Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ballet BC's Giselle

This weekend's world premiere of Ballet BC's new Giselle at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is the culmination of four years of painstaking restructuring and determined reinvention for the company under the inspired leadership of Artistic Director Emily Molnar. Pushing the company's repertoire in ever more innovative, contemporary, and international directions in a succession of bold and distinctive mixed programs that showcased the depth of talent and individual personalities of its dancers, in many ways Molnar's next logical step was to revisit the classical repertoire and find a story ballet that the company could make all its own. Hence resident choreographer José Navas's commission to update Giselle for the twenty-first century. After last night's performance I can say that, conceptually, Navas has accomplished this task brilliantly. I just wish there was more dance.

Navas has commented extensively in print in the lead-up to the premiere about the paradox of him, Cunningham-trained and steeped in abstraction, tackling one of the iconic tutu ballets and dealing with pantomime. At the same time, he has admitted how the process has, among other things, given him a new admiration for the pointe shoe and the elongated silhouette of the ballerina that comes with it. Which made it all the more surprising last night that apart from the opening sequences of the piece, Giselle (Maggie Forgeron) and the corps of female dancers were in socks, despite spending much of their time in relevé. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that one of Navas's conceptual innovations was to have the men in the corps join the women to make up the Wilis in Act 2. Or maybe this was his natural deconstructive aesthetic meeting classical technique half-way, literally on demi-pointe. Elsewhere, there were conscious allusions to the preparation-execution-release sequencing of ballet's signature moves, as when, for example, Albrecht (Alexander Burton) lifts Giselle at the waist in Act 1 and her feet remain turned out, in first position, or when, in Act 2, the Wilis hoist their leader, Myrtha (Makaila Wallace), aloft while she remains in a deep plié. Indeed, all four of the principals, even Hilarion (Gilbert Small), are lifted in similarly iconic poses throughout both acts, at once isolating them as representative ballet types (the doomed romantic heroine, the glib and oblivious hero, the mysterious stranger/villain, the magical priestess) and as characters subservient to this particular plot.

And it is in terms of the love triangle at the core of Giselle that Navas makes his most interesting changes to the ballet's story, writing in his very comprehensive and intellectually compelling choreographer's note that "in our day, class or status functions less persuasively as an obstacle to love than sexuality does." To this end, rather than Giselle having to choose between the unattainable nobleman Albrecht whom she desperately loves and the peasant Hilarion whom she does not, Navas makes Albrecht and Navas gay lovers and Giselle the woman who threatens to come between them. Again, I think this absolutely works on a conceptual level, and Forgeron, Burton, and Small are all dramatically compelling in their roles. But in terms of the movement they share (at least in Act 1), I was frankly surprised at how little there was and, when it did happen, how pedestrian it seemed. As Giselle, Forgeron spends a lot of time breaking up the hand-holding of Albrecht and Hilarion and generally stumbling around on stage uncomprehendingly. Burton and Small separately and together have moments where they demonstrate their proficient jetés and entrechats. But Forgeron, sans pointe shoes, gets narry an arabesque, let alone the series of dramatic fouettés that in the original staging one might expect would accompany her frenzied dancing of herself to death. To be sure, this relates to another of Navas's changes to the plot, namely that Giselle kills herself (with a knife she finds in Albrecht's coat, and given to him at the top of the piece by Hilarion) rather than dying from a weak--and presumably broken--heart. But the fact that this action takes place while Forgeron is seated on a chair was one more frustration for me.

I get that in stillness there might yet be an abundance of movement (physical and emotional), and that the broken lines of Forgeron's steps reflect not just her character's fragile psychological state, but also a whole history of formal conventions for the female dancer that Navas is subjecting to critique. And, along those lines, it did surprise me the extent to which, last night, I craved adherence to those conventions. The reason for this, I think, is the one element to which Navas, in his program note and in publicity for the piece, claims he felt he owed absolute fidelity: Adolphe Adam's music. When, at different points in the score, there is a crescendo of strings signifying a moment of dramatic intensity, we are cued to expect a similar virtuosic display of movement. Over and over again in Navas's staging--most notably during Giselle's death at the end of Act 1--that doesn't happen. Indeed, the most satisfying moments for me in Act 1 were when the principals were off stage, with Navas providing members of the corps an opportunity to display some amazing physical pyrotechnics. Relatedly, the moment in Act 2 I found the most moving was the duet between Forgeron's Giselle and Wallace's Myrtha that was performed in silence.

Let me be clear: there is so much in this production to admire, including its overall design, which includes stunning video projections and set design by Lino, gorgeous costumes by Linda Chow, and lighting by Marc Parent. And Navas has clearly thought deeply not just about his Giselle's relationship to the original, but also to the entire history of dance since. For example, in the choice of a member of the corps to "play" Giselle at the beginning of the piece--and in her symbolic disrobing--we witness an allusion to Pina Bausch's chosen sacrificial victim in her Rite of Spring. This reference was additionally reinforced for me at the end when the simple white shift Forgeron is wearing is removed to reveal her naked torso, sinewy and muscled like one of Bausch's female dancers, but also like that of the young boy whom she would become were she able, and were it to mean she could then keep her Albrecht.

Moments like these, when the politics of gender and sexuality combined with the poetry of dance, were many last night, and always kept me engaged. I look forward to grappling with the work's layers and complexities even further as it is remounted in the coming years.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Three Sisters at The Cultch

Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters is a play I adore, and one I've taught many times (in various translations/adaptations by contemporary playwrights, for whom the task is almost a career rite of passage). But until last night I had not seen a live professional production. Mercifully, that gap in my theatre-going experience has been filled by director Jane Heyman and The Only Child Collective's moving staging of the play, on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre's Vancity Culture Lab through this Saturday.

Full disclosure: Jane is a former PuSh Board colleague; her daughter, Jessie Johnston, who produced the show, is a current PuSh Board colleague; and I donated money to the wildly successful indiegogo campaign that Jessie has used to underwrite much of the production's costs. Not that mother or daughter would expect anything less than a full and honest critique.

One of the most amazing things about Three Sisters, written at the turn of the twentieth-century, is how contemporary it continues to feel. And I'm not just referring to the feelings of ennui, melancholia, and frustrated ambition afflicting Olga, Masha, and Irina, three beautiful, intelligent women suffocating in the provinces, forced into soulless marriages and mind-numbing jobs while the men around them--their brother Andrei included--continue to enjoy the entitlements of their gender. What over-educated female millennial facing the current job market--and perhaps the prospect of moving back in with her parents in the suburbs as a result--wouldn't be affected by this? But the freshness of the play has as much to do with Chekhov's structural and dramaturgical genius as with the universality of his themes. So, for example, the twin themes of love and work that remain dialectically entwined in the Prozorov sisters' minds as sources of aspirational longing and hopeless despair are consistently played out in scenes that juxtapose public "philosophizing" (to use Vershinin's term) about their possible and/or anticipated rewards with private self-recrimination about the much more pedestrian realities such fantasies belie.

Key in this regard is Act 3, set in the enclosed and cramped interior space of Olga and Irina's bedroom, following the fire that ravages much of the town. The entire cast tramps through the room at one point or another, symbolically trampling what remains of the sisters' dream to return to Moscow. In Heyman's staging, we witness all of this in quietly and affectively physical ways: in Irina's (Rachel Aberle) disgust at the grit and grime Dr. Chebutykin (Richard Newman) has left on the washcloth used to dry his hands; in an exhausted Olga's (Manami Hara) cradling of the aged servant Anfisa (Rosy Frier-Dryden); in Masha (Emma Slipp) greedily stealing kisses with Vershinin (Bob Frazer) while her husband Kulygin (David Bloom) dozes in the corner; and in Irina and Olga burying themselves under their bedclothes as Andrei (Alex Rose) tells them he has mortgaged the house to pay his gambling debts and that they need to be nicer to his interloping wife, Natasha (Adele Noronha).

My only complaint is that the exclusively stage left blocking of these scenes, combined with an awkwardly placed upstage screen, made it difficult to see much of the action. I get that Heyman was emphasizing how impossibly small the sisters' world has become, and that this serves as a visual contrast to the final act, set in the Prozorovs' garden, which ironically does not open out onto new vistas for any of the sisters. But sightlines in the tiny Culture Lab are already difficult enough. If you add a full house (a tough problem to have, I know), then for those sitting audience left as I was, for much of Act 3 you'll be craning your neck.

Oh yeah, one other thing: the actor playing Tuzenbach (Brahm Taylor) was far too handsome. Otherwise, this is a warm and wise production, with a skillfully updated text by Amiel Gladstone that sounds at once idiomatically contemporary to a 21st-century ear and faithful to Heyman's period staging. I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to spend such quality time with two of my favourite theatrical families: the Prozorovs and the Heyman-Johnstons.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

VAG Decision + SFU Visual Art Graduating Show


Now that we've temporarily put the VAG soap-opera to rest, check out the future of visual art practice in this city by taking in I Need All the Friends I Can Get, the SFU Visual Art BFA Graduating Show, on at the Audain Gallery at SFU Woodward's until April 27th.

Among other things, it features the work of six of my students from FPA 319W--all amazingly talented.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pat and Maggie

Amid all the theatricality and performances of protest attending news of Margaret Thatcher's death in the UK (favourite graffito courtesy of our London friend, Cathy: "The Iron Lady: May She Rust in Peace"), a reminder, via the adjacent photo and accompanying story in the Vancouver Sun, of an important local connection to the neoliberal legacy of Thatcher's neoconservative politics: real estate.

Just as, soon after taking power, Thatcher authorized the private sale of huge swathes of council housing in London, so did BC's Social Credit government, in the wake of Expo 86, eagerly offload much of Vancouver's False Creek North to LeeKa-Shing's Concord Pacific, paving the way (quite literally) for the city's downtown boom in luxury condo development.

In both cases, the short term effect may have been to encourage middle class families to stay in the city rather than flee to the suburbs, and to stimulate economic growth and population density in hitherto depressed or formerly industrial neighbourhoods (though the density issue is debatable in the case of Vancouver, given that so many condo units have off-shore owners who don't live in them); however, in the longer term, it has meant pricing that same class out of the market while at the same time shrinking the amount of available--and affordable--low-income and social housing to ever smaller levels.

Needless to say, that's a narrative we don't hear much about in Pat Carney's reminiscences of Maggie's stamina and their mutual admiration as determined female deregulators having to deal with weak and "wet" male colleagues. Nor, unsurprisingly, is there any discussion of their unfortunate fashion choices.

The 1980s were horrible in so many ways.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Artful Art Song at SFU

Last night, amid the ongoing line-up of spring arts showcases featuring the work of our super-talented Contemporary Arts students at SFU Woodward's, it was the musicians' turn to shine.

As Professor David McIntyre (doing double duty as conductor for the evening) announced before the concert, at SFU the music program is focused exclusively on composition. There is no performance-training component. Instead, senior composition students benefit each year from collaborating with a stellar line-up of local guest artists, who are invited to interpret and offer feedback on the students' work. Additionally, students hone their skills by composing to a rotating set of instruments and forms, depending on who is teaching the course. This year the focus was on the art song tradition, with students invited to set existing text to music for piano (guest artist Tina Chang), viola (guest artist Marcus Takizawa), soprano voice (guest artist Heather Pawsey) and mezzo-soprano voice (guest artist Melanie Adams).

Six songs and one opera scene were presented and, with one exception, I was consistently amazed not just by the depth and intelligence of the compositions themselves, but also by the startlingly original choices in text. (The one exception, in this regard, was the rather cliched use of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as the text for Chris Lachowski's otherwise charming score.) Highlights included Maren Lisac's dramatic call and response setting of Shane Rhodes' found poem "as may have been grunted" (comprised of words taken from the transcript of Treaty 5 negotiated in 1875 between Queen Victoria and the First Nations of Northern Manitoba); JJ Hartmann's thematic explorations of temporal phrasing and duration in relation to Elee Gardiner's "Backstich," a poem about sewing; Clinton Ackerman's wise and witty staging of two arias based on a scene from Judith Thompson's Lion in the Streets in which Joanne (Pawsey) asks Rhonda (Adams) to help her commit suicide like Ophelia (demonstrating, in the process, that Thompson is perhaps our most operatic of playwrights and that Lion in the Streets, her masterwork, is perhaps ripe for just such an adaptation); and Lee Cannon-Brown's gracefully spare and simple score for Robert Creeley's "Intervals," a poem that is itself about "identity singing."

Scott Jeffrey chose Canadian poet (and Globe and Mail reviewer) Fraser Sutherland's "In the Provinces" as the basis for his song, and in the dissonant play of the viola with the cascading harmonics of the piano brilliantly captured the mix of wit, irony, and social critique at work in the poem. Alex Mah, graduating this year, worked with Contemporary Arts film professor and award-winning poet Colin Browne, setting "Swan" (from Browne's recently published collection The Properties) in a way that not only evoked 1960s experiments in sound poetry, but that also highlighted the contemporary art song's debt to minimalism.

That specific artistic debt is something Alex and Scott have been educating me on in their final essays for my FPA 319W course ("Critical Writing in the Arts"), which, respectively, are on on the indie classical music label/collective Bedroom Community and its most famous art song composer, Nico Muhly. Both Alex and Scott write as crisply as they compose, and I wish them and all their colleagues much success in their future careers.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

War: Requiem at SFU Woodward's

Things are bustling at SFU Woodward's, where several year-end shows highlight the immense talent and creativity of Contemporary Arts students across the disciplines. Last night I got a chance to see the senior repertory dance students shine in War: Requiem, an intense, athletic, and visually stunning show overseen and co-created by Rob Kitsos, and featuring additional choreography by the 605 Collective, Shauna Elton, and Vanessa Goodman.

The show begins, more or less in medias res, with the full company of 18 dancers scattered about the Fei and Milton Wong Theatre's reconfigured thrust stage, clad in gender-neutral variations of grey and black (the costumes are by Carmen Alatorre), and each standing at rigid military attention. As the audience begins to file to their seats, one of the dancers shouts a command and, en masse, the group begins to march in place, 18 pairs of sneakers echoing like artillery fire off the Wong's sprung floor. Another command and the group comes together centre stage, a single unit now, marching with collective purpose, but going nowhere, their blank performance faces in this case telegraphing the anonymous--and obedient--abrogation of self required of the common soldier.

Here and elsewhere throughout the evening I was also reminded about how much unison choreography has in common with military drills and formations, not least in terms of the bodily discipline (and disciplining of the body) required for each. In one full-throttle sequence after another, in straight lines or diagonal v-shapes, running or simply standing in place, standing on tables upstage, or rolling on the floor downstage, the dancers executed a range of complex and intensely physical choreography with precision and virtuosic timing. Which made all the more memorable and impactful those moments when one among them broke away from or moved counter to the group. Often this occurred in combination with spoken text, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear one of my favourite parts from the Homebody's monologue in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul being recited at a certain point (although it wasn't credited in the program).

It's also a credit to the overall curation of this show that while I could pick out what I thought were recognizable 605 moments or phrases and whole sequences that likely came from Rob or Shauna or Vanessa, the total experience of the choreography felt seamless. Which is also to say that the dancers' interpretations of the variations in style were also incredibly fluid and organic.

Finally a shout-out to the amazingly integrated design concept for the piece, with music by Gabriel Saloman, lighting by Sarah Bourdeau and Rui Su, projections by Chimerik (brothers and new media wizards Sammy Chien and Shang-Han Chien), and installation work by guest artist Nancy Tam. At moments throughout the piece we glimpse a figure walking slowing behind a scrim upstage, wearing what looks like a Hazmat suit. It's Tam, wrapped in layers of plastic. This mysterious figure finds a visual corollary at the end of the piece: as the dancers one by one deposit plastic replica bodies downstage and join each other in a heap on the floor centre stage, heaving for a few moments together as they collect, or expend, a final breath, Tam begins emerging from her own plastic cocoon, like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Creation from destruction? Beauty from ugliness? It's a deliberately ambiguous closing image, but one that, like everything else in this production, is full of meaning and resonance.

War: Requiem runs for two more performance today, at 2 pm and 8 pm.