Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Explanation at The Cultch

Fresh off a standout performance in the Arts Club's recent production of Jitters (which I blogged about here), James Fagan Tait premiered his new play, The Explanation, at The Cultch's Culture Lab last night. Tait, who also directs this frank theatre production, highlights in his program notes the rather ironical premise of what is his first queer-themed show: how two straight men should end up married to each other.

Wearing a black wig, miniskirt, and combat boots, John (Kevin MacDonald), begins the account with a long opening monologue about how he started dressing up in women's clothes. The wondrous discovery of his inner femininity in a Value Village changing room occasions in John more than a simple outward transformation. While it's not always clear that it's being done consciously, Tait is deft in these opening passages in telegraphing some of the paradoxical non-alignments of gender expression and sexual identification. Which is also to say that when John puts on women's clothes, feminist solidarity doesn't automatically usurp a sense of masculine entitlement. For example, after he starts venturing out in public cross-dressed, John tells us he likes that men are staring at his ass, the sense of power this gives him--which is, on one level, just a reinforcing of the power he already had. And while he begins by correcting himself whenever he refers to himself as a "girl," amending this to "woman," eventually this pretence is dropped and thereafter John takes special delight in self-identifying as a "big ol' girl."

Eventually John, who lives in Burnaby, starts venturing downtown to the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library every Saturday in drag. (The timeframe of the play is a little fuzzy; there are several references to "pre-Yaletown" Vancouver, but other descriptions suggest that the VPL central branch being referred to is the one now at Homer and Robson.) On one such Saturday, while browsing among the Literature DVDs section, John meets Dick (Evan Frayne), who tells us in his opening monologue that when he first spied John he immediately thought: "This is the kind of woman who would go out with me." So Dick asks John to coffee and John says yes and in that moment Dick discovers that John is a man. But they have coffee anyway and the awkward thrill of this semi-public conversation liberates an additional something in each of them, which is how they end up dancing at a gay club on Davie Street later that night. Here, with the aid of Noam Gagnon's perfectly calibrated choreography, which mixes Dick's awkward straight white man's shuffle with John's unleashing of his inner diva, the two men cement their bond (James Coomber's on point sound design also helps to add great comic texture to these scenes). Soon a regular Saturday routine is established and a relationship is formed.

For questions of sexual identity and conjugality aside, what we are witnessing over the course of the play is at base the slow and by no means always smooth formation of a deep affective bond, and one that completely blows up the typical conventions of the bromance genre. Which is partly why I was disappointed in the rather conventional ending to the play. When, after mixing up their regular weekend pattern by having Dick cross-dress instead of John, the two men have drunken sex together, a crisis of identification threatens to destroy their friendship: are they gay, the two men muse separately to the audience. And does that even matter? Sorting through these questions, the men discover that they do in fact want to be together, including sexually. But not including drag. The final image is of John and Dick, dressed in suits, telling us not just that they've gotten married, but also that they've adopted two children. In its aping of what queer sociologist Lisa Duggan has diagnosed as the new "homonormativity," this scene actually entrenches the heternormative foundations of the two men's identities.

John and Dick were far more radical queer outlaws in their single days dancing up a storm in women's clothes.

P

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dorrance Dance at the Vancouver Playhouse

Last night DanceHouse's 2017/18 season concluded with a triple bill by Dorrance Dance, the award-winning tap company overseen by the choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance. I was a bit dubious about sitting through 75 minutes of continuous tap, my usual threshold for the form being a few minutes of thematically juxtapositional razzle-dazzle within an otherwise rigorously contemporary work (as in DanceHouse's previous presentation of Betroffenheit), or else the paced out show-stopping routines of classic musical theatre (e.g. 42nd Street). But it seems that Dorrance's MacArthur Genius Grant is well-earned. Her aesthetic is one that marries deep respect for tap's history and traditions with a desire to push the form technically and conceptually.

This means, among other things, challenging the notion that it is only the soles of a tap shoe that can produce sound. In the opening number on last night's program, Jungle Blues, I was absolutely floored (the metaphor seems appropriate) when one of the company dancers first dragged the tops of their shoes along the parquet floor, producing a noise like a needle scraping across a vinyl record, and sending a corresponding shiver of delight down my spine. In this ensemble piece, set to a classic song by Jelly Roll Morton, the dancers alternate between unison choreography and character-based solo improvisations, with Dorrance herself playing up a gangly white-girl persona, all ungraceful angles and splayed knees. But my eyes were mostly on everyone's feet, watching how long someone's remained on demi-point (and sometimes full-on point), how often another's buckled over onto their sides, and so on.

If classic tap is all about the syncopated relationship between rhythm and gravity, such that we are made to marvel at how a person doing a freewheeling, double wing step, with both arms likewise windmilling the air, is able to remain upright, Dorrance is not afraid to push those limits--literally floorward. Her tap choreography is most interesting when it explores the off-axis and when, in doing so, it traces a genealogy between tap and a more contemporary form like break-dancing. This came to the fore especially in the concluding piece on the program, Myelination, which is an anatomical term that refers to the maturation and sheathing of nerve cells, allowing nerve impulses to travel more quickly. One can see how this applies to the hyper-kineticism of tap, but in this 30 minute piece with live music Dorrance also demonstrates its relevance to B-boying. Two of her dancers alternate between tap shoes and high tops, and some of the most innovative choreography relates to a sequence of intertwined prone legwork between this pair.

In between these pieces, Dorrance programmed a short but deeply affecting trio, Three to One, featuring herself and dancers Byron Tittle and Matthew "Megawatt" West. It begins with the three dancers, dressed in matching black cloth garments, standing side by side in a rectangle of downstage white light. Dorrance, wearing tap shoes, is positioned between the two men, who are both barefoot. As Dorrance begins to shuffle and click her feet together, almost like Dorothy seeking to return to Kansas from Oz, the men also start to move, sometimes falling into step with Dorrance, at other times breaking into quick, darting contraction and release movements of the hips and torsos and legs that are reminiscent of traditional African dance. Indeed, it is hard--especially once the two men exit the stage and Dorrance continues with a virtuosic solo that sees her alternate between retreating into the darkness of upstage and reemerging into the downstage light--not to read this work as an express comment on the specific African-American lineage of tap, as well as of so much American social dance more generally (from jive to hip hop).

This is hardly surprising coming from a choreographer as intelligent as Dorrance, who in addition to her years of tap training also designed her own undergraduate curriculum at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. According to Wikipedia, her courses focused on concepts of race in America in relation to democratic culture. If you're going to devote your life to reclaiming and celebrating tap as a form, this makes total sense.

P

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

De Souffles et de Machines at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's A Month of Tuesdays series is back at the Fox Cabaret. This weekly, one-night only presentation of the best in contemporary new music launched last night with the Montreal saxophone quartet Quasar. If you're thinking big band swing sound or jazz riffs or even Kenny G, think again. Quasar specializes in avant-garde mash-ups of acoustic and electronic sounds: hence the evening's title, De Souffles et de Machines.

I'll admit that much of the work was challenging, especially the first half of the program, which ended with Solomiya Moroz's On Fragments. The piece is based on her field recordings of the Griffintown area of Montreal, then (as it is still, I gather) in the midst of massive redevelopment and construction. Some of these sounds Moroz asked the members of Quasar (Marie-Chantal Leclair on soprano saxophone, Mathiew Leclair on alto saxophone, André Leroux on tenor saxophone, and Jean-Marc Bouchard on baritone saxophone) to imitate; others that she had herself manipulated electronically were looped in and out. And overlaying all of this was a bizarre movement score that saw the musicians ambling every now and then out from behind their music stands and turning their instruments this way and that in what I took to be a mimicking of heavy construction equipment.

I much preferred the two pieces on the second half, which began with Pierre Alexandre Tremblay's Les pâleurs de la lune, an award-winning chamber work that ended with a burble of ghostly sounds that were amplified from the back of the Fox space, so that it almost seemed as if the moon was itself seeking to come inside the room. The last piece on the program, Alexander Schubert's Hello, was accompanied by a witty video that featured the composer more or less accompanying the ensemble from the screen. It was a clever conclusion to the evening.

MoM Artistic Director David Pay himself plays the saxophone, having earned a Master's in Music from UBC in the instrument. At intermission he told Richard and I that he rarely plays anymore, but that he's been coaxed by friends to perform for them in the near future. That is an event I would definitely attend were tickets being sold. In the meantime, A Month of Tuesdays continues through April 24th.

P

Friday, March 23, 2018

VIDF 2018: RIFT at KW Studios

Salome Nieto is the recipient of the 2017 Vancouver International Dance Festival Choreographic Award. With it she and her company, pataSola dance, have created RIFT, which plays KW Studios as part of VIDF 2018 through this weekend. The piece tackles the difficult issue of femicide, the targeted killing of women and girls by men. With Nieto's trademark combining of the techniques and aesthetic principles of Butoh and flamenco, her powerful stage presence, and pataSola co-founder Eduardo Meneses-Olivar's highly theatrical stage design, RIFT becomes both a lament for and a protest against this unnecessary loss.

The piece is structured in three parts. In the first, Nieto emerges wearing a white slip dress, her body covered in traditional Butoh white make-up, and her feet sheathed in heels. But where we might anticipate the sharp staccato footwork of flamenco, Nieto mostly stays on her toes, concentrating instead on her braceo, or flowing arm work, and slowing down the rhythm of her movement to align not just with Butoh-time, but also with the time of grief, which stretches on for eternity. At the end of this section, we hear the stories of two women who have been brutally raped and murdered, and channeling this pain and trauma, Nieto descends to the floor, ripping up the paper children's drawings that cover it.

The second section read to me as Nieto incarnating the avenging persona of a female warrior. It starts with a Bata de Cola, the long ruffled dress worn by women flamenco dancers, being pulled on stage by wires. Nieto, now wearing only one red shoe, then proceeds to shimmy into the dress on the floor, her mask-covered face and arms suddenly emerging to startling effect. The inner red lining of the dress is used as a potent symbol throughout this section, with Nieto at one point going into a deep plie and raising her skirts, the obvious allusion to menstrual blood serving as a bold feminist reclamation of the senseless spilling of women's blood under patriarchy. Likewise, at the end of this section, the dress becomes the red-lined cape of a proud female toreador, Nieto's ramrod posture and unflinching gaze challenging anyone or anything to cross her.

The final section incorporates a series of affecting projections, and sees Nieto, once again in her white slip dress, reapplying additional body paint while sitting on a white chair. In an attempt to repair all that has been ripped open in the representation of violence from the previous sections, she then tapes pieces of rent paper from the floor onto the upstage wall. She also uses a white fan to imagine the souls of the victims of femicide as butterflies taking flight, the return of her graceful arcing braceo hauntingly doubled via the projection of her shadow self onto the upstage wall.

Nieto is an extremely captivating performer, and in RIFT she uses the intercultural language of dance to speak to an urgent issue of social justice.

P

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Beautiful View at Kits Neighbourhood House

Several years ago I remember seeing a Ruby Slippers production of Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View at Performance Works starring Colleen Wheeler and Diane Brown. I distinctly recall during one particularly emotional exchange between the two characters, tears and snot and spit leaking in copious quantities from the always intense Wheeler's face. What I forgot altogether was the stuff about the bears.

For some reason, I failed to blog about that initial Vancouver production of MacIvor's play. Now I get to remedy that with this response to Naked Goddess Productions' mounting of the work, which is on at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House (KNH) through this Sunday. In this production, directed by Tamara McCarthy, Melissa Oei (Lucy from Long Division) and Sandra Medeiros take on the roles of Elle and Emme, women whose intimate friendship begins in the realm of comic farce, settles into a version of domestic melodrama, and ends on a note of surreal spirituality (the characters never call each other by their names, and I suspect that the script--which I have not read--allows cast members and director to come up with their own, as I've confirmed that Wheeler and Brown went by Linda and Mitch). Oei and Medeiros handle these shifts in style and tone with deft precision and the play itself uses a retrospective "she said, she said" narrative conceit, with multiple direct addresses to the audience, to provide a structural and temporal through-line.

That line begins with Elle and Emme's first meeting, at a camping store, and continues through a series of subsequent encounters during which each tells the other a succession of white lies about herself, and then promptly tries to undo them. The dissembling culminates in drunken sex at Elle's apartment, a seduction each woman pursues because she's under the misapprehension the other is a lesbian. Following Emme's ashamed and wordless retreat the following morning, the women don't speak to each other again until, several years later, they bump into each other while camping. Elle is now married and once they clear the air around their respective sexualities, the two women fall into a fast and easy friendship that sees them weather Elle's divorce, several changes of job, and the general ups and downs of life. Until, that is, another woman comes between them and the seemingly irreparable rift in their relationship that results can only be mended through a final camping trip. I won't reveal here all that happens during this concluding rapprochement, but let's just say that what transpires is enough to suggest that the "beautiful view" that gets described several times throughout the play may in fact be extra-earthly.

What I will say instead is how much I admired McCarthy's approach to staging this scene. As Oei and Medeiros sit facing each other on chairs, as at the top of the show, we hear the conversation they are having at their campsite in voiceover (a tapedeck, a key prop throughout the play, is positioned in front of them, a pitched tent behind). Both actors are incredibly compelling in stillness, fully engaged with each other, but with their profiles nevertheless telegraphing to the audience the multiple layers of emotion and memory that go with any long coupledom. For, questions of sexuality aside, that is in effect what MacIvor is giving us here: a portrait of two women who are more than sisters or best friends, a duo whose love for each other transcends conjugality but not the feelings of hurt and betrayal that are part and parcel of a truly meaningful relationship. In this respect the on-stage chemistry between Oei and Medeiros is effectively winning. Oei's Elle is the more confident and expressive of the two, with Medeiros's quieter and more insecure Emme frequently taking her cue from her friend. There is a moment, for example, when Elle invites Emme to join her inside a light-filled box, part of a pretentious art installation whose opening the two are attending. Elle tells Emme to close her eyes and feel the moment, with Oei intertwining her fingers through Medeiros' and throwing her head back in blissful abandon. But Medeiros' Emme, tinier and decidedly anxious, can only look up at her friend with incomprehension, saying she feels nothing. It is also Elle whom Emme takes her cue from regarding a possible afterlife, and there is no better sight on stage than watching the play of inner perceptions dance across Oei's face as she conjures from her character's imagination the wonderland of heaven. Even when she immediately undercuts her vision, we believe, along with Emme, that such a place might exist.

McCarthy's staging makes creative use of KNH's somewhat awkward playing space. Essentially a long vaulted hall that is a remnant of the building's former life as a church, there is a small raised dais at the room's north end. But rather than be constricted by a traditional vertical proscenium, McCarthy has flipped the action horizontally, with the audience positioned in a semi-circle and facing the wider and windowed eastern wall, and with a porous proscenium in this case framed by strings of lights that descend from the ceiling (the lighting design is by SFU alum Celeste English). As a result, we are remarkably close to the actors, and in part because of the complicity established between performers and spectators through the play's use of direct address, it often feels like we are immersed in the different spatial worlds referenced in the action, eavesdropping on the characters, as it were, from the next tent over.

Mind you, the actual tent on the stage is my one main bugbear from this production. I don't think it's needed. The other spaces in the play are evoked through just a few simple props, and in a play that goes back an forth between realism and abstraction, I think the visual signifier of the pitched tent is just distracting, especially as the women are rarely if ever inside it. It's also a bit awkward to move around, with Medeiros being the one who is tasked with retrieving it and then stashing it away stage right, an action that mostly has the effect of calling attention to the presence of stage manager Nico Dicecco (tucked away in a corner upstage right). Not that I'm opposed to showing the wires. I just think that rolling out and up a sleeping bag would have sufficed. Even that's probably too much. Indeed, it makes sense for the dark beyond of the campground--where these women are forced to confront both their innermost and their outermost fears--to be a wholly imagined space.

Cue those bears.

P

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, co-created by Kidd Pivot's Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre's Jonathon Young, was first presented as part of the Panamania Festival accompanying Toronto's Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games back in the summer of 2015. It's been touring the world to acclaim ever since. Like most in Vancouver, I first saw the show when it was presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse in February 2016 (you can read my original impressions here). Now, just before it embarks on the final leg of its three-year world tour, DanceHouse has brought the show back to the same venue. I was there once again last night.

In part this was practical: I've updated an essay I've written about Pite and Kidd Pivot to include a discussion of Betroffenheit; and I'll also be speaking about the work at the University of Stockholm in May. So I wanted to ensure that I hadn't made any egregious errors in my representation of the work, particularly with respect to its complex distribution of the human voice. But really I just wanted to be swept up once again by the amazing on-stage world that Pite and Young have created, and to revel in the sublime movement of the performers. On both counts I was not disappointed. Christopher Hernandez, replacing Bryan Arias (who I think is premiering a new work of his own in New York), fits into the ensemble seamlessly. Hernandez is about double the size of Arias, and so this does change the partnering with Cindy Salgado somewhat; but his solo that opens Act 2 is still a marvel of off-axis lightness and grace. Otherwise, all of the other performers seem to have grown more deeply into and with their parts; none of the movement felt mechanical or marked, and there were new expressive details in the choreography that I had the pleasure of discovering--such as the little foot wiggles that Tiffany Tregarthen does at one point when she's turned upside down in her role as the devilish monkey on Young's character's back in Act 1. Ditto David Raymond's incredibly controlled staccato work with his arms and fingers during the therapist scene. And what I'll call Salgado's breathing solo in Act 2 was deeply affecting, the simple inflation and deflation of her shoulders speaking volumes about the bodily manifestations of grief.

As the blue silk suited co-hosts of our show-within-a-show, Young and Jermaine Spivey are by now expertly attuned to each other's rhythms, both in terms of the movement and the lipsynched dialogue that they share. I remain amazed by Young's technical facility with Pite's complex choreography, but it was Spivey whom I couldn't take my eyes off of. If anything, it seems like his body and limbs have grown even more elastic and liquid; the flipping of his legs backwards over the arm of Young, or later their wave-like rippling along the floor, seems absolutely of a piece with Young's floppy manipulations of his puppet stand-in. Likewise, the speed and precision of Spivey's turns and the air he catches while flipping his body through space seem to defy the laws of physics. Needless to say, the solo by Spivey that concludes the work remains a devastatingly gorgeous summation of the archive of grief and trauma that has been passed from body to body in the preceding two hours.

Of course there were aspects of the work that I'd forgotten about, mostly relating to the text and how personally self-accusatory it is. Betroffenheit both is and isn't Young's story, but in abstracting his and his family's tragedy onto this fictional world he hasn't spared himself a nightly real-time examination pertaining to his grief and guilt. Mostly this comes in the form of subtle repetitions of phrases that are inflected with telling pronouns ("Is he at fault?," "I know she...," "They're in there," "They're in this"). But there are also just incredibly raw and open displays of pain, and the failing of others that is a consequence of this pain--as with the phone call from Mom. Somehow I'd also forgotten the desperately uncomprehending solo that Tregarthen performs in Act 2, her final pose--arms bent in front of her, as if cradling an absent child--giving me new context as to why her character is Young's chief tormenter in Act 1.

For all of the very real sorrow upon which Betroffenheit is built, the work is also filled with joy. To me, the piece is the danced equivalent of one of my favourite poems, Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque." There Crane writes about how, in the wake of all the torment and unhappiness the world throws at us, no matter how the game of life smirks at us, "we make our meek adjustments," we find "our random consolations." Because "what blame to us if the heart live on"? And it does. That was clear last night during the curtain calls. The love on stage, in the audience, and between the two was physically palpable.

What's more, everyone gets to renew the affair next year when Pite, Young, the dancers, and virtually the entire Betroffenheit creative team return to the DanceHouse stage with the world premiere of a new work of dance-theatre, Revisor. I spoke briefly with composer Owen Belton while exiting the theatre, and he said they have already been workshopping the piece at Banff. It will apparently be something of a political satire. Given the new Cold War we suddenly find ourselves in, it should be timely.

P

Friday, March 16, 2018

VIDF 2018: iyouuuswe at the Roundhouse

I liked the music a lot (the mostly original score is by composer Ki Young). And there was some great dancing, particularly by company members Jesse Obremski and Guanglei Hui. But overall I found last night's Canadian premiere of WHITE WAVE's iyouuswe at the Vancouver International Dance Festival to be structurally incoherent, with choreographer Young Soon Kim providing little to no connection between the different sections (there were nine of them)--beyond the multiplication or subtraction of dancers on stage. That I was counting entrances and exits more than I was concentrating on the movement tells you a little bit about my difficulties with this work, not least its caginess about when and how to end. There were about three different possibilities that I noted, and the less said about the one that Young chose the better.

That said, I was taken by the opening. It featured a duet by Jesse Obremski and Katie Garcia that showcased some strong side-by-side unison choreography. However, Young's vocabulary shifted noticeably in the second section, with the partnering by Lacey Baroch and Mark Willis mostly comprised by a series of acrobatic lifts. This points to another minor (or perhaps not) issue that irked me about the performance: the costumes. The five men in the piece were all dressed similarly and non-descriptly in casual pants and untucked dress shirts. The four women, however, wore shiny pants, leggings, or short shorts, accompanied by sleeveless tops that were either sequined or backless or flowing. Fine, that's a specific dramaturgical choice. But if this piece is, as the program notes state, about "developing relationships by which we struggle to find a sense of 'i' as part of a 'we,'" why emphasize so starkly the gendered differences of your dancers? Or another way of asking this is why, in accessorizing the women on stage, turn them into danced accessories of the men? This question was in my mind during most of the opposite-sex partnering sequences, but was perhaps most starkly on display during the first sub-section (!) of the penultimate section 8 sequence, in which the tiniest of the women dancers, Michelle Lim (she of the short shorts and sequined camisole), is helped to step from chair to chair by Mark Willis.

I haven't yet mentioned the chairs. There are nine of them arranged in a row upstage at the start of the piece. During the first two duets they are mostly ignored. However, an ensuing sequence of structured improvisation featuring the entire company is punctuated by the dancers' mass retreat upstage to the chairs. I freely admit that I have a weakness for choreography involving chairs (having written a play on the subject); but in this case it was hard for me to engage because I found much of the choreography to be overly familiar: a step-up and down here; a slouch to the ground and hip swivel there; throw in some retrograde; etc. There was also the fact that the dancers didn't seem to have enough room to give themselves over fully to the movement. The distance between the chairs was indeed tight, with some space no doubt lost to the many curtain legs Young was employing for added wing space (cue all those entrances and exits). Then, too, the upstage line of chairs, combined with the backstage curtain meant that the Roundhouse stage was unusually shallow. When the full company was on stage things got quite crowded, and some of the downstage dancing was additionally obstructed by the annoying bar in front of the first row that has been added to the new seats at the Roundhouse.

The latter, I gather, is for safety reasons, but last night it was just one more annoyance to my spectating pleasure.

P