Thursday, December 31, 2009

Should Old Acquaintance, or, For Naught

Hard to believe how quickly the end of this year snuck up on me, let alone the end of an entire decade. I can get quite maudlin on such occasions, so I'll keep my comments in this final post of 2009 as terse as possible.

Images on the news last night reminded me how this decade began--with the manufactured panic over Y2K and the mass computer meltdown that never happened. Of course, here on the west coast of North America, where we're virtually the last to ring in the new year, the story was already old news by the time fireworks exploded without a hitch over Sydney's Harbour Bridge.

I think I had forgotten about Y2K because, as I'm sure is the case with most people the world over, I really mark the start of the past decade with 9/11. Fitting, then, that we should be leaving it more or less the way it began, the recent attempted terrorist attack over the skies of Detroit on Christmas Day having sent airport security around the world into full lockdown mode.

As for Canada, while we politely declined to join George W's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, we were soon enough embroiled in Afghanistan, deploying our first combat troops since the Korean War, and fighting an insurgency for the first time since the Boer War! Yesterday turned out to be one of the deadliest days of the mission so far, with four soldiers and one journalist killed by yet another roadside IED--bringing this country's total war dead in Afghanistan to 138.

Meanwhile, back at home our benevolent dictator of a prime minister, Stephen Harper, has prorogued parliament for the second time in less than a year, the better to avoid more embarrassing and probing questions about the Afghan detainee scandal, no doubt. Has anyone noticed? Our government has effectively absconded with democracy, and won't be back until after the Olympics, in March.

Speaking of the Olympics, while the event itself will technically be registered as belonging to the next decade, for Vancouver, and for better or worse, this past decade has largely been about preparing for a certain five-ring circus. Readers of this blog know by now my own position on this interminable exercise in place promotion (and my conscience is clean--I voted "no" in the referendum back in 2003), and the promises (such as ending homelessness in the city) as yet lived up to from the original Bid Book and the flurry of official "agreements" signed in conjunction with it. Come tomorrow I will be laying off the slagging somewhat and concentrating--hopefully together with some of my students in a related blog--instead on simply reporting what's going on Olympics-wise in the city over the next three months. And I'm sure some of that reporting will even be laudatory--I mean Laurie Anderson's coming to town, for heaven's sake!

Still, as the final 17 hours tick down on this decade, it's hard not to feel cynical. And I haven't even mentioned the environment yet. The recent toothless deal brokered in Copenhagen at the last minute by an increasingly concessionary and compromising President Obama seems to me symptomatic of the opportunities lost during the past 10 years (from using our shared grief over lives lost to violence to forge bonds across religious and ethnic and economic difference, to using the recent financial meltdown to rethink our dependence on automobiles). It's also a slap in the face to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia almost exactly five years ago, not to mention those killed and displaced by Hurricane Katrina less than a year later. The oceans will rise, and while I'm not saying I subscribe to certain recent theories divined from the ancient Mayan calendar, I am saying that's it's not too difficult to predict, climate skeptics and University of East Anglia researchers notwithstanding, what the next decade will bring weather-wise.

As of yet, this first decade of the second millennium is without an official catchy shorthand name, media pundits unable to decide what to come up with from its zero-sum middle digits. I say leave it that way. These past 10 years have been for naught.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Post-It Protests

The folks over at Creativity Counts have started an Arts Cuts Memo Call to Action, asking concerned British Columbians to send creative memos to the government reminding them of the importance of the arts, and to follow the recommendation of their own Finance Committee by restoring funding to 2008 levels.

In my contribution, which I've included below, I've taken the opportunity of sneaking in a bit of publicity for the upcoming PuSh Festival:

And here's a related video from the Alliance for Arts and Culture:


When You're (Not) Smiling


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dance Follies and False Fronts

At EDAM’s studios at the Western Front last night Richard and I took in a mixed program of new choreography.

First up was Struck, by Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers Artistic Director Brett Lott. Featuring a quartet of female dancers elegantly sheathed in costume designer Norma Lachance’s see-through black dresses, simple yet effective lighting by Dean Cowieson and Kyla Gardiner, and an original score by Christine Fellows, the piece begins with the dancers, aligned horizontally and staggered according to height (short, tall, short, tall), slowly emerging out of shadow. What at first appears to be a coincidence of the performers’ body types takes on added structural resonance, however, as the piece slowly unfolds as a succession of solos and duos in which the shorter and—it appeared to me—more emotionally intense of the dancers successively attempt to woo their taller, more aloof sisters. All of this takes place within a single square of light, with the dancers taking turns entering it to sculpt the spaces between—at times painfully proximate, at other times as painfully distant—themselves and the bodies of their would-be others, who are watching silently from the shadows.

Next up was EDAM Artistic Director Peter Bingham’s X pollination, his latest contact improv-inspired work, this time for two male dancers, James Gnam and Chengxin Wei. James and Chengxin are both former Ballet BC dancers (now each with his own company, the plastic orchid factory and Moving Dragon, respectively), and here Bingham is clearly having some fun putting the two through their shared weight-transfer and floor-based movement paces, while retaining various balletic traces in the classic arm movements and foot positions that are interpolated near the end of the piece, and in the final double tours en l’air that punctuate the piece’s witty close. The dancers are also clearly having fun discovering how their classic technique can be adapted and expanded via this new form, and in response to each other’s bodies. The highlight of the evening for me.

Finally, the program ended with Joe Laughlin’s Dusk. The first part of a work-in-progress “on experiences surrounding darkness, shadows, limited visibility, and declining light,” the piece—also for four female dancers—was in many respects quietly terrifying, despite being performed under more-or-less full house lights. This is because what begins as a seemingly benign solo for lead dancer Caroline Farquhar (with fellow company members Michelle Cheung, Tara Dyberg, and Samantha-Jane Gray languishing in various poses along the back wall of the studio) eventually turns into something far more menacing, as Cheung’s gradual shadowing of Farquhar’s movements becomes part of a larger monitory process in which Farquhar is first coerced into moving according to the others’ desires, and then constrained from movement altogether.

All in all, a fine evening of dance, made all the more enjoyable by Reece Terris’s witty “Western Front Front—Another False Front,” his addition of a new, larger, and more ornamented façade to the exterior of the venerable building. Part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, this architectural folly remains on view through to the end of March; however, the dance follies described above have only two more shows—this Friday and Saturday.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Another Olympics Update

Running with my buddies Clint and Jamie this unusually brisk winter morning in our Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, we saw city workers moving concrete pylons and erecting barbed-wire perimeter fencing around the Olympic curling venue at Ontario and 33rd. My first thought was incredulity--who'd want to protest curling, except maybe those who didn't consider it a real sport, or its sometimes older and less-than-toned competitors real athletes? This was soon replaced by anger, as a block-and-a-bit later we ran by what remains of the Little Mountain social housing complex, which is being steadily demolished in advance of proposed redevelopment.

The stark juxtaposition of these two images brought to mind the second Pre-Games Results Report released by researchers at UBC last week. Part of a series of four "Olympic Games Impact Studies" mandated by the IOC (two prior to and two following upon the Games), the report concludes that the Olympics have so far had "a very slight positive impact." Mostly this has been felt in the area of athlete preparedness and competitiveness, with the federal government's "Own the Podium" campaign having successfully positioned Canadian 2010 Olympians to excel in their individual events next February. On the subject of homelessness and affordable housing, however, the report is far less laudatory, noting that reliable data suggests that homelessness in the city has more than doubled in advance of the games, that the legacy of 252 social housing units from the Olympic Village is in jeopardy, and that while statistics suggest the number of social-housing units per 1,000 people in Vancouver increased from 35.6 to 39.4 between 2001 and 2006, in Metro Vancouver it decreased from 22.3 to 21.8.

So much for the Inner-City Inclusivity Statement that all three levels of government signed back in 2002 committing them to a net increase in social housing and an elimination of street homelessness as a concrete legacy of the Games. In the following video posted to YouTube by Am Johal and the folks at the Impact on Community Coalition, we are reminded of just how many promises have been broken in advance of the Olympics (kudos to the IOCC gang for getting in some hard-hitting stats at the end of the video on the arts and culture cuts in BC):

Meanwhile, I read in the paper today that VANOC has signed a deal with Concord Pacific allowing it to use the vacant CP-owned lots on North False Creek between GM Place and Science World for official Olympics-related events. This solves an accessibility and security nightmare for VANOC at the 11th hour, brings CP on board as an "official supplier," and of course gives CP a public relations windfall in being able to do some advance marketing on the final piece (quite literally) of their post-Expo 86 redevelopment of the downtown core of Vancouver.

And who says hallmark events like these don't benefit everyone?


Monday, December 7, 2009

After after the quake

Alessandro Juliani (left, as Frog) and Tetsuro Shigematsu (as Junpei) in Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions' mounting of after the quake at Studio 16

It took two tries, and it was very touch and go right up to the end, but Richard and I did finally manage to secure rush tickets for this past Saturday’s penultimate matinee performance of what so far this fall theatre season has proven to be the hottest show in town. I’m referring to Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions’ acclaimed co-production of after the quake, which just finished its sold-out run at Studio 16.

The nail-biting around the tickets was definitely worth it. This production had all the elements of thrilling theatre: a great story simply told; a uniformly superb cast; sharp direction; and an overall design concept (set, sound, and lighting) that integrated seamlessly with the theatricality and thematics of the play.

Adapted by Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Frank Galati, after the quake is based on two stories from acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 2002 collection of the same name. The stories in Murakami’s book are set in the months between the devastating earthquake in Kobe in January 1995 and the deadly subway attacks in Tokyo two months later. Suspended in a surreal dream state, Murakami’s characters struggle to make sense of their lives and forge links with one another amid the general malaise and fear dominating society. Quotidian acts of connection take place against superhuman feats of rescue and sacrifice. To this end, in the play we are introduced to Junpei (Tetsuro Shigematsu), a writer who lives to tell stories to Sala (Leina Dueck), the nightmare-plagued daughter of Sayoko (Manami Hara). Sayako is divorced from Takatsuki (Kevan Ohtsji), Junpei’s best friend from university, and over the course of the play we learn how this triumvirate first met, the bond they forged, and how both men eventually fell in love with Sayako, with Takatsuki beating Junpei to the punch in declaring his intentions. Junpei sublimates his feelings for Sayako through his writing, and the linking story in after the quake is the one Junpei is composing in his head about a mild-mannered and put-upon bank clerk, Katagiri (Ohtsji again), who is visited by a giant frog (the superb Alessandro Juliani) and enlisted in Frog’s plan to rescue Tokyo from an imminent earthquake by doing battle under the Shinjuku subway station with Frog’s mortal enemy, Worm.

I am a big fan of presentational theatre, and one of the things I like most about Galati’s adaptation is the multiple levels of narration that he has retained from Murakami’s writing: the play’s narrator (Juliani again) tells us Junpei’s story, who tells us Katagiri’s story, who is in turn told about his life by Frog, who seems to know everything about him. At various points in all levels of the diegesis, characters address the audience directly. Like little Sala, then, we are enfolded into the magic of the storytelling, and because this is furthermore done within the context of the theatre (where the wires are meant to show), we willingly suspend disbelief and travel along with Katagiri and Frog as they attempt to save the world.

The fact that we have such wonderful actors as our guides helps immensely in facilitating this journey. All the performers—most in multiple roles—are superb, but Juliani really stands out as Frog. With only a pair of amphibian-like gloves, a bowler hat, and a walking stick—and aided at key moments by the voice and visual enhancements of sound and lighting designers Yota Kobayashi and Itai Edral, respectively—Juliani loosens his long limbs, steps liquidly across the stage, and makes us believe he is indeed a frog.

The play’s direction was as it should be—unobtrusive—and this is all the more remarkable given that Pi and Rumble Artistic Directors/Producers Richard Wolfe and Craig Hall were sharing duties on this production. Yvan Morissette’s set—a marvel of sliding doors and screens—was as elegantly simple and structurally complex as the play itself. And what a delight—in a city as densely populated with Asian Canadians as this one—to finally see a critical mass of said citizens represented on our stages.

One final mention must go to box office manager Tara Goertzen-Travis, who for three-weeks, night after night, dealt with rush ticket hopefuls like Richard and me with patience, grace and infinite amounts of good humour. Here’s hoping her job is much easier if and when the production gets a well-deserved remount next year.