-fashioned. But the director of Femmes du Feu, a circus-dance company in Ontario, is the daughter of a firefighter named George Albert Treddenick, who spent 37 years charging into burning buildings on “recovery” missions that had little chance of bringing out anyone alive. “In the Fire” is her tribute to her Dad and others like him — hardy, self-effacing types who do the best they can in terrible situations, and then simply “get on with it.” They still make them that way up in Canada, eh. And not just Canada! When the unthinkable happens, and catastrophe strikes (The Twin Towers, say, or Chernobyl), it’s surprising the way some people step forward.
“In the Fire” has a light touch, however, sparing us the gruesome details. The ambience is dreamlike, incorporating discreet projections; and Peak Performances has commissioned the wistful score, a canticle composed by John Gzowski and performed by Opus 8.
At the outset, Treddenick leads the members of this chorus onstage, all ghostly in white veils, bowing and halting in wisps of smoke. Shedding their coverings, they will accompany the action with wordless chants, moans and prayers (“Save us from heat!”), also matter-of-factly sketching George Treddenick’s biography. We hear his voice, too, in snatches, modestly deflecting praise and recalling those he tried to save but couldn’t. At one point, Holly Treddenick phones her 80-year-old Dad at home, and he expresses tearful thanks. (OK, that’s gimmicky.)
The aerialist’s main job, however, is to animate the various props hanging from the flies, which include a rope, a ladder, a pole and a suit of firefighter’s clothing. Slipping into the heavy uniform, she camps it up to the tune of “My Winnipeg,” high-kicking and performing a soft-shoe in rubber boots. Like her Dad, this gutsy performer has a knack for getting herself into precarious situations. Later, she clambers to a height where she struggles and appeals for help like a woman trapped by flames on the top floor of a building.
She also has the skills to extract herself from danger. A cleverly tied slip knot allows her to descend smoothly to the floor, where her body heaves and thrashes. Her staunch figure inspires confidence, so one never fears for her. She seems capable of taking a nap while snuggled in a loop of rope, or of sneaking a moment’s quiet meditation while hanging upside down.
In later episodes of “In the Fire,” Treddenick toys with the dreaded element itself, twirling burning torches that she ignites and extinguishes, swallowing fire like a magician and cupping it in her hand. Summoning a memory of childhood, she assembles a life-size fireman doll from various articles of clothing, so her Dad can watch over her as she toasts marshmallows over a cozy little flame in the backyard.
In the end, she leads the chorus on a cheerful parade, marching and skipping. Could we all follow her? Maybe. It’s reassuring to think that among us there are heroes waiting for destiny’s call, when an emergency that no one expects will reveal what stuff they’re made of.
Remaining performances of “In the Fire” take place Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 13 at 3 p.m. at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.
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