Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dance in Vancouver Programs 1 and 2

The 2013 Dance in Vancouver Biennial ended last night at the Dance Centre with a reprise of this year's mainstage programs 1 and 2--only in reverse order from how they played Wednesday evening.

Leading off the 7 pm program was A Crazy Kind of Hope, conceived and directed by Sarah Chase, of Astrid Dance, in collaboration with Toronto-based performer Andrea Nann, Artistic Director of Dreamwalker Dance. Excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, the piece begins with Nann standing on a bench upstage right, looping her arms in a series of graceful arcs as she begins to tell us a story of the Chinatown origins of her Uncle Wayne's carp pond on Hornby Island. This conceit of matching a series of repeated gestures to a gradually unfolding narrative continues with Nann's description of a subsequent trip to Tofino with her husband and daughter, and finally culminates in a stunning loop of ninety-nine arm waves (11 circuits of 9 gestures each) in which Nann brings together the spirit of her daughter, who died very young, with the brother she never knew. The piece unfolds like a beautiful mathematical equation, our delight and wonder increasing as, through the accumulation of repeated gestures, we start to recognize the work's patterns.

Next up was Vancouver stalwart Joe Laughlin's Left. In this iconic work a male dancer (Kevin Tookey) in Elizabethan ruff and cuffs is at once seduced by and himself attempts to woo a teacup, positioned centre stage. And we in turn are seduced not just by Laughlin's precise choreography, as Tookey steps daintily around and gingerly balances with the focalizing piece of china, but also by James Proudfoot's amazing lighting, which expands and contracts the spotlight around (and at one point within) the teacup to dizzying effect.

Following the intermission, Wen Wei Dance Artistic Director Wen Wei Wang unveiled a work in progress called Made in China, co-created and performed with Gao Yanjinzi, Artistic Director of Beijing Modern Dance Company (and seven months pregnant!), Qui Xia He, of the Vancouver-based Silk Road Music ensemble, and the multi-talented video and sound artist (and SFU Contemporary Arts alum) Sammy Chien. The piece uses movement, music, spoken word, and projections to explore the collaborators' common cultural and different personal relationships with China. Seeing Wang, in particular, interact with the black and white palette of Chien's live video projections was mezmerizing, and I look forward to the unveiling of the full piece.

Finally, the evening closed with an excerpt from Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg's Highgate, her intensely theatrical and mordantly funny take on Victorian funerary culture. Very much a work of dance-theatre, in which text and movement are fully coeval, the piece focuses on Mrs. Graves (Friedenberg) and her trio of professional mourners (Alison Denham, Bevin Poole, and Susan Elliott), who are linked not just by their testaments but also by their vestments of mourning. By that I mean that costume designer Alice Mansell's shared skirt for the women plays a starring role in the work, leading to many of the wonders of Friendenberg's choreography as the dancers bend and twist and contort their bodies into various states of lamentation--all to the precise cues of Marc Stewart's richly immersive score. Needless to say, Friendenberg herself is a compelling performer, and her Mrs. Graves will go down with Goggles as one of her most memorable characters yet.

Afterwards I once again led a talkback with the artists from the 9 pm program, and after worrying how I would put Wang's and Friendberg's very different works together, we ended up having a very interesting conversation about compositional process and cross-disciplinary collaboration. All in all it was another great edition of Dance in Vancouver, and I'm so glad I was able to participate in my own small way.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Dance in Vancouver Programs 3 and 4

The 9th Biennial Dance in Vancouver Festival is on at the Dance Centre through this Saturday. Curated this year by the Toronto-based Jeanne Holmes, Artistic Producer of the Canada Dance Festival, DIV 2013's mainstage shows highlight the depth, range, and diversity of contemporary movement expression in this city. Lucky enough to have been asked by Associate Producer Claire French to lead talkbacks after the 9 pm shows last night and on Saturday, I decided to take in the 7 pm presentations as well, thereby getting a chance to see and comment on the full line-up.

First up last night was Ziyian Kwan/dumb instrument Dance's the neck to fall. A virtuosic interpreter of others' work in Vancouver for several decades, the neck is actually Kwan's choreographic debut. It's a piece that announces a major new compositional voice in the city. Inspired by the words of the Canadian modern dancer and somatic instructor Amelia Itcush (who pioneered the teaching of Alexander, Mitzvah and her own Itcush techniques in this country), Kwan's solo combines explosive movement and plosive speech to explore, among other things, the body's relationship to external objects and external commands. One of the most memorable sequences for me was when, near the end of the piece, Kwan lifts up a large cardboard box positioned upstage left to reveal a wooly stool underneath. Eventually turning the stool on its side, Kwan rolls her body with and over it in a series of lyrically graceful waves that make both body and stool extensionally (and elastically) equivalent.

The second work on the 7 pm program was DVOTE, a choreographic and performance collaboration between Vision Impure's Noam Gagnon and Nova Dance's Nova Bhattacharya, a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer who brings that training to her work in contemporary dance. The work opens with the two dancers, clad all in black and with their faces obscured by masks, in a limb-to-limb tussle/clinch on the upstage right edge of a black square that has been taped down in the middle of the stage. Pulling themselves apart, each proceeds to move in the opposite direction around the perimeter of the square. During this sequence Bhattacharya is mostly vertical, whereas Gagnon's body is more horizontal and oriented to the floor, a visual contrast that establishes not just the different dance idioms being combined in the piece, but also perhaps differences in gender and bodily energies. Eventually, however, those bodies collide, and into the maw of the black square they inevitably tumble. It is not entirely clear to me if this recombining is meant to be harmonious or violent; nor am I sure what to make of the ending of last night's excerpt, which sees the two dancers edge very close to the first row of the audience before the final blackout.

After a 45-minute intermission (long enough to grab a quick glass of wine and a bit of conversation at the pop-up bar DIV 2013 has established at the Vancouver International Film Centre around the corner on Seymour Street), it was time for Program Four. I've written about the plastic orchid factory's _post twice before: here and here. What was interesting this third time was to see how the excerpt from the piece that choreographer James Gnam had chosen to present had been reconfigured for a proscenium stage. Originally, the work had been presented (also at the Dance Centre) in the round, with the audience encircling the dancers, and in the talkback afterwards Gnam commented on the challenge of reconceiving the effects of intimacy and proximity he and his fellow performer-collaborators were striving to achieve in the piece. Nevertheless the conceptual bones (as in the material imprinting of the history of classical ballet upon the body) and the theatrical effects (all of that tulle!) remain as strong as ever.

The evening ended with battery opera's Lee Su-Feh performing her solo Everything. Set to Barry Truax's I Ching-inspired electroacoustic score, the work makes use of Daoist ritual objects--a clutch of ruby red joss sticks, incense, spirit paper--to explore the bodily labour involved in negotiating the chance intersections of history, space and place. By that I mean that, as Lee outlined much more eloquently in our talkback, the work is in part an investigation of what it means for her as an ethnic Chinese immigrant from Malaysia to bring the cultural histories embedded in her body to bear (quite literally) on work she creates in a region where traditional Indigenous territories have been overlain with the history of settler colonialism.

As last night's program attests, Vancouver dance is not just physically experimental, but also intellectually rigorous. I look forward to Saturday.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The God that Comes at the Cultch

Following its workshop presentation at Club PuSh last January (which I wrote briefly about here), Hawksley Workman's The God that Comes has returned to the city, where it is on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre through November 24.

Richly reverberatory (musically, theatrically and politically), The God features Workman, in collaboration with the Halifax-based 2b theatre company's Christian Barry, delivering a one-man, rock-operatic take on Euripedes' Bacchae. Playing all the instruments (including drums, two sets of keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, ukulele, recorder and, in one especially sybaritic moment, harmonica), Workman also makes canny use of several loop machines, which on a purely practical level allow him time to move from instrument to instrument, or to make a brief costume change. However, against these multiple repeating tracks he can also pitch a voice that in its register, dynamic range and sensual intensity sends each chord of music--in true cabaret and glam rock fashion--directly to the groin.

In this, Workman and Barry follow Nietzsche in distilling the essence of Euripedes' story down to a dialectical opposition between the regulatory governmentality of the Theban boy-king, Pentheus, and the anarchic sexual abandon of a transvestic foreign god, Dionysus. That Dionysus also happens to be Pentheus' cousin is a further complication of kinship exacerbated by the fact that Pentheus' own mother, Agave, has abandoned her domestic duties to follow the god's rites on Mt. Cithaeron. Here, too, this version of the myth is following the standard line of pitting rebellious femininity against repressive masculinity.

And while this might be a somewhat reductive reading of Euripedes' story (Workman and Barry conveniently get rid of Cadmus and Tiresias), playing with these ideological binaries does produce some truly thrilling musical and narrative contrasts. Most stunning in this respect are the duets (if that's the right word) between Pentheus and Agave in "Remember Our Wars" and between Pentheus and Dionysus in "If Your Prayer." In the former Workman sings into a bullhorn as the warrior-king recounts with pleasure the bloodlust of battle, and then switches to a regular microphone and a quasi-falsetto to give us a very different take on those events, with a war-weary mother suggesting she has taken to the hills as a kind of ecstatic mourning. In the latter, Workman seems to be channelling Charles Mee (whom he acknowledges in the program notes, and whose Bacchae 2.1 my students and I will be discussing in class tomorrow) as much as Euripedes, as the song's conditional phrasing suggests, among other things, that Pentheus' political power is just a front for the sexual humiliation he truly craves.

In the end, as Workman sings an epilogue called "They Decided Not to Like Us," there can be no mistaking which side of the Bacchic equation he favours. For Dionysus, we must recall, is not just the god of wine, but also the god of theatre. And Workman is gloriously, unapologetically theatrical. If all else fails there is still this space of the theatre for the outcasts and freaks of society to gather to imagine a different world.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Getting a Sense of Wen Wei Dance

There were some truly sublime moments in the second half of last night's performance of Wen Wei Dance's 7th Sense, presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse: Ballet BC alum Alyson Fretz being pushed and pulled and nudged and nestled by the other dancers at the outset, before leading them in a series of gorgeous sequential line movements that evoked images of Chinese dragons undulating and being shaken at a New Year's parade; choreographer Wen Wei Wang and performer Brett Taylor in a moving duet in the middle that featured stunning lifts and spins; and the closing duet between Taylor and Jung-Ah Chung (a tiny powerhouse of a mover) that ended memorably with Taylor on all fours and Chung perched on his back, both staring out at the audience.

However, the precision and control of these sequences were in sharp contrast to the general shapelessness of the group improvisations in between, with the inchoateness of the individual dancers' movements and their at times mystifying explorations of scenic space (in which one body might be firmly positioned in front of another, thereby obscuring the latter's movements) reading to me as too much filler. I get, from Wang's program note, that such contrasts were part of the exploratory process of building the work. And yet, while by no means do I think dialectical oppositions always need to result in synthesis, Hegelian that I am, I do prefer there to be some sort of sense-connection (cognitive and kinetic) between them that leads to a new form of perception.

Which is why I am also at a loss in figuring out how the first half of the work fits with the second. A compact 20 minutes, 7th Sense's first act appears to take its cue from Wang's efforts to infiltrate or insert himself between the rest of the group of dancers, massed to begin with upstage left. Oblivious at first, the dancers eventually turn on Wang (quite literally), encircling and threatening him with a series of cartoonish martial arts moves. A metaphor, perhaps, for the choreographic process. Whatever the case, I did learn at intermission that this opening was relatively new, Wang having scrapped his original concept after feeling dissatisfied with it at the work's premiere in Edmonton in February.

I am sure Wang will continue to refine the rest of the work as well, and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future--when I have no doubt my sense of what it will have become by then, and what it was now, will have changed.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along

When it opened late last year in London, the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along was praised for having finally cracked the structural nut of one of the composer's rare flops. Premiering on Broadway in 1981, at the critical height of Sondheim's collaborations with director Harold Prince (Sweeney Todd had debuted to acclaim in 1979), the original version of the musical was panned for its confusing plot and closed after only 16 performances.

Based on the Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman play of the same name, Merrily famously unspools in reverse chronology (much like Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which had opened on Broadway just the year before, perhaps accounting for some audience fatigue with the dramatic conceit). In the first scene, set in 1977, we are introduced to our protagonist, Frank Shepard, a big-time Hollywood film producer who, we learn, has abandoned his earlier aspirations to write musicals and, along with them, his writing partner Charlie and their mutual friend, Mary. Thereafter we gradually learn how Frank "got here" (as Sondheim's opening number repeatedly declaims), moving backwards in time to discover, in turn: the fatal split between Frank and Charlie; the break-up of Frank's first marriage as a result of his affair with his leading lady, Gussie; Frank and Charlie's first big hit; the early days of Frank and Charlie and Mary trying to make a go of their respective careers in New York; and, finally, the initial meeting of our three main characters in 1957 (catching the launch of the satellite Sputnik from an apartment rooftop) and their revelling in how "everything's gonna change" because "it's our time." Though, of course, the musical is based on the earlier Hart and Kaufman play, with the somewhat too talky book adapted by George Furth, it is possible to read Merrily as Sondheim's self-reflexive comment on the state of his own career at the time. Which perhaps explains some of the Schadenfreude the New York critics took in "bringing him down" over the original production.

A more interesting reading to me, having just seen with Richard the Menier production last night in a "live capture" simulcast at the Scotiabank Cinemas, has to do with Sondheim's critique of heteronormativity, and marriage in particular. The trio of friends at the centre of the plot, superbly played by Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell, and Damian Humbley, form an art-life bond that, initially at least, is posited as an aesthetic, economic, and political alternative to conventional relationships. And director Maria Friedman certainly plays up the homosocial elements of Frank and Charlie's partnership, with Mary, unrequitedly in love with Frank, the classically Sedgwickian female pivot through which they filter their affection for each other.

Then, too, as Richard pointed out, Sondheim's score also seems to be doing something interesting, using the reverse chronology of the play to strip the complexity of the orchestrations and tonal structures back to essential core elements that the composer seems to be associating with a classic era of musical production in America. Not that I think Merrily is inherently nostalgic. Rather, I think that what Sondheim is showing us is his own compositional process, a process that is both complexly innovative and richly historical, at once creative and deconstructive. And all of this within a score that has been read as one of his more accessible (and there are witty allusions to Frank and Charlie needing to write more hummable tunes).

A previous London revival of Sunday in the Park (also starring Russell) eventually made its way to Broadway. We'll see if this Menier version of Merrily also crosses the pond and finally gets its due in New York.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

10th Anniversary PuSh Festival Launch

The 10th anniversary celebrations for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival--which runs January 14-February 2, 2014--were launched last night with a party at The Imperial Room on Main Street.

Hosted by Charlie Demers and curated by Woodpigeon's Mark Andrew Hamilton, the evening featured a line-up of local musicians covering the songs of fellow Vancouver artists past and present. Highlights included Veda Hille's smoking version of Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" (complete with Mike Reno-esque head band, but sans the hot pink leather pants) and The Wintermitts's closing take on Carly Rae Jepson's ubiquitous "Call Me Maybe," which had the crowd (led by yours truly) up and dancing.

Programs for the Festival were flying off tables, and our website goes live today for ticket sales and PuSh Pass bookings. It's a stellar line-up of shows, so be sure to book early. You can do so here.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sushi on the Menu

Liquid Loft's Running Sushi, which concluded its run at The Dance Centre yesterday evening, arrived in town as one of the buzzed-about international shows of the fall season. Peter Bingham even talked it up to EDAM's Friday night audience. Fortunately Richard and I had already reserved our tickets.

Founded in 2005 by choreographer Chris Haring (who had previously worked with UK dance-theatre giants DV8 Physical Theatre and the late Nigel Charnock) as a collective with musician/sound artist Andreas Berger, Canadian-born dancer Stephanie Cumming, and dramaturge Thomas Jelinek, the Vienna-based Liquid Loft produces conceptual work that combines movement and text with unique soundscapes and stage designs. The conceit for the duet Running Sushi is that the audience selects from a "menu" of scenes in advance of the performance, with Cumming and fellow dancer Johnny Schoofs emerging from the theatre to proffer a platter of freshly made sushi to audience members in the lobby, each of the 12 pieces cued to a card, with the order of sushi selection determining the order of scenes the dancers then perform.

Given titles like "fruit," and "birth," and "dream," and "manga," the scenes play out on a long, rectangular raised white dais, with Cumming and Schoofs positioned at opposite ends, flipping through their respective stacks of cards to prepare for the sequence that comes next. Although I couldn't figure out how it was done, the set was somehow ingeniously miked/wired by Berger to pick up the dancers' voices, as well as every nuance of additional sound they made with their bodies (jiggling bellies, for example), or with props like chopsticks (which were variously twisted into an orange, stuck into the dancers' hair, or arranged like rungs on a ladder between their arms).

As Haring has commented, the piece was conceived and choreographed to look like the embodied equivalent of Japanese manga. Dressed alike in jeans undershirts, Cumming and Schoofs were very much cartoon figures, an animated Adam and Eve playing out the dailiness of their relationship as a series of flat, mostly static, and non-sequential panels that are all surface and no depth. To this end, the movement, while precise and carefully calibrated to the acoustic score, was deliberately banal and mostly interchangeable, an outline sketched by the performers in blue and grey that the audience was then left to colour in. The effect was like that of a slide-show where the pictures all start to look the same, producing an uncanny sense of deja vu that is at once comforting and unsettling. Or, on the other hand, think of those traveling boats of sushi filled with maki and tuna rolls that individually all look--and frequently taste--the same but that collectively add up to a very satisfying meal.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Drawing Inside and Outside the Lines at EDAM

EDAM's fall mixed program, inside the lines/the lines inside, was just the kind of treat that was needed on a rainy evening following Halloween.

Artistic Director Peter Bingham started things off with Reinventing the Curve, a new contact duet danced by Monica Strehlke and Farley Johansson. The piece begins with Strehlke closing her eyes and Johanssson whispering her name; Strehlke leans into the call, and this becomes the mechanism for a solo exploration of the body moving through space, with Strehlke guided only by Marc Stewart's music and Johannson's beckoning signposting. Eventually Strehlke comes to a stop and the sequence is repeated, this time with Johansson closing his eyes and Strehlke serving as guide. Physical contact is, however, eventually made by the two dancers, with two sequences of inventive partnering featuring great floor (and wall) work especially standing out. In between, Bingham also includes a long stretch of unison movement--unusual for him, but structurally very effective in this piece.

Next up was New Raw, a piece created and performed by Deanna Peters in collaboration with Molly McDermott, Elissa Hanson, and Alexa Mardon. It's a fierce exploration of grrrlness that uses an eclectic musical score and a range of bodily tempos and rhythms to show a spectrum of female "fronts." Of particular interest in that respect was that all four performers are introduced to us with their faces turned away or obscured. By the end of the piece, however, as they move back and forth between upstage and downstage, showing us just how fully in their bodies they are, they are very much in our faces, and the piece builds to a thrilling climax.

The final piece on the program was my colleague Rob Kitsos's Con-found, an experiment in real-time composition created in collaboration with students and alumni from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts. Losing things--wallets on rollercoasters, phone numbers, one's memory--becomes the thematic refrain around which the performers build a series of movement, textual, and musical phrases, choosing when and how to build the work as a whole in the moment of performance itself. The text may, at times, have dominated the movement, and sometimes transitions were lost in the confusion of bodies criss-crossing the stage; however, there were also sublime moments of supplementation and synchronicity, when the repetition or steady accretion of a simple gesture (hands fluttering before chests) and the arrangement of bodies on stage (in horizontal or vertical lines, in aligned pairs on the floor or against a wall) were starkly beautiful.