‘It’s Pure Anatomy’: Performers Form Intricate Human Sculptures in ‘Bodies in Urban Spaces’

They squeeze through ridiculously narrow openings, pile on top of each other in intricate human sculptures, break free from bike racks and railings, perch perilously on apartment balconies, wrap around lamp posts, descend cascading stairs and generally twisting your body in ways you absolutely shouldn’t try at home.

And why? All originally from a street performance event called “Bodies in Urban Spaces”. It lands in Toronto for the first time this week. It’s part of the Bentway’s 2022 season, STREET, described as “a summer of public art, with installations, performances and talks.”

Audiences are guided on a brisk march through a pre-determined route where they can stop to watch groups of costumed performers in brightly colored sweatshirts and hoodies reshaping the cityscape with their full-bodied interventions. It’s fun but also instructive. It reminds us how easy it is to overlook the details of our built environment, to forget that it is there to meet human needs, not the other way around.

Seeing bodies frozen in unfamiliar poses in unlikely places also draws attention to the variety of scale, texture, and architectural style – or lack thereof – found in the urban environment.

“Bodies in Urban Spaces” is the brainchild of 62-year-old Austrian multidisciplinary artist Willi Dorner. He started this globe-trotting event in 2007 in hopes of awakening a new appreciation for the urban environment. Dorner sees it as a way to reimagine and reuse the structures and spaces around us.

Dorner rarely travels to organize the event these days, entrusting the task to his able assistant Esther Baio. She flew in from Vienna last November to hold auditions for the cast of 20 locally selected people. The call-in audition listed the types of performance training required: “circus, physical theatre, breaking up, contemporary, contact improvisation and parkour”.

Baio also surveyed the neighborhood surrounding Bentway’s Fort York Boulevard headquarters during his fall visit to plot a tentative route. She’s been back for a week for an intense period of rehearsals that culminated Wednesday evening with a parade in full dress for the benefit of the media, Bentway staff and a small army of volunteer guides. Perplexed passers-by sometimes followed.

“Bodies in Urban Spaces” places extreme, even potentially dangerous, physical demands on its performers. So the Bentway wisely hired a paramedic to attend every show…just in case. On Wednesday evening, the paramedic, carrying a trolley full of emergency medical equipment, closely observed two performers who appeared to be struggling to unlock themselves from the position they had been in for several minutes. Everything was fine, just a little muscle cramp.

Actor Liisa Smith said the rehearsal period was very focused. “Esther just showed us the shapes she wanted and you had to be ready to go.”

“It’s pure anatomy,” said Bradley Eng, whose rugged strength meant he often found himself deep in a pile of bodies. Eng said the biggest physical challenge is holding unnatural positions for long periods of time. It could last up to six minutes if there is a large crowd wanting the chance to see it.

“You run from place to place and then freeze in a crazy position,” Eng said. “But it’s fun, the band is great and so is the money.”

Baio said the Toronto cast really rose to the challenge. “Interpreters have to learn to depend on each other. They were a great group. You could say they bonded physically and mentally.

A few practical notes: the course will remain secret except for those who register to attend online with the Bentway. It’s free, but capacity is limited to a maximum of 175 people. Participants will be informed of the place of departure by e-mail 24 hours before the chosen performance. The course is about three kilometers long, all on tarmacked ground. The event is expected to last approximately one hour and will not necessarily end where it began.

It’s a street show, so don’t expect convenient access to restrooms. Additionally, the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday suggests that taking protective clothing and/or an umbrella might be prudent.


Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based writer who covers opera and dance for the Toronto Star.


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