Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dense Vancouver and Other Sights

Mayor Robertson had an op-ed in today's Vancouver Sun responding to the community push back against the city's development and densification plans for Marpole (lane-way housing), Commercial Drive (high-rise towers), and the Downtown Eastside (finding the right mix of social and market housing).

The precedent for such civic action was established in Mount Pleasant last year in response to the controversial Rize development plans at the nexus of East Broadway, Kingsway and Main Streets, which originally included a 22-storey residential tower (the plans have since been revamped, although still not to the satisfaction of most in the neighbourhood). This week the non-profit artist project management and curatorial collective Other Sights is partnering with The Western Front and the artist-run centre 221A to present an open research studio at Kingsgate Mall on possible futures for this iconic triangle of the city. Among other things, folks are invited to drop by between 11 am and 7 pm (5 pm on Sunday) to comment on and contribute to an evolving aerial model of the area.

Would that the mayor find time to visit the mall. But perhaps he's too busy packing up house in preparation for his move to Kits, where very soon he can likely enjoy a leisurely and largely car-free bike ride to Chip Wilson's palazzo.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Silk Road Trio and Wen Wei Wang

New Works' 10th anniversary presentation of the "All Over the Map" series of free outdoor music and dance performances at Ron Basford Park on Granville Island concluded on Sunday with the pairing of the hybrid Silk Road Trio and the solo movement improvisations of Wen Wei Wang.

Featuring Qiu Xia He on pipa (sort of like a Chinese version of the lute) and vocals, husband André Thibault on guitar, oud, and a variety of wind instruments, and Liam MacDonald on percussion, Silk Road took the audience through an eclectic repertoire of Chinese folk songs, Brazilian samba, and even Memphis-inspired blues. It was certainly stereotype-busting to see Qiu Xia pluck out a Lead Belly-esque number on the pipa, and MacDonald at one point gave a virtuoso tambourine solo that gave me new respect for an instrument that ever since The Partridge Family I'd always maligned as the province of second-rate back-up singers with bad 70s hair.

Then there was Wang, who joined the trio for three numbers. If his improvisations relied a bit too much on props (an oversized pair of chopsticks, eight peacock feathers, and a bright green fan) for my liking, he at least made canny use of the site-specificity of the "All Over the Map" series, beginning his peacock dance, for example, upon the hill where the audience was seated, and slowly wending his way to the stage, tickling a few faces and necks along the way. And in his last improvisation, Wang also incorporated some of Silk Road's ironic and deconstructive approach to Western and Eastern musical styles into his movement vocabulary, his flowing arms and legs at one point segueing into a version of popping and locking.


Sublime Bard on the Beach (and Butoh)

In Kim Collier's digital-age Hamlet, part of this year's Bard on the Beach season, Jonathon Young gives a towering performance (deeply intelligent, refreshingly physical, intensely feeling) as the young prince interrupted, a rich West Van postgrad genuinely flummoxed by his father's sudden death and perhaps even more unmoored by his mother's quick remarriage. This is telegraphed in a wordless opening scene Collier inserts even before the curtain speech, with a tousled, barefoot Hamlet alone in the sleekly modern, all-white reception room of the royal compound (the stunning set is by Pam Johnson), staring past the ghostly sheeted furniture and out the sliding glass doors that yield onto the sublime vista that is the Bard mainstage's signature but that in this case truly does overwhelm and undo our focalizing subject (although the fact that for a moment at yesterday's matinee Young had to share the stage with a patron eager to capture the view on his iPhone somewhat marred the effect). Just as the lights dim and Torquil Campbell and Chris Dumont's original music fills the theatre, a scantily clad Ophelia (a wonderfully open and vulnerable Rachel Cairns) enters stage left and joins Hamlet in a post-coital embrace downstage; the move neatly establishes that the couple has a romantic past, thus making all the more powerful and shocking Hamlet's subsequent sacrificing of his girlfriend as part of the collateral damage of his revenge plot.

Of course, the play famously pivots on whether Hamlet is up to this task. However, in Collier's production this is something about which we are never in doubt. As soon as Hamlet joins Bernardo and Marcellus and Horatio (played here by Jennifer Lines, who again proves she is perhaps the crispest, most enunciative deliverer of Shakepeare's lines in the whole Bard company) on the heath of Elsinore and learns from the ghost of his father the truth about his murder and usurpation at the hands of Claudius, he is resolved to answer the foul deed in kind. And Young makes it clear that all of his subsequent actions--his feigned "antic disposition," for example, and his conscription of the visiting players into performing an amended version of "The Murder of Gonzago" as part of the Act 3 inset play (with the company here making the most of the stage technology and projecting in close-up the dumb show via a live video feed)--are in service of this goal. This, then, shifts the focus from psychology to ontology, with the bookish Hamlet's soliloquies collectively comprising a study in the discovery of being: and to be Hamlet in this case above all means to be his father's son, to live up to the inheritance that the young prince perhaps in his early college days wasn't so interested in acknowledging, but that now, seeing Claudius on the throne that should rightfully belong to him (and, as importantly, knowing the similarly-aged Fortinbras is on Denmark's doorstep with his army), he is belatedly reminded he might just want after all. Tellingly, in this respect, the play ends not with a blackout on the corpses that litter the stage at the end of Act 5, but with the cast exiting one by one as Hamlet picks himself up, climbs the upstage dais stairs and sits down purposefully in the the throne chair previously occupied by his uncle.

But if Hamlet is his father's son, he is equally his mother's, and another great pleasure in this production comes from soaking up the chemistry between Young and Barbara Pollard's Gertrude. Not that, as in so many stagings, they ratchet up the Oedipal business unduly. Instead, in their scenes together, Young and Pollard cannily and economically show how their former closeness has become such a gulf in part because of their misunderstandings of how each should manage their grief. For Hamlet, Gertrude's quick remarriage to Claudius is an unconscionable betrayal of what should have been her chaste honouring of her first husband's memory. But, as Gertrude's brief dance with her son to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" during the closet scene demonstrates, for her, part of the work of mourning is getting on with the business of living. And though it's not necessarily there in the relatively few lines that poor Getrude is given in the play, I've always felt that her marriage to Hamlet Sr. might not have been all it was cracked up to be (particularly in the bedroom), and that in the younger brother she is rediscovering her sexuality. This is something Pollard, grounded, earthy, sensual, and wearing a series of sexy outfits by costume designer Nancy Bryant, ably brings out in her terrific performance.

Other cast members also stand out: Richard Newman, who manages to find just the right note of dignity in Polonius' buffoonery; Bill Dow, who is a suitably oily and sleazy Claudius (again, Bryant's costume choices help out immeasurably here); and, once again, Cairns as an Ophelia triply undone by patriarchy (father, brother, boyfriend), and who somehow manages to turn her willow song into something contemporary and Feist-like. While I liked him as one of the gravediggers, I wasn't so taken with Duncan Fraser's channeling of the voice of doom for the ghost of Hamlet Sr. As Laertes, Todd Thomson confirmed what I didn't like about his performance as Orlando in As You Like It in 2011: he's always shouting his lines. Finally, while I appreciated the cross-gender casting of Naomi Wright as Rosencrantz, turning Hamlet's duplicitous college friends into a grasping, social-climbing couple, I thought her performance was somewhat too hopped-up (she is always rubbing her nose, like she's just done a line of coke) and Craig Erickson's Guildenstern too passive.

Finally,  a word on Collier's trademark use of new media and technology. While this certainly wasn't an Electric Company show (for that, we'll have to wait till next spring and the Arts Club premiere of Helen  Lawrence), there was an abundance of liquid crystal display monitors on stage: from the flat screen TV stage left upon which Fortinbras' mug briefly appears, and which otherwise showed CCTV images of other parts of the Elsinore compound, to the various iPads and smart phones toted around by characters. Mostly these worked, and were used in service of the action on stage. The one mildly distracting bit was Hamlet's constant turning on and off of the scene music, which, beyond establishing that almost all of the sound in this production is diegetic (as befits our constantly plugged-in generation), and that the folks in the tech booth were on their game with the cues, didn't really add anything dramatically.

These are minor quibbles, however. This is an invigorating production of a canonical play, one that makes it formally contemporary without gutting its thematic substance.

An early evening exit from the theatre at Kits Point was also a nice bookend to a day that began with an early morning visit to the tip of Point Grey for Kokoro Dance's annual "Wreck Beach Butoh." I can't believe that in all my years in Vancouver, this was the first time I'd made the trek out to our clothing optional beach to see Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi and company move between surf and sand clad only in white body paint. It was cold, but also--and quite literally--awe-inspiring.

Talk about the Vancouver sublime!


Monday, July 15, 2013

Flamenco at Midday

Yesterday at 1 pm the western slope of Ron Basford Park on Granville Island (the one facing Performance Works) was filled with Vancouverites looking to add a little Spanish spice to their summer. We were treated to this and more courtesy of the local dance troupe Karen Flamenco, who were performing as part of New Works' 2013 "All Over the Map" series, which is presenting free music and dance with a global flavour on successive Sundays at this outdoor spot.

Accompanied by guitar, percussion and stunning vocals, Artistic Director Karen Pitkethly's troupe of nine female (including herself) and one male dancer treated us to a succession of choreographed and improvised sequences, all of which doubled as object lessons in flamenco technique: the importance of rhythm, precision of movement, verticality of bodily alignment, tightness and speed in turns, etc. Of course, everyone is mesmerized by the clacking heels. However, I am always drawn to flamenco dancers' arms and hands, to their graceful and fluid floating upwards even as the beat gets faster and more furiously staccato, always ending with the blooming floreo of the fingers as they unfold and extend one by one. Such movements, when done expertly, always appear to me to be almost boneless and remind me of the repeated injunction of flamenco teacher Susana Robleda in the award-winning NFB documentary Flamenco at 5:15: "No elbows, no elbows!" That documentary made a big impression on me when my English teacher showed it to our class in Grade 11, and yesterday's performance reminded me of flamenco's role in the early formation of what we might call my "dance consciousness."

Clearly Pitkethly, who when not on stage sat with the musicians clapping out the beat, has given her own version of Robleda's instruction to her dancers, who together made up a pleasing mix of ethnicities and body types. Same goes for the audience, where there was some added drama when an elderly lady in the front row suddenly collapsed. Fortunately attentive fellow patrons sprang to action and an ambulance was called; by the time it arrived, the woman was awake and speaking. However, the producers rightly called the show, knowing there would be another performance at 3 pm.

"All Over the Map" continues next Sunday with Wen Wei Wang and the Silk Road Trio.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bamboozled at Dancing on the Edge

MACHiNENOiSY's Daelik and Delia Brett have long sought to marry the low-fi, pedestrian movement practices of Contact Improvisation with high concept theatricality and showmanship. In their latest work, Bamboozled, which premiered last night at The Dance Centre as part of the 25th anniversary of the Dancing on the Edge Festival, it's not an equal partnership. There's too much individual role-playing and not enough shared moments of dance.

Granted, as the artists note in the program, the piece is a conscious riff on the "cult of personality" that ruled the nineteenth-century stages of vaudeville, burlesque, the fairground sideshow, and even silent film. And so to the tune of composer-musician Petunia's zydeco-inflected score, we are treated to a succession of larger-than-life types--contortionists and cowboys, bearded ladies and disappearing men--and their various one-note, look-at-me schticks. The problem is that those schticks go on a bit too long, or are unnecessarily supplemented and embroidered: Bevin Poole makes an endearingly awkward chorine struggling to insert herself into the posed tableaux of the other performers at the top of the show, but we are treated to about two or three poses too many; and the conceptual force of Tanya Podlozniak's live narration of Daelik's disappearing act is undercut by Poole's narration of her narration, and, as if this weren't already stretching things, Alex Ferguson's subsequent narration of Poole's narration of Podlozniak's narration.

By contrast, the contact sequences are few and far between: an early cross-gendered duet by Daelik and Brett that ended far too quickly; a later trio that sees Poole more than pulling her weight alongside the company's co-directors; and a moving, largely prone duet between Daelik and and a pregnant Podlozniuk that yielded some of the most compelling images of the evening. These movement sequences seem to unfold independently from the main theatrical action, which struck me as odd, as the moments when dance and theatre do come together formally and conceptually in the show are among the strongest. I am thinking especially, in this regard, of the jerky cowboy trio composed of Brett, Poole and Jamie Tea, or the dual waltz between carney Ferguson and Poole and Tea as a pair of Siamese twins joined at the ankle.

I longed for far more of these instances, when the force of MACHiNENOiSY's abundant ideas about social and gender transgression, for example, cohered with their choreographic mash-up of different performance styles.


Friday, July 5, 2013

The Secret Doctrine at SFU Woodward's

Helena Blavatsky, a nineteenth-century Russian occultist and co-founder (with Henry Olcott) of the Theosophical Society--which sought, in part, to unite philosophy, religion, and science into a single worldview--was a fascinating and controversial figure. Not least for her attempts to deconstruct some of the binaries between East and West, the scientific and the spiritual. An early supporter of Indian independence (and women's liberation), Blavatsky assimilated various aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism into her theosophical thought, peppering her writings with Sanskrit terms and claiming that her teachers and spiritual guides were adepts, or Mahatmas, great souls who resided in Tibet, and with whom she communicated telepathically through sealed letters. She also anticipated later developments in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics when she wrote in her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, that the atom could be split. However, to many Blavatsky was just another hack medium out to trick wealthy patrons into subventing her lifestyle and retinue, and in an 1885 report to the London-based Society for Psychical Research, the Canadian-born, Cambridge-educated scientific researcher Richard Hodgson concluded that Blavatsky's paranormal powers were fake, and that she was a fraud.

The relationship between Hodgson and Blavatsky forms the core of Patricia Gruben's new play, The Secret Doctrine, currently playing at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre until this Saturday as part of the School for the Contemporary Arts' Faculty Series. Based on years of research, and building on Gruben's longstanding interest in Indian cultural history, the project originally began as a film script (Gruben is Associate Professor of Film Studies at SFU). And, indeed, the play retains a cinematic feel, both in terms of its scenic sweep and pacing (the plot moves from London to India and back again in a succession of quick, montage-like episodes) and its scenographic design (courtesy of Robert Gardiner's wonderful set, lighting, and video projections). Then, too, there is the all-star cast assembled by Gruben and her team, including Simon Webb as Olcott, Frank Zotter as Hodgson, Allan Morgan as Blavatsky's student and patron Allan Hume, and Gabrielle Rose as Blavatsky. Cloaked in layers of sweeping velvet (the costumes were designed by Christine Rimmer), and smoking a succession of herbal cigarettes, Rose plays Blavatsky with just the right mix of hauteur and vulnerability, successfully preserving the mystery around the legitimacy of her supposed powers, while also communicating the tedium and toil of constantly having to defend herself against the so-called rationalism of white men.

To this end, the heart of the play rests with Hodgson, whose scientific mind is constantly at war with his feeling heart, and whose fervent pursuit of Blavatsky starts to look a lot like obsession, even love. Gruben emphasizes this by making his "exposure" of Blavatsky deeply equivocal, prompted as much by the jealousy of a rival for Blavatsky's attention as by Hodgson's own betrayed faith. Fitting, then, that the Society for Psychical Research would retract his report some 100 years after it was published. And that Gruben's play ends with him literally seeing the light.