Monday, October 24, 2016

Long Division on Roundhouse Radio

As we head into the first week of rehearsals today, I thought I would share the link to a segment I did this past Friday on Roundhouse Radio's "Sense of Place" show, with host Minelle Mahtani. All you need to do is go here.

Minelle was terrific and she seemed keen to have me back before the show opens, perhaps with some cast members to read an excerpt from the play on air. Stay tuned for more on that, as well as updates on the rehearsal process.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dance Weekend Roundup: Noam Gagnon, Lesley Telford, Donald Sales

What do the Bionic Woman, Leigh Bowery and Michel Tremblay all have in common? They're all influences on Noam Gagnon's ambitious new dance-theatre piece, This Crazy Show, which ran at The Dance Centre this past weekend. The Vision Impure choreographer and performer, working with a team that includes composer, sound designer and on-stage accordionist James Coomber, rehearsal director and outside eye Danielle Lecourtois, lighting designer Stéphane Ménigot, and performer Ken Blaschuk, among many other collaborators, has created a collage of kinetic, visual and sonic set pieces. This allows Gagnon to move in and through a range of different personas, all of them further refracted and multiplied in the sixteen disco balls suspended within Bryan Kenney's amazing set, and which are themselves spun or swung like pendulums at various points by Blaschuk, who enters in a series of increasingly elaborate and ornamental costumes (always, like Coomber, with his face covered, which is not the only curious, gender-bending and slightly problematic allusion to the veil over the course of the evening). The always charismatic Gagnon addresses the audience at the top of the show, inviting us, if we feel like it, to get up and dance at any point. However, the audience on Friday evening mostly left that to Gagnon, who in addition to a funky bit of interactive partnering with the disco balls timed to a series of glitches in Coomber's score, also later donned a pair of heels and a succession of wigs to perform a kind of off-balance stumbling slip-and-slide mop dance as Coomber played his accordion while lying prone on the floor.

In the talkback I led after the show with the Gagnon and his aforementioned collaborators, we were given further insight into the process behind creating the signature craziness of this particular show; according to Gagnon this mostly involved him abandoning the way he usually works, which is alone and pushing one, largely physical, idea to the max. This time, he took on whatever his collaborators threw at him, trusting that they would eventually find a way to put it all together. Gagnon was also asked about that invitation to dance he issues at the beginning, and what his response would be if someone took him up on his offer. Grinning broadly he said he would love it.

Earlier this afternoon, I also took in New Works' latest addition to its Dance Allsorts series at the Roundhouse. It was a double bill featuring work by Lesley Telford and Donald Sales for his company Project20. Telford's Only who is left is a reworking of the large-scale ensemble piece that she created for Arts Umbrella's Season Finale this past May, and which I wrote about here. Working this time with just seven dancers (many of whom are helping out with the choreographic process on Long Division), the effect of her opening play of having the dancers move into various heroic poses and then retreat affectlessly and almost listlessly into a kind of non-presentational on-stage embodiment registered much more powerfully--especially as this dialectic was both amplified by and served to undercut the very martial music she was working with (the name of which I should know). In the more intimate space of the Roundhouse and in this scaled down staging, I was also able to appreciate the way Telford is working with deliberately broken lines and an aesthetic of what I'll call anti-virtuosity: it's there in the bent leg extensions, the pirouettes that don't quite finish, the series of stutter steps and incredibly loud foot thumps all the dancers engage in, even the torpid way the lone male dancer whistles into his bullhorn. Who and what is all of this for is the question undergirding this piece, and it's one that can be asked not just of dance as a species of live performance, but of any human enterprise.

The latter theme is taken up by Donald Sales in his preview of Gates of Hell, a new work in development for his company Project20. Throughout this 30-minute work we hear in voiceover excerpts from two different British sociologists commenting on the conundrum of humanity, of how to a certain extent we are hard wired to be selfish, but how we also need to work together if we--and our planet--are to survive. This paradox is initiated in movement at the top of the show by having the six women dancers engage in a succession of brief duets that register at once as territorial provocations and invitations to share space. The theme of competition versus collaboration plays out elsewhere in the piece through the juxtaposing of individual solos and some gorgeous unison. The last piece I saw by Sales was gR33N, which I thought was weighed down by a confusing narrative structure and too much gimmicky stage business. It was a delight to see what is in effect a pure movement piece by the former Ballet BC dancer; that the work was set to a score by Long Division composer Owen Belton only made it that much better.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Long Division: In the Studio with Lesley Telford

Earlier today the choreographer of Long Division, Lesley Telford, invited me to drop by the studio at Arts Umbrella on Granville Island, where she was working with members of her new pilot research-training program for early career dancers to test out some possible studies for different movement sections in the play. (In fact, I invited myself and Lesley generously agreed that I could stop by.)

As I have previously mentioned, Lesley just happens to be working with seven amazingly talented dancers as part of this program, and they have each taken on a character in the play, drawing from the text (which was spread out across the studio floor when I arrived) to improvise and develop individual gesture phrases that may or may not eventually get set in some related form on our corresponding actors when we begin rehearsals next week (yikes!). Lesley asked each of the dancers--Aden as Paul, Corrine as Reid, Brenna as Jo, Maya as Lucy, Stephanie as Naathim, Caitlyn as Grace, and Katie as Alice (apologies for any misspellings)--to run through the solo phrases they had come up with and I was amazed at how bang-on their instincts were in terms of energy and tempo and line, as well as things like muscularity vs. flow, repetition, different levels and directional facings, and so on. I was also pleased to note that I could also read each character in the movement without reading the movement itself as telegraphing too obviously this or that character's psychology or profession. Which is to say that is the furthest thing from mimeticism or pantomime.

The dancers also ran through different group sequences that they had developed with Lesley, including a portion of what might become the opening walking pattern (there's a recurring falling into gravity motif that together with simple moments where the dancers just stop and acknowledge each other in space, or else let a loose arm swing back and forth that had me smiling the whole way through). Lesley has additionally choreographed a bit where the dancers move downstage as a clump, with each of them taking turns fading into the pack, which is a nice visual image for how the characters are connected to each other, whether they want to be or not. Another sequence Lesley tried in canon for the first time today, and despite the fact that some of the dancers were only just learning the movement, it was most effective. Ditto the moments when the dancers took turns manipulating each other.

It was all so exciting to see and it was a joy to share with the dancers some of my thoughts on each of the characters whose movement vocabularies they are helping to build. That vocabulary will necessarily look somewhat different (less dancerly, more pedestrian) when transferred to the actors, but the point is that no matter where it has come from, it has to be performed with intention. To that end, it will be an enormous help to have the dancers with us on Wednesday afternoons as we move through the rehearsal process.

I keep having to pinch myself that we have such a fabulous creative team.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Flick at Granville Island Stage

I admit to hitherto being a somewhat skeptical celebrant at the church of Annie Baker, the thirtysomething American playwriting phenom who has taken the New York stage by storm with her extreme, almost hyper-naturalistic portraits of everyday folks going about their banally uninteresting lives, and struggling to make connections in language that is acutely and often painfully attuned to the prosaic speech patterns of our current digital age (lots of "likes" and "uhms" and many many pauses). The 2012 Arts Club production of Circle Mirror Transformation, the play that made Baker's name, struck me as disingenuously ingenuous in its unstudied approach to the baring of the inner lives of a group of amateur mechanicals in Vermont who find themselves part of a community centre theatrical workshop--and in my recollection that was only partly the fault of Nicola Cavendish's weak direction. However, the Arts Club's current production of The Flick, the play that won Baker the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has made me rethink my assessment. The play contains all of Baker's trademark anti-theatrical conceits--long pauses, quotidian dialogue, real-time action in which nothing really happens--but this time there is more depth to her characters, not to mention the development of real dramatic tension between them. In this regard, the playwright seems to have substituted what I previously took to be winking irony for sincere empathy. She also embeds within this play a cogent aesthetic and socio-economic critique.

The Flick is set in a single-screen movie theatre in a small town in Massachusetts, one of the last such venues in the state that still shows 35 millimetre films. The plot centres on three main characters, all employees at the cinema. Avery, played by a superb Jesse Reid, is an upper-middle class college-age black man who is just starting out. Avery is a cinematic savant, with a deep knowledge of and affinity for the movies, but only those made on and projected as celluloid. He is also socially awkward in a way that suggests he resides somewhere on the autism spectrum, his phobias about shit and his depression about the breakup of his parents' marriage belying much deeper anxieties about the state of the world. Sam, a veteran employee in his thirties, is in charge of training Avery, which mainly consists of handing him a broom and waste bin into which to sweep the popcorn and other detritus left behind by the theatre's patrons (only one of whom, played by Aaron Paul Stewart, we ever see). Sam has never been to college and still lives with his parents, and Haig Sutherland portrays the character's affronted weariness, not to mention genuine woundedness, at the lot life has handed him (including at one point a painful skin rash) with a quiet dignity that by the end of the play almost makes Sam appear heroic. The third main character in the play is Rose, the projectionist, a super-sexual free spirit for whom Sam pines, but who only seems to have eyes for Avery. Shannon Chan-Kent manages the difficult trick of making Rose seem at once an unattainable romantic goddess (that she spends much of her time moving about silently in the illuminated projection booth of Lauchlin Johnston's amazing set helps on this front) and a flesh and blood desiring woman intent on getting what she wants (cue a hilarious seen of Rose twerking in front of Avery).

The inevitable romantic triangle becomes the most immediate source of dramatic conflict in the play, which stretches three hours and involves multiple scenes of Avery and Sam silently sweeping up popcorn. But it is part of Baker's durational method to show us that in the midst of these apparently trivial scenes of repetitive and routinized labour, and the "ordinary affects" that accompany that labour (to quote from the anthropologist Kathleen Stewart), things erupt without warning to throw us--and our characters--off course. What's more, the play suggests that these personal eruptions are actually symptomatic of a larger neoliberal ideology that, to quote another fancy-shmancy affect theorist, Lauren Berlant, conspire to keep folks like Sam especially in a constant state of "cruel optimism," perpetually longing for the thing they want, but which they are perpetually denied, or told they cannot have. Thus, Rose's clumsy attempted seduction of Avery during a weekend that Sam is away at a family wedding sets off a chain of mutual recriminations that actually climaxes in a tense scene in which race and class are set against each other as part of a zero-sum equation of employee solidarity versus individual self-interest. That is, the new owner of the movie theatre, having first announced his decision to move exclusively to digital projection (something that causes Avery physical pain), subsequently accuses Avery of being solely responsible for skimming off a portion of box office proceeds under the previous management, a scheme into which he was very reluctantly conscripted by Rose and Sam when he first started his job (because, as Rose puts it, "No one can live on $8.50 an hour"). Avery thinks the new boss is targeting him because he is black and wants his coworkers to come clean on the fact that they were also part of the plan, in the hopes that they'll all be forgiven. However, Rose suggests that there is less at stake for Avery because he is the son of well-paid academic whose tuition is free and who is only working this job as a hobby, whereas for her and Sam this is their livelihood. For his part, Sam sheepishly notes that Avery said he'd quit anyway if the place stopped screening actual celluloid films.

All of this is accomplished without any flashy screaming and yelling, just a simmering stand-off that is telegraphed mostly through silently accusatory glances. And it is to director Dean Paul Gibson's immense credit that he is able to get his actors to say so much with just the subtlest movements of their bodies, a slump of the shoulders or a refusal to turn around or the hanging of a head communicating so economically--but no less affectingly--defeat or pride or hurt. As Avery notes to Sam in a brief coda at the end of the play, these characters have been thrown together by circumstance, and that circumstance--a minimum wage job in a soon-to-be obsolete service industry--conspires against the chance of them ever becoming real friends. Given that, the kindnesses we do witness between the characters--including the one Sam makes to Avery at the very end--register as all the more powerful.

This is a superb production of a very thoughtful play. It deserves to be seen.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 27

Yesterday we didn't have an interview subject booked, so Justine volunteered to recount her dance history to Alexa and I. This is something that the three of us are each supposed to do before this project is over. Mine will be very short.

Justine has been in Vancouver exactly a decade, arriving in 2006 with her partner, Josh Hite, who was starting an MFA at UBC. At this point, as Justine noted, she thought she had retired from dance, leaving behind a long career in Toronto without much regret (more on this below), as well as fourteen months in Los Angeles when she danced for two companies/entertainment franchises that seemed the antithesis of her rigorous contemporary training. The first was Diavolo Dance Company, which combined dance, acrobatics and circus arts, and whose death-defying stunts on stage were always preceded by cult-like backstage circle in which company members were required to say "I will die for you" (Justine recounted a terrifying story of a forward leap off a rocking boat that she had to do, but without the normal counter-ballast because one of her fellow members' feet had been crushed by the weight of the boat). The second troupe was called Hot Thing, and involved women in fishnets and short shorts doing the splits and lots of bootie pops at various celebrity clubs around LA.

After all of this, upon arriving in Vancouver Justine was quite content to be waitressing at Rangoli instead of dancing professionally. But eventually, through a connection with one of her former teachers at Ryerson in Toronto (where Justine did her post-secondary dance training), she was invited by Artemis Gordon at Arts Umbrella to sub for some of the classes normally taught by Yannick Matthon, who was at that time very often on the road with Crystal Pite and Kidd Pivot. Gordon then invited Justine to join as a full-time faculty member, and also to help her run the school administratively. Justine said that it was an insane amount of work and that the teaching was very hard, but that it made her a better dancer. It was also while at Arts Umbrella that Justine met Emily Molnar, John Alleyne (with whom she collaborated on a section of The Four Seasons), and various of the then company members of Ballet BC--an institutional connection that Justine maintains to this day.

Indeed, one of Justine's first choreographic forays in Vancouver was to remount a section of a duet she had created in Toronto on herself and recently retired Ballet BC rehearsal director Sylvain Senez for the 2009 iteration of 12 Minutes Max (which was curated by Joyce Rosario and Tanya Marquardt). The piece got picked up by Donna Spencer for the Dancing on the Edge Festival, and together with new work that Justine was creating with her partner Josh--notably, Copy, a performance-cum-installation at the Roundhouse that featured, among others, Megan and Vanessa Goodman, Molly McDermott and Laura Avery--Justine suddenly found herself making dances again, albeit in a way (and primarily as a result of her interdisciplinary collaborations with visual artists like Josh and Jen Wei and Brendan Fernandes and Kristina Lee Podevsa) that was fundamentally different in its conceptual focus from what she had previously understood dance to be.

Parallel to this Justine was also teaching, offering a class in contemporary technique at Harbour Dance (then the only such class in the city), and collaborating with Day Helesic to launch what would eventually become Working Class (now overseen by the Training Society of Vancouver and run out of The Dance Centre). And she was dancing in other folks' work, including Jennifer Mascall's White Spider, Company 605's The Inheritor Album, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg's Highgate, and pieces by Wen Wei Wang, Claire French, Science Friction (Farley Johansson and Shannon Moreno), and others.

It was only after narrating her most recent dance history that Justine circled back to her time in Toronto, which began with her joining Robert Desroisers' eponymous dance theatre company upon graduation from Ryerson. During her years in the company, which toured regularly, she learned that nothing gets easier, you only become a better dancer. She also recounted stories of lost passports in Miami and drunken pool accidents in Bermuda. Interestingly, Justine framed her early career in Toronto in the context of her post-Vancouver returns to the city for the collaborative peer-to-peer choreographic and teaching workshops/explorations/creative exchanges 8 Days and Love In, which she noted have been so instrumental to the dance relationships she has formed in the past decade.

To this end, in answering the "Why Vancouver?" question Justine noted that the collaborators she now has in Toronto (including Jenn Goodwin, Heidi Strauss, Julia Sasso, and others) are a result of what she's done since moving to Vancouver. While initially Justine had absolutely no intention of staying here, she stated that she now has a deep support network, and that she also wouldn't be making the kind of work she's making if she hadn't come to the city. She likewise affirmed that for her the future is exciting and potentially limitless, not least because of a new generation of "badass dancers" for whom ideas of expanded choreographic practices are just a given and who have access to a range of resources that weren't available a decade ago. The key, according to Justine, is just to learn to share those resources and, in so doing, to do less in order to do more.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Major Motion Picture at The Firehall

Out Innerspace's ambitious new full-length work of dance-theatre, Major Motion Picture, had its official premiere this past January at Dance Victoria. Now Vancouver audiences get to see the piece through this Saturday as it launches the Firehall Arts Centre's 2016/17 season of dance programming.

As their title suggests, Out Innerspace's David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen have drawn inspiration from film history, with various noir, spaghetti western, and martial arts motifs, among others, referenced in the choreography. Indeed, one of the many pleasures of watching this piece comes from revelling in how the movement, both in more rapid moments of horizontal seriality and in slower and sometimes static group massings out of which different bodies appear (and, just as ominously, into which others disappear), approaches the kinetic equivalent of cinematic montage. The terrific physicality of all the performers--Raymond and Tregarthen, joined by Laura Avery, Ralph Escamillan, Elissa Hanson, Arash Khakpour, Renée Sigoun and apprentice Elya Grant (all graduates of OIS's pre-professional training program, Modus Operandi)--is a reminder that for film theorists like Gilles Deleuze the "movement-image" of cinema is fundamentally rooted in the gestural vocabulary of dance. To this end, Deleuze references Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire, and there are arguably homages to both of these men's film oeuvres in MMP, not least in the funny and romantic closing "duet" that Tregarthen performs with a giant overcoat.

However, that overcoat is mostly worn throughout the piece by three other bodies, whose feet and arms we see moving in striking coordination, but whose collective torso remains headless. This overlord figure seems to preside over some dystopic future in which two different bands of comrades--one group all in black who appear to have mostly been cowed into reactive subservience by the system in which they find themselves, the other clad in white patterned onesies and balaclavas, who seem to incarnate a more anarchic impulse toward disrupting and even overthrowing that system--are set against each other. For some reason all of this put me in mind of Pink Floyd's The Wall, with the headless overcoated figure a version of the sadistic headmaster who grinds the students into meat, and with that film's aesthetic mix of live action and animation also translating into this work's unique juxtaposition of super sped-up and almost stop-motion choreography. The work is also filled with multiple moments of the dancers running on stage, doing double takes, occasionally crashing into or grappling with each other, and then dashing back into the wings--which suggested to me those sequences from Saturday morning cartoons when Scooby and Shaggy and Thelma and all the others keep running in and out of doorways and hallways, every now and then meeting up in the middle, but no one really knowing whom they might be chasing or fleeing, and why.

There is in fact a wall in this piece. It very prominently fills the downstage space at the top of the show, but is slowly pulled upstage during the spoken word prologue, in which Sigouin (I think) recites a mantra of "This is for you" into a stand-up mic stage right. (Now that I think of it, there are shades of Pink Floyd's "Hey You" lyrics in that opening interpellative direct address, and Sigouin at the mic at the top of the show portends Khakpour's later heavy breathing solo with an old-style hand-held mic later on, all of which brings to mind the Bob Geldof character ranting into a microphone in The Wall...) The wall is subsequently transformed into a screen, onto which the piece's stunning video designs are projected. This includes images of the performers--and also the audience--that are captured live via a light and motion-sensitive and radio frequency transmitting mobile camera hung from the stage left lighting grid. Seeking out different dancers' bodies crouched and cowering in the wings--including in one eerie moment the figure of Hanson looking at what I took to be a representation of her character's younger self on a cell phone--the camera is the real controlling mechanism in this hyper-mediated world, suggesting in turn that in our contemporary surveillance culture we may no longer have any real autonomy over any of our movements.

For all of these instances of revelation, I was left thinking that MMP never quite gelled into the sum of its parts. There were moments of amazing physical artistry--from the collective arraying of bodies and arms into a scary talking monster (whose image later returns on screen) and an amazing shaking solo by Raymond, to high impact partnering and richly organic segues into very satisfying bits of group unison. And yet, taken together, these moments felt inchoate in terms of the larger story being told: are the black and white groups at war with each other, or two different but equally oppressed groups; is the overcoated overlord figure defeated in the end and, if so, why the playfully romantic dance with Tregarthen that concludes the piece? All of which is to say that while I was definitely aware that some sort of narrative was being constructed in the piece (something I'm all for in contemporary dance-theatre and what generally attracts me to the work of Out Innerspace), I couldn't figure out how that narrative cohered. I'm not saying that I need meaning laid out for me or some kind of closure; but I do need an organizational logic. I also crave an emotional investment, which in this case was also lacking. I was definitely awed several times last night, but I can't say that I was genuinely moved.


Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 26

Yesterday Justine and Alexa and I were finally able to coordinate our schedules to undertake our first group interview since before the summer. Luckily for us our interview subject was Amber Funk Barton, who was so open and generous with us. The recounting of her dance history was like a long love letter to the community: starting with Arts Umbrella's Artemis Gordon, who took Amber under her wing following Amber's graduation from high school (throughout which Amber had been doing Goh Ballet Academy's half-day program), and eventually steering her towards Ballet BC's mentor program.

Following the conclusion of her formal training, Amber was lucky to dance for and receive further guidance from three other icons in the community: Joe Laughlin (where she first met James Gnam and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg), Judith Marcuse, and Lola McLaughlin. Lola took Amber on her first tour of Europe, an epic transmigration of several major Vancouver dance artists and companies to Croatia coordinated by The Dance Centre's Mirna Zagar. Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras of Holy Body Tattoo, Alvin Erasga, battery opera, Crystal Pite, Joe Laughlin, and others all made the journey. Gingras, in particular, would become a major influence on Amber, inviting her to be part of Heart is an Arena and teaching Amber that dance was as much about embodying ideas and energy as it was about performing the steps correctly.

During this time Amber was also starting to create her own work, beginning with two full-length creations in four months. As Amber said, in retrospect the way she went about launching her choreographic career was naively ambitious. For example, she created her company, the response, in 2008 because she had maxed out her eligibility for individual project funding. But she had an idea for a new piece and so she created a company in order to tap into a different pool of money and make the work happen. The result was Risk, which I well remember seeing at The Firehall, with Amber, the two Joshes (Beamish and Martin), David Raymond, and Heather L. Gray creating kinetic magic in and around a couch (a prop that Amber said they incorporated from the rehearsal studio upstairs at the Firehall). Amber took time to credit Firehall Artistic Producer Donna Spencer for her faith in her work, as well as her immense contributions to the development and promotion of dance in Vancouver more generally. For example, it was Donna who first connected Amber with Shay Kuebler, commissioning what would become Status Quo from them, and facilitating the work's subsequent travel to the Canada Dance Festival. Amber also noted that what she appreciated about Donna was that she was willing to invest in an artist's career over the long haul, recognizing that mistakes made in the short term would eventually pay off in more mature and satisfying work.

In terms of memorable experiences (both good and bad), Amber recounted the time she fainted on stage during rehearsal for Lola's piece while in Croatia. As Amber put it, the rehearsal was very hot, and she was wearing a plastic dress; but she didn't want to say anything, as she feared looking unprofessional. And so she continued to try to perform her steps and she collapsed to the floor. Afterwards Lola apparently worried that Amber might be pregnant. Then there was the story behind the creation of Hero and Heroine, a 30-minute duet that Amber created for herself and Josh Martin in 2010. Showing an excerpt of the work-in-progress at Dance Victoria for a bunch of different presenters changed Amber's perspective on how and why she makes work, and when and with whom she decides to share it. The work was apparently ripped apart, and in a way that reflected more of the presenters' own internal aesthetic battles than the integrity of the piece per se. Still, the experience taught Amber that she had to create work on her own terms, and not in order to please individuals who might be able to help tour that work.

Amber concluded her interview by saying that her decision to forge a career in dance was always simultaneously a decision to have that career here, in Vancouver. She also very wisely said that thinking about the future always involves a process of checking in with where she is at in the present, and that currently she is being sustained by and getting renewed energy from teaching. She noted that being a dance artist is undeniably hard, but that part of her also loves and thrives on the rigour. She also said that as a first world artist with access to resources that other folks in the world don't have (and no matter one's grumbling about how even more of such resources should be made available), she felt it was her responsibility to keep creating: because others elsewhere can't; and also because if you stop then the system wins. It was a very moving conclusion to an incredibly wise and wonderful interview.