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).

P


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.

P

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.

P


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.

P

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.

P

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Ballet BC's Program 1 at the Queen E

In the pre-show chat that preceded last night's performance of Ballet BC's season-opening Program 1, choreographer-in-residence Cayetano Soto talked in glowing terms about his admiration for the company, its dancers, Emily Molnar as artistic director, and about how, following the premiere of his acclaimed Twenty Eight Thousand Waves in 2014, he didn't have to think twice about Molnar's invitation to accept his current appointment. Soto, who not only choreographs but also designs the lighting and costumes for his pieces, is unusually adept at creating provocative and sensorially arresting atmospheres in and through his dances. That talent was on abundant display last night, as in an evening devoted to four of his works the mood shifted gradually from darker to lighter.

Beginning After, the first piece on the program and a world premiere, begins with a projected title about the fine line between truth and the illusion of memory. The dancers emerge singly and in pairs from the upstage darkness in shiny black singlets that resemble exoskeletons. There is rarely ever more than two dancers on stage, but such is the shutter-like effect that Soto creates with his lighting (which in addition to the general dim half-light throughout includes brief blackouts and later strobe-like flashes) and the slow fade ins and fade outs that accompany the dancers' entrances and exits that the whole piece has the look and feel of time-lapse photography or stop-motion cinema. Certainly we are meant to question what we are seeing, which extends to the extraordinary partnering that Soto builds to at the conclusion of the piece. I had thought that the lifts in Twenty Eight Thousand Waves were the most complicated I had ever seen, but here Soto takes things to a whole other level, and it is impossible not to marvel at how the dancers--who often put me in mind of baroque versions of pairs figure skaters (the music is by Handel)--combine the speed, fluidity and angularity required to accomplish the partnering for this piece. As my colleague Judith Garay put it at intermission, it's the tangled lines Soto creates in this work that are so captivating.

There followed two short pieces created by Soto in 2007 and 2013 respectively, but here receiving their Canadian premieres. The first, Fugaz, is a meditation on the death of Soto's father, but it unfolds in such a way that it is impossible not to meditate on the gender politics embedded--whether consciously or not--in the piece. Emily Chessa, Racheal Prince, Nicole Ward and Livona Ellis form a feminine quartet whose spatial interactions are interrupted by successive appearances of masculine ghost-like presences, these figures in black emerging from stairs at the lip of the stage and then disappearing into the darkness upstage. However, on one such pass towards the end of the piece, first Christoph von Riedemann and then Peter Smida partners with Chessa and Ellis respectively, the latter pairing turning into a violent scene that almost resembles a rape, and that left me a little confused as to how to read the piece. The gender dynamics that necessarily accrue to traditional dance partnering are less obviously on display in Sortijas, an affecting duet for Scott Fowler and Alexis Fletcher performed to the music of Lhasa de Sela. This is partly because of the nude jersey that Fletcher wears on her torso, that next to Fowler's bare chest and when combined with their matching black pants, has the effect of making her appear androgynous. To be sure, it is the powerful and technically superb Fowler who is still doing the lifting throughout but elsewhere in the piece one has the sense that the two dancers are equal halves of the same striving soul. This is nowhere more apparent than at the end of the piece when, after the music cuts out, the movement continues for a moment longer, the dancers' breathing synchronizing into its own lush and immersive soundscape as the curtain drops (a similar conceit ends Beginning After).

The evening concluded with the second world premiere of the program. Schachmatt, which is German for check-mate, and which Soto has developed and expanded from an earlier piece called Conrazoncorazon. Tapping into the ribald energy of Weimar-era cabaret (think Marlene Dietrich's Blue Angel crossed with Fosse's Kit Kat girls, referenced not least in the short shorts worn by both the male and female dancers), this exuberant ensemble piece showcases lots of quick shuffle toe and ball change unison footwork, swivelling hips, and even jazz hands. But it's by no means a parody and the virtuosity of the dancers is utterly compelling. It was a great way to finish the evening and to punctuate the start of the company's new season.

P

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Jessica Lang Dance at The Playhouse

DanceHouse's 2016/17 season launched this past weekend with the Vancouver premiere of Jessica Lang Dance. Not to be confused with the American actress of American Horror Story fame, Lang is a New York-based choreographer (and former Twyla Tharp dancer) who established her eponymous company in 2011 and has since been gaining international notice, having been most recently commissioned by American Ballet Theatre.

For her Vancouver visit Lang offered audiences a mixed repertoire of five pieces. The first was Lines Cubed, from 2012, a Mondrian-like riff on pathways through space that was made up of four colour-coded sections--black, red, yellow, and blue--plus a concluding coda that brought all the different patterns (grids, circles and spirals) together. It was an interesting conceit and the steps were well-executed but I was never emotionally invested. It also felt to me that if Lang was going to be so rigorously formal in her conception of the piece then she shouldn't have introduced dancers in black into the duet she had constructed for the blue section. I get that they were meant to be impediments to the successful completion of the duet, but the unfurling and furling back up of the black crepe paper on stage struck me as altogether unnecessary.

The Calling was a short excerpt from Lang's Splendid Isolation II (2006); it featured company member Julie Fiorenza sheathed in an elegant white dress, the extended length of which spilled about her like flower petals or a rippling moonlit pond on the stage. Working on pointe (I'm assuming), Fiorenza would rise vertically and then sink down at the knees, an effect that because of the dress momentarily gave the illusion that she was sinking through rather than merely into the floor. The short piece ends with the dancer doing a succession of micro-turns, gathering the dress's material inward around her legs like she is a beautiful butterfly going back into its cocoon. Again, it was pretty to look at but did not really engage me in a profound way.

Things got more interesting in Thousand Yard Stare (2015), which I gather was made in consultation with veterans suffering from PSTD. Lang sends her ensemble out on stage in army fatigues, their slow horizontal march backwards and forwards across the stage in formation every now and then arrested mid-movement when one of the dancers holds a raised leg off the floor. Other canon formations evoke images of soldiers burrowing through tunnels or falling against each other in battle. As fascinated as I was by the different bodily structures of support that Lang seemed to be investigating in the context of war, it struck me that the very precision with which she was creating them worked against the idea that in such situations one cannot possibly know at every moment what to do or how to react.

The fourth piece on the program, White (2011), was actually a film. Overlaying different images of bodies moving through space, and using different film speeds, Lang--working with director of photography Shinichi Maruyama and editors Tetsushi Wakasugi and Jackson Notier--was able to convey a sense of kinaesthetic immersion through this work. It segued seamlessly into the final work on the program: i.n.k. (2011) is another collaboration between Lang and Maruyama and Wakasugi and Notier. As washes and droplets of india ink traverse the upstage screen the dancers interact with them, ducking beneath or jumping over them, for example, and through their additional movement across the stage extending the dance that is also happening on the screen. This last piece was by far the most successful of the evening, but even here the concept felt somewhat programmatic. Lang is clearly a choreographer of abundant ideas; I just wish the work was more emotionally involving.

P