Saturday, December 17, 2016

Music for the Winter Solstice at Heritage Hall

In what has quickly become a Music on Main tradition, Artistic Director David Pay once again programmed a year-end evening of music to celebrate the winter solstice at Heritage Hall. Back to lead the audience through the chorus of her haunting Winter Carol, the final piece on the program, was former MoM composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw. Joining Shaw on stage were local singer-songwriter Veda Hille, pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, and guitarist Adrian Verdejo.

The quartet, in different configurations, took the audience through an eclectic line-up of music, including two additional carols: Alfredo Santa Ana's spare and spine-tingly A Short Song for the Longest Night of the Year; and new MoM composer-in-residence Nicole Lizée's cheeky jingle Solstice Noir. Iwaasa rained down liquid sunshine in a stirring rendition of Denis Gougeon's Piano-soleil and later joined Shaw, on violin, for a beautiful rendition of Arvo Pärt's classic Spiegel im Spiegel (the Little Chamber Music Series That Could's Diane Park was in the room and I couldn't help thinking of our own danced performance to the same piece for the summer solstice of 2015). Verdejo performed two solos: John Mark Sherlock's Musiquita; and the world premiere of Rodney Sharman's for Guitar. And the incomparable Hille took her own turn at the piano, reprising two recent favourites: Let Me Die, from Onegin, her recent musical hit with Amiel Gladstone; and Eurydice, an adaptation of a Rilke sonnet that she wrote for Pay's Orpheus Project at the Cultch a couple of years back.

All of this flew by in a compact 90 minutes and was a great way to warm both the body and the soul on an unusually cold solstitial night in Vancouver. As Pay noted in his comments at the top of the evening, some rituals deserve to be repeated.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

After the Fall at EDAM

Last night I dashed from a board meeting to make it to EDAM's latest choreographic series presentation, After the Fall. Am I ever glad I made the extra effort to be there. Not only was the Western Front teeming with people I knew, but the program was excellent (albeit with minor caveats about one piece). It was just the restorative re-immersion I needed into the amazing performance work of this community after so many weeks with my head up my butt working on my own show.

First up was Julianne Chapple's Self Portrait, a work created and performed in collaboration with Maxine Chadburn and Francesca Frewer. With the windows on the western wall of the first-floor EDAM studios left uncovered, and thus admitting a degree of extra sparkle from the streetlights outside, a dancer enters from the open upstage left door. She is wearing black shorts and a white push-up bra; her long mane of hair tumbles down in front of her face. As she begins a slow journey across the width of the upstage wall, we gradually become aware of another figure seated downstage in shadow watching her progress along with us. And what fascinates about the upstage woman's slow and sinuous movement is that it is as much vertical as it is horizontal. That is, more than once she dips her torso downward and first raises one leg in a gorgeous arabesque, before resting it against the wall and then raising the other leg to join it and pausing there in a pose that put me in mind of all those surrealist photos of disembodied, upside-down mannequin legs by the likes of Man Ray and others (and the fact that all the dancers were clad in a similar underwear model-like manner and rarely showed their faces only reinforced this image). But the first dancer does not remain in this position; she continues her curious walk on/along the wall, exiting through the open door upstage left. Soon another dancer emerges from the opposite door and begins to traverse a similar gymnastic journey along the upstage wall, also observed by the downstage figure in repose. And so the pattern continues, with, on the third go round, the downstage dancer walking upstage to take her turn at the wall, and the other two dancers remaining on stage--one observing downstage, the other repeating a version of the wall dance along the floor upstage, and with all three dancers aligning themselves in a vertical centre column whenever the wall dancer reaches a resting point in the middle of her journey. This trio, so compelling in its spatial geometry when the dancers are apart, becomes even more watchable when the dancers swap each other's bodies for the surface of the wall, coming together in a series of fluidly intertwined configurations that combine the strength and balance and flexibility of gymnastics with the weight-sharing of contact. Every now and then during this sequencing the dancers will hold a shape, usually with one of them perched atop or supported by the other two, at which point the dancer being posed will sweep her hair away from her face and gaze out distractedly and maybe also with a touch of disdain at the audience: the one who is looked at looks back and, unimpressed by what she sees, continues on with the work at hand. Which culminates in one final walk on walls, this time begun horizontally along the stage left studio wall, before ending where we began, back on the upstage wall. This time, however, the dancer doing the walking is supported by the other two: so she can go even higher. And because all three women are working together we know she will not fall.

For the second piece on the program, Peter Bingham's Engage the Feeling Arms, the blinds had been lowered on the windows, though the slats remained open, which produced a nice constellation of light pinpricks along the upstage wall. The audience was treated to another trio, this one featuring EDAM stalwarts Farley Johansson, Walter Kubanek and Olivia Shaffer. In terms of Bingham's trademark contact choreography, the piece begins somewhat unusually. All three dancers are in a horizontal line upstage and remain vertical for far longer than we might expect: Johansson and Shaffer are engaged in a vigorous duet, but there is no offering of backs or legs to tumble over or slide down, just a complex intertwining of arms and cupping of heads that put me in mind of ice dancing or tango. Meanwhile Kubanek is off to the side, stage left, improvising a solo, his arms also extending with abandon about his head as he does a series of pirouettes on his feet and knees (the Indian-themed music made it seem at times that all the dancers were multi-limbed Hindu gods). Soon enough Kubanek bumps Johansson and begins his own duet with Shaffer, and then Johannson does the same with Shaffer, the two men partnering while Shaffer performs a solo beside them. Eventually the three dancers break out of this pattern, and their line, beginning a run downstage which serves as the initiation of a series of repeated lifts, contact with other parts of their bodies and, of course, those at once supremely athletic and graceful leaps and tumbles and rolls to/along the floor for which EDAM performers are known. It always takes my breath away to watch dancers trained by Bingham fall: there is a suspension and yet simultaneous giving into gravity that seems to defy the rules of physics, but as satisfyingly there is always such a beautifully soft landing. Such is the case here with these three expert fallers and the image that will stay with me longest from last night's performance is the sequence (repeated twice) in which each dancer falls successively into the outstretched arms of another who lies prone on the floor. Feeling arms indeed.

The final piece, The Way, was choreographed by Shay Kuebler and by this point in the program the stage blacks had been pulled entirely across the windows on the western wall. The lights come up slowly on dancer Nicholas Lydiate, who starts twitching centre stage. Dancer Lexi Vajda soon appears in the upstage right doorway, walks toward Lydiate with purpose, and begins pushing him about the stage. It was great to see the diminutive Vajda be the controlling force at the start of the duet that ensues, which gradually gets more and more physical, and ends up with the two dancers collapsed on the floor upstage. This is the cue for Kuebler to enter, stepping gingerly between the bodies of the other dancers, slowly lowering himself to his knees, and finally initiating a gestural sequence with his arms that the other dancers join in. The unison becomes more and more captivating as it picks up speed, but also because in so doing it begins to break down. Lydiate's twitches from the top of the piece are hear reintroduced as glitches, with first Kuebler and then Vajda and Lydiate splaying one leg jarringly to the side, or else knocking themselves over with a miscued arm. Extremity has always been part of Kuebler's aesthetic, which draws as much from martial arts as from hip hop and contemporary dance. Nowhere is this more evident in this work than the solo Kuebler gives himself in the middle of the piece: it begins as a pantomime of boxing moves and ends with Kuebler thrashing back and forth violently on the floor. There is a suggestion of self-parody in the "dudeness" of this scene as, at its end, Vajda begins a slow clap, as if to say "Good for you, what next?" But, in fact, rather then ending things there, Kuebler takes up the bait, rolling back and forth along the floor as the rhythm of Vajda's clapping--now joined by Lydiate--picks up speed. Wait, there's more! The piece ends with this final trio throwing their bodies against the upstage wall, each reverberating slap of skin registering as a wince in my own body. I so appreciate what Kuebler and his dancers can do physically; but because I worry about how much it hurts, I'm just not sure I support the philosophy of doing it. To that end, I left longing for a return to the silent tableau that concluded Chapple's piece.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Long Division: Closing

It was the closing performance last night. A good-sized house. I thought the audience was a bit subdued, but my parents--who are visiting from Ontario and who had already seen the show once, this past Wednesday--said they felt people were very responsive. I guess it's hard for me to tell as the lines I think will (or should) get a laugh, or otherwise elicit some kind of more embodied response, often don't. But of course that doesn't mean folks aren't engaged with the work. As my Dad put it to me this morning, mine is a play that rewards more than one viewing. Of course, he's biased, but it was a deliberate formal strategy on my part to construct a work whose patterns and layers of connection only fully emerge at a distance. To that end, it has been most rewarding for me to hear from friends and colleagues about how the work has stayed with them after the end. Perhaps we should use this as a marketing strategy for the April run.

Closing a show is always bittersweet, especially when the process has been so generative and one has had the privilege of working with such an amazingly talented and warm and funny and intelligent creative team. It was great to hang out with some of that team last night after the show and share a drink and gossip and talk about holiday plans (London for Anousha; Cuba for Kerry; Vietnam for Jay; Mexico for Melissa; Toronto and Israel for Shayna; Hawai'i for Richard and Connie). It was a long two-show day for the cast, so I was grateful that most of them came out. And parting at 2 am on Granville Street was less painful knowing we'd all be gathering again in a few months to dive back into the work. I was only half joking when I said to the actors that I'd like to double the length of each of their monologues. I could watch all of them on stage forever. But in actual fact, any tinkering with the script between now and April will likely involve cuts and maybe the odd finessing of the choral interludes. I know Lesley is dying to revisit and even add to some of the movement, but Richard will likely have to restrain her given we only have a week's worth of re-rehearsal. At the very least, Jergus and Lauchlin and Jamie will get to supplement the visual design of the piece given the added space and technical resources available at the Annex.

Funny last note on the technical front. I knew that the lighting board and other equipment at the Gateway's Studio B dated from circa 1985. But what I didn't know was that everything connected with preserving our work was similarly ante-diluvian. At the end of the night, along with his stage manager reports on yesterday's shows, Jethelo sent Jayson McLean, our production manager, a note about making sure to save all the lighting, video and sound cues. On the drive home I learned from Richard that the method for storing said data was a 3 1/2 inch floppy disk!

I feel like there's something strangely appropriate about said means of transferring the binary code of our play. Just like the image below--supplied courtesy of Jay (aka Reid).


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Long Division: Opening

So we're officially open. Last night was a full house, there was a good energy, and the actors nailed it. Richard insisted I take a bow, which I didn't really want to do. But it did allow me to sneak backstage with the actors afterwards and give them each a card and little joke gift, as well as share a quick sip of prosecco with them in the dressing room before the public reception put on by the Gateway.

Richard had said the night before, after Thursday's preview, that he thought folks would either love the play or hate it--which we both agreed was better than a meh reaction. I had some great conversations with audience members last night who fell into the former camp, although it mostly seems the critics so far are firmly in the latter. Not sure why, when it's obvious from the beginning that the conceit of the play is lecture-performance you'd dwell on the fact that there's not enough conventional storytelling. I also wonder why it was the preview performance that got reviewed instead of the opening. Oh well.

None of the actors could go out for a drink afterwards, as they have a 2 pm matinee today. So before we all scattered from the reception I gathered them together to tell them about the dream I had had about the play the night before. I never remember my dreams, but this one was incredibly vivid. It involved the entire cast and crew passing around a bong (which was no doubt planted in my subconscious by the fact that on Thursday afternoon we had been joking about a version of the play called Bong Division). In the dream, the police suddenly arrive and decide they have to arrest someone--whether for getting high or doing so in the theatre is unclear. They settle on Jay Clift as the fall guy--likely again this was related to the fact that in the play Jay's character, Reid, talks about being a small-time weed dealer in high school. Then again, it could simply be because Jay is so tall and he was easiest to pick out of the crowd. At any rate, the whole production was thrown into a tailspin because of this, requiring us to find a replacement Reid at the last minute. The candidate turned out to be a whiz at memorizing his lines in no time, but when it came to the choreography he decided that the best thing was to improvise. Unfortunately his improvisation involved doing grand jetes and multiple pirouettes across the stage during everyone else's monologue. The last thing I remember from the dream is Jethelo, our stage manager, madly trying to write down all the new blocking as Lesley, our choreographer, sunk deeper and deeper in stunned bewilderment into her chair.

Afterwards, over still more drinks with Richard, Lesley, Jethelo, Shayna Goldberg, Pi's GM, Rob Maguire, President of Pi's Board of Directors, and my Richard, we all agreed that ours is just about the best cast ever. Given all we've thrown at them--10+ minute monologues filled with math jargon, complicated choreography--and given all that they've been through during the process, it's such a gift to see them embrace the material so fully. And we get to do it all over again in April.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Long Division: Tech Dress

So there were a few missed cues with the projections, and one of the lights blew at the top of act two, and not all of the actors had gotten the note about the revised exit at the end of act one, but otherwise it was a pretty fantastic tech dress yesterday afternoon.

It was amazing to see the actors in the vibrantly coloured costumes Connie Hosie has put together for each of them--and also to have Connie as an enthusiastic audience member. All of the actors nailed their monologues and were also pros with the new tweaks to the choreography Lesley had made only that morning. I also made one final cut and adjustment to the text that the women in the cast handled with aplomb.

I'm taking all of this--as well as Gateway AD Jovanni Sy's positive reaction and Richard's general calm--as a good sign. Preview performance tonight, then the opening on Friday. Three and a half weeks of rehearsal plus one workshop week on the script plus four odd years of writing and revising and dramaturging the original idea: all to get to this point. When you balance the run of the show (even including the remount at the Annex in April) against the length of time for its development, it seems an unfair equation. But I can live with the math.

Merde to all of us.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Long Division: Third Week of Rehearsal

Today is Q-2-Q day for the play. It's a long, twelve-hour day for the cast and production crew as they work to resolve and lock down all of the different sound, lighting, and video/projection cues in relation to the text and movement. Things are a bit more complicated than usual on this front for a number of reasons. First, there is the sheer number of cues (well over 80 for the video and projections alone). Then there is the fact that movement in Long Division is operating both on the level of traditional theatre blocking and in relation to an additional choreographic score. Richard and Lesley have been working hard, especially in the last week, to make the integration between the two as seamless as possible, but inevitably challenges arise with so much activity happening on stage--not to mention the sheer number of bodies engaging in that activity for the entirety of the play's 90+ minutes. Finally, there is the competition between the lighting and the video projections; despite the super-powered projectors video designer Jamie Nesbitt has borrowed for the production, as well as the decision to forgo any lino whatsoever in favour of the bare black stage floor, the word yesterday from the crew was that Jergus Oprsal's lighting was still washing out some of the images. (The fact that the Gateway's Studio B only has 24 dimmers for Jergus to work with isn't helping on this front.)

No doubt all of that will be resolved today (and possibly on Monday). For my part, it was just so exciting to see Lauchlin Johnston's amazing set installed yesterday, as well as a few of the designs Jamie has come up with projected onto it. Otherwise it was an intense day of grinding through with the actors and Richard and Lesley the finer details of both acts yesterday, especially with respect to the transitions between scenes. Part of me (the part eyeing next Thursday's preview performance) found the progress painfully incremental at times. But as Jennifer Lines said to me on the drive back into Vancouver, the minuteness and repetition of such drilling actually makes things go much faster in the long run. There is a moment, she said, when everything will click and fall into place for the actors and then the tech runs will seem like they are flying by. I certainly got a glimpse of this yesterday when we did full run-throughs of both acts; sure there were lines dropped and movement cues that were missed or late, but there was a definite sense that the actors were getting increasingly comfortable with the material and that things were coming together.

I can't wait to see a full run-through with tech to see all of the elements working off of each other. That will have to wait until Tuesday afternoon for me due to other commitments, including an interview with Radio-Canada about the play. I don't know who I'm going to talk about mathematics in French, but hopefully I'll muddle through.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Long Division: Second Week of Rehearsal

If you'd asked me on Wednesday how things were going in terms of building the show, I probably would have smiled tightly and said "We're getting there ... slowly." I confess I was a bit panicked by the incremental progress we seemed to be making in blocking the play and integrating this with the movement sequences. And then there were all the other production elements that had yet to be integrated, including sound, lighting and video. Richard had distributed a scene breakdown table earlier in the week, with columns for all of these things and by mid-week a lot of them still remained blank.

But what a difference two days away makes. In the interim, Richard and the cast had sketched the blocking for all but the last few pages of the play, Lesley had set the movement for the top of the second act and refined several other sequences, and the designers had held a production meeting in which much of the video had been locked down and a production schedule laid out for paper tech, lighting hang, set load-in and install, and Q-2-Q. Clearly I should keep clear of rehearsals more often.

That said, I was back at the Gateway yesterday to watch Richard set the remaining blocking in the morning, as well as Lesley teach the actors in the early afternoon what she had come up with for the part near the end of act one in which Mobius bands are discussed. Then it was time for a stumble through of the whole play. To this point the scenes had been built and rehearsed in fragments, often out of order, and so it was revelatory to watch the whole thing unfold from start to finish, hiccups included. I know Lesley was concerned with the execution of much of the movement in the second half, and we have yet to come up with a physical score for the ending, but I was so pleased to see where we were. Rough around the edges though it currently is, we at least have a structure. And as Richard reminded Lesley and myself, there was, relatively speaking, still a fair amount of time to refine and polish things.

And all of this was accomplished in the midst of some unexpected and deeply trying personal circumstances for one member of our team. This play is partly about dealing with grief and let's just say that it has been a bit of shock to have that theme hit so close to home. But it has also reminded me of what a strong and resilient tribe actors are.