Artistic Director Hillar Liitoja founded DNA Theatre in 1982 with POUND FOR POUND, inspired by the poetry of Ezra Pound. DNA immediately captured attention with its unique polyphonic style of simultaneously intertwined texts, startling imagery and poems directly addressed to audience-members.
Liitoja's obsession with Pound resulted in several new iterations, finally culminating in POUND-O-RAMA (1985). This no-intermission three-hour shambolic exultation was admired by the Globe and Mail's critic for its brilliance and craziness, making him feel – as if a large symbolist painting had come to life. By review's end he succumbed to a one-word paragraph – Unforgettable.
Responding to a small-town-Ontario youth's murder of two schoolmates, Liitoja wrote THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IN ORANGEVILLE (1987). One audience member found it gave her – a new way of looking at confusion & Reality – while another felt – like being in a David Lynch film. Others were not amused – Stop before you bore people – and resentment was incited – [Theatre] is not an opportunity for fascist-like abuse of the audience, from regimentation at the door to an incomprehensible series of images without meaning.
The audacious ORANGEVILLE's controversy continued to swirl at Montreal's prestigious Festival de Théâtre des Amériques, from – étrange et sublime – to – A case of the emperor's new clothes! Nevertheless, ORANGEVILLE seemed sufficiently attired to receive a Jury Prize for Innovation in Theatrical Writing – a recognition-niche created specifically for DNA.
DNA was curious to see if its unique environmental aesthetic could successfully be applied to a classic play while continuing its aesthetic: the next challenge was to see if it could successfully be applied to a classic play. Liitoja took on HAMLET (1989), the ultimate challenge, and the resulting eight-hour no-intermission crash of simultaneity won him his first Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction and DNA’s second invitation to the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques.
DNA next obsessed on the time's most critical social issue (HIV / AIDS) and worked within a collective process for the first time. The first step was THE PANEL (1990) at Rhubarb! followed by a much-expanded version at year's end at Palmerston Library. This stage culminated with SICK (1991), a visceral implosion which won Liitoja his second Dora for Outstanding Direction.
Putting aside, but only for a moment, the world of despair and death, DNA exploded with POUNDEMONIUM (1993), a 3-hour extravaganza which Eye Weekly called a – whirlwind, chaotic tribute, literal pandemonium, mad, wonderfully mad – before deciding it was – the ultimate theatre experience, hands down.
With THE LAST SUPPER (1993) DNA returned to the AIDS-tragedy – though never specifying this – with a hyper-real-time performance of euthanasia enacted in the extreme intimacy of the lovers' bedroom which also accommodated the tiny audience. It was showered with Doras: Outstanding Production, Direction and Performance (Ken McDougall). The work also brought Liitoja a Chalmers Award for Outstanding New Canadian Play.
THE ARTAUD CYCLE was produced from the mid- to late-90s, with DNA attempting to put Antonin Artaud’s theories into practice. The more Liitoja studied the revolutionary French madman's writings, the more he realized that DNA had already been following many of Artaud’s injunctions. Unwilling to repeat itself, DNA was obliged to reinvent its aesthetic. In the end, DNA developed a new style of text-free theatre which incorporated ritualized movement, environmental space design, “symphonic” lights and street performance, all of which foreshadowed Liitoja’s subsequent work as a choreographer and his explorations into theatrical installation. This cycle included a slender performance-installation, REMNANTS, a dream-like haze for solo ballerina on a long oak table amidst a disaster of broken white plates punctuated by Mozart-slivers, flares and explosions. At the High Performance Rodeo festival (2000), Calgary Herald's critic found the – tantalizing tidbit – made him – think of the surviving poetry of Sappho – tiny, exquisite fragments.
THE OBSERVATION (2002) was DNA’s first full-length theatrical installation, a meditation marking the company’s 20th Anniversary. Walking barefoot through an entire floor of an old Victorian house, the audience was whiplashed by a sensory panorama: a grass-floored room with careening finches; a kitchen from hell with knives embedded in walls; a funeral parlour redolent of rotting flowers with seashells poised on black earth, all illuminated by propane torches. THE OBSERVATION won a Dora for Outstanding Sound Design before being remounted at the inaugural Free Fall Festival of experimental performance.
I KNOW AND FEEL THAT FATE IS HARSH BUT I AM SO LOATH TO ACCEPT THIS (2004) was DNA’s first full-length ballet. Featuring six ballerinas, it was an attempt to make a “radical” ballet – one that revered the foundations of classical ballet while simultaneously smashing certain balletic restrictions. A tremendous success, it received nightly standing ovations – another first for DNA!
DNA’s second ballet, still radical but very different, was I OF THE BEHOLDER - ballet bagatelle (2006), a work that reflected the tyranny of both time and mathematics in our lives. Critically acclaimed, it was considered – a work that is rigorous, disciplined and surprisingly refreshing for something so harsh. Liitoja is a fascinating artist and there are always riches to be had at a DNA presentation. ballet bagatelle shows his growing mastery of an idiom. (Kathleen Smith, freelance dance critic)
In 2007, DNA presented SHE ALONE, a haunting portrait of a woman in distress. Performed for a tiny audience that sat outside a room with cut-outs in the walls and door, this text-free intimate work had an indisputable element of voyeurism. SHE left audiences stunned: no applause was ever forthcoming at any performance's end. We ourselves were stunned by impressions left in our Guestbooks, particularly one from a female space designer – It was quite difficult to watch for me. This was exactly how my daughter behaved after her dad died.
WIT IN LOVE (2009) was based on Sky Gilbert's eponymous novella, concerning the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The character of his brother was inspired by Liitoja; the action occurred all in his kitchen, resulting in a performance-installation in which Liitoja, for the first time, became a solo performer, simultaneously playing the roles of Wit, his brother and the narrator. The strangeness of the setting, combined with the idiosyncratic performance, made the Theatre Centre invite WIT to its festival, Free Fall ’10.
RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT (2014), again a radically-differently conceived ballet, was inspired by the childhood game and encompassed the widest range of human feelings. Perhaps the – deafening – gunshots separating the emotion-expressions made the Dance Current reviewer – eel trapped as the – tension was palpable; the energy, dark. While immune to the conception’s Oulipian harsh rigour, she saw the dancers as – remarkably accomplished technicians subtly expressing modulations in emotional tonality – concluding – their individual movement signatures are very clear and each dancer is revealed in his distinctiveness; a departure from the ballet form’s usual preference for homogeneity.
Liitoja has recently devoted his energies to writing. His detailed recollection of co-designing WIT, published in a book on Gilbert’s creations, Compulsive Acts (2014), made one reviewer suggest it – should be compulsory reading for any aspiring set designer or performance artist. Most recently Liitoja has gingerly dipped his toes in the burbling waters of podcasting.
It is safe to say that few Canadian arts organizations have aroused such emotional, visceral passions in their audiences. As DNA Theatre proudly – and accurately – states – Whether audiences have been thrilled or horrified, confused or exhilarated, one thing is always true: you never forget a DNA experience.