When Tonya Lockyer was 9 years old, she left her home in Newfoundland for the National Ballet School in Toronto where, she says, she and her friends were "evicted from our childhoods." By the time Lockyer left ballet school to study modern dance in New York, she'd seen a few girls go crazy and one starve herself to death. The girls couldn't talk to their parents about their dead friend, Lockyer says, because they harbored a kind of shameful awe they didn't know how to express—awe for the girl who pursued the attenuation of her body all the way to its end.
The tragic dedication of dancers is the guiding principle of Consumed, Lockyer's new solo piece, commissioned by On the Boards and running through March 30. A bitter love letter to dance and dancers, Consumed is part lecture on history and economics and part storytelling from Lockyer's 20-year career (including three deaths, one attempted suicide, and one pilgrimage to Turkey), with some straight-up dance in between.
Declaiming from the stage is a terrible instinct for dancers, most of whom can't act and can't write, but Lockyer, who now lives in Seattle, weaves her stories and choreography in an easy, unforced way. (Her cadence and delivery is reminiscent of storyteller Allen Johnson, which makes sense—Lockyer and her then-husband Sean Ryan met Johnson in 2003, and encouraged and produced some of the early performances that would eventually grow into Johnson's acclaimed monologue Another You.) And the anecdotes have a moral force and tragic depth that justify their telling. In Lockyer's world, dance is not for dilettantes. It is a desperate, sometimes fatal, calling.
The first death arrives before the piece even begins, in its dedication to Jake Robinson, a student of Lockyer's who moved to New York and died of diabetes because, she says, he didn't have health care. The third fatality is a New York horror story, about Monica Bearle—a dance student and friend of Lockyer's who was murdered by her neighbors, cooked into a soup, and fed to hobos in Tompkins Park.
Lockyer also laments the economics of dance in America, sometimes too literally and petulantly. When she ironically deploys Irish step dancing and pseudo-sexy MTV moves to show us how debased the world of dance has become, you want to push her off her high-art horse. But when she tells the audience that the average pay rate for American dancers (even factoring in the salaries of Vegas showgirls and Baryshnikov) is lower than the average salary for unskilled factory workers; and that budgets for arts administration have boomed since the 1980s, while grants for dance companies have become scarcer and scarcer; and that her friend died for lack of health care—the anger in Lockyer's elegy begins to make sense.