Sunday, April 26, 2015

Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno at the Playhouse

We all have our indelible Isabella Rossellini film memory: as the wounded nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens in David Lynch's Blue Velvet; as Laura, the uncomprehending wife of Jeff Bridges's plane crash survivor in Fearless; as glass leg-wearing beer heiress Lady Helen Port-Huntley in Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World. Last night many of us shared these memories as we gathered at the Vancouver Playhouse to take in the live stage version of Rossellini's Green Porno, a one-woman show about the sex lives of animals that was being presented by the PuSh Festival in partnership with Vancouver's Italian Cultural Centre.

Green Porno is based on the wildly successful series of short films that Rossellini began making for Robert Redford's Sundance television station in 2008 (and now widely available on the web). As Rossellini tells us early on in the show, growing up in Rome the child of film royalty (she is the daughter of the legendary Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini) she always harboured a love of animals and nature, studying biology at university. When, however, she began modelling for cosmetics giant Lancome and then making films, she put this passion aside. It was reawakened when she re-enrolled in university later in her career, and Green Porno, which is modelled as a lecture-performance, suggests not just that Rossellini is an excellent student, but would also make an amazing professor--the kind of lecturer who could combine her natural charisma with a knack for conveying scientific material in an hilariously accessible way, all accompanied by an abundant and sophisticated use of media technology.

The films that make up Rossellini's original Green Porno series are all focused around sexual reproduction in the animal world. They are so fun to watch because they combine strange facts about the abundant diversity of conjugality across species with a DIY production aesthetic, with Rossellini dressed up in felt, cardboard, or papier-mache costumes (as, for example, an earthworm, or a hamster, or a duck), speaking directly to the camera against a flat, two-dimensional backdrop. A similar aesthetic governs the live theatrical show, with Rossellini making use of a series of crude props she withdraws from the lectern positioned centre stage to illustrate several of her points, before tossing them aside. She also makes two costume changes--first removing her long black shift and donning a fake moustache and tie to make a point about animal transgenderism, and later donning a big furry hamster costume, replete with outsize whiskers. The latter is the same costume she wears in the film clip that precedes this reveal, in which she notes whereas among hamsters it is common for mothers to eat the weakest of their young in order to preserve their energy and attention for the heartiest among their broods, among humans infanticide is morally reprehensible and punishable by imprisonment.

Because the above is delivered with such winking charm, we are wont to gloss over the explicitly feminist point Rossellini is making (and she is particularly adept at skewering stereotypes about female sexual passivity and the so-called maternal instinct throughout the show). Indeed one of the rich rewards of this show for me is just how slyly political it is, with discussions of animal homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism, and polyamory putting the lie to the claim, among segments of the human population, that such things are simply "against nature." As Rossellini points out in a way that is both intellectually well-informed and humourously entertaining (not least in her dig against Noah and his arc), animal (and plant) biodiversity is vastly accommodating of all kinds of sexual behaviour and gender identities.

Would that it were the same among us.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dances for a Small Stage at PAL Studio Theatre

For the latest iteration of Dances for a Small Stage, artistic producer Julie-anne Saroyan has set up shop this weekend at the intimate Performing Arts Lodge Studio Theatre on Cardero Street. The gala program last night was a mix of the classical and the contemporary, both musically and in terms of movement.

The first piece, Flow, paired composer and musician Loscil with burlesque dancer Burgandy Brixx. Loscil played his electronic music live, via a computer and digital console, as various images of the waves and shoreline and the ebb and flow of the tide washed across the upstage screen. Following a brief blackout, Brixx appears on a raised upstage platform, positioned like a mermaid upon a rock. Unfurling her long legs, she moves onto her back and begins a series of bicycle kicks. Before long the black tunic she is wearing comes off, revealing sparkly pasties and a g-string. Brixx then begins an elaborate fan dance that forms a somewhat odd visual juxtaposition to Locsil's hypnotic music. Without the standard sis, boom, bang of the standard bump and grind burlesque score that cues us for the slow tease and reveal of skin, we are left to wonder at the particular erotics of display being invoked here--especially as Brixx's body is interpellated at various points into the screen projections.

Following a longish intermission, Small Stage mainstay Karissa Barry led off the next set with a solo set to a sampled stop-and-start score by the group Venetian Snares; her piece also featured a unique lighting installation. Next up was Vanessa Goodman's Contrapuntus, which uses Bach's "Art of the Fugue"--here transcribed for violin and played live by Meredith Bates--to explore parallel techniques of contrapuntal movement. Dancers Lara Barclay and Bevin Poole begin standing in close proximity, weaving their limbs around each other's bodies in perfect synchronous response, and only rarely touching. In the same way that in the fugue one voice or instrument will begin a musical phrase and then another voice or instrument will come in to match it, but in a different pitch, so here do we see these matchless dancers, so attuned to each other's rhythms, initiating, responding to, and subtly changing the directional flow of their paired movement. Literally opening things up in the second half of this short excerpt, Goodman choreographs a variation on her main theme by having Barclay and Poole face off on a diagonal, almost like toreadors, before bringing them together centre stage for more physical and hands-on partnering. Here I detected some trace phrases from Goodman's Wells Hill, which premiered earlier this year at the Chutzpah! Festival (and which featured Barclay and Poole); afterwards, Goodman confirmed to me that this excerpt will indeed form part of the larger work she is building, which is based on her research into the collaborations between Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould, whose "So You Want to Write a Fugue?" is a famously witty take on Bach.

I had a double dose of Le Grand Continental reunion last night; not only was LGC rehearsal director Barclay performing, but rehearsal assistant Caroline Liffman's The Fitzner Sister, a solo for Lina Fitzner, was part of the program. Set to a musical loop by Colin Stetson, the piece sees Fitzner, dressed in an amazing black and red tutu, move in and out of various classical ballet positions and poses, at the heart of which is a series of slowly and precisely executed arabesques. Because, unlike in most classical ballet, Fitzner is moving into her leg extensions without the aid of a male partner to help balance her, and because her poses are slowed down, held for much longer and not tied to set musical cues, what was made most manifest to me in the piece was the sheer physical effort and training that goes into each movement. In a big ballet production we are wont to gloss over such effort because classical technique is premised on the willful erasure of the fleshly corporeality of the dancer's body. As Arlene Croce famously wrote, onstage it is the ballerina's arabesque that is real, not her leg. Precisely because Liffman draws our attention to the realness of Fiztner's legs--which, unlike the typical prima ballerina's, are not stick-thin and sheathed in lyotards--the somatic illusion proffered by Croce is here deconstructed and materially exposed to feminist scrutiny. Which is to say to both Caroline and Lina: right on, sister!

The middle section of the evening concluded with dancer Caitlin Griffin improvising to the live musical stylings of street musician David Morin. I was not all that taken with Griffin's movement riffs, which seemed a bit wan and ho-hum. But Morin's deft use of his looping machine to overlay his guitar licks, vocalizations and finger snaps was most enjoyable.

After the second intermission, we were treated to a "musical intermezzo" featuring Elisa Thorn on harp,  Meredith Bates on violin, and Marina Hasselberg on cello. Apart from Debussy's "Claire de Lune," all the compositions were by Thorn and I was quite taken by the tonal juxtapositions. However, I'm not sure it suited the normally staccato beats of flamenco, which is what we were treated to when dancer Dayna Szyndrowski joined the trio on stage. I wanted to hear more of Szyndrowski's clacking feet, but it was almost as if she was afraid to cut fully loose for fear of drowning out the musicians. I did admire her lovely, blooming floreo, and there were several appreciative ole's at the end of the piece.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 6

Last night we began outside! Jessica and Diane and Mark decided to take advantage of the gorgeously warm and light-filled evening by having us set our waltz partnering pattern on the paved promenade outside Celebration Hall.

However, figuring out when, and in what directions, the different quartets were meant to set off took some doing. Plus, truth be told, I think we were generally friskily distracted by being outside. If June 21 is anything like last night--complete with a lovely crescent moon--we're going to have some serious competition for spectators' attention. Nonetheless, Jessica and Hayley persevered (kudos to them both for dealing with such aplomb and forbearance with our chaotic and roady bunch--although Hayley did have to tell us to be quiet more than once last night, generally we get very few of the kind of dressings down for misbehaving we routinely received from Emily during LGC rehearsals).

After trying the waltz pattern a few more times with the music blaring from a portable speaker Mark had hooked up, we then did a trial run-through of our walking entrance. This starts from the bike bath that bisects the northern and southern sections of the cemetery--which is a long way away from where we're meant to end up, near Celebration Hall, at the end of this sequence. We may be sprinting during the last part of it.

After a short break, it was back inside to learn a new partnering phrase, one that incorporates some of the contact improv-style movement we experimented with in previous sections. Specifically, there is a finger and head sequence that involves some tricky transferring of weight. Suzie and I managed fairly well, although we were slightly off in our counts each time. And there were a few bumped foreheads.

Diane told us at the end of the rehearsal that we are behind in our rehearsals--only two months to the performance! So we definitely have to pick up the pace from here on in. We still have 15 or more minutes of the piece to set. Apparently we'll be finishing with the Part song next week--although I'll miss that, as I'm going to be away in Montreal.

I'll just have to practice in my hotel room with the videos.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

An empty house (full of air) at Pandora Park

Luciana D'Anunciacao is a multidisciplinary artist who works with video, sound, lighting, fabrics, textures, found objects and her own body to create immersive and deeply sensory durational performances and installations. She recently graduated with an MFA from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, and with the collective Dance Troupe Practice currently has a three-year artist residency with the Vancouver Parks Board, based out of the fieldhouse at Pandora Park, on the east side.

As part of the first phase of this residency, D'Anunciacao has collaborated with Carolina Bergonzoni to create a site-specific movement piece that takes place within the confined space of the fieldhouse, a kind of caretaker's cottage attached to the park. Actually, the work begins in an even more constricted and spatially delimited manner, with audience members clustered around the door to the cottage, watching as D'Anunciacao, standing upright, and Bergonzoni, squished horizontally along a low shelf, shift their limbs and redistribute their weight within the very shallow and narrow interior of the front closet. Restricting their movements even further are the large plastic pillows filled with air that the performers--both wearing matching pajama tops and bottoms--must work with and around. 

The air bags are intriguingly paradoxical props. On the one hand, they function as a further impediment to the mobility and presumed desire for extrication of the performers. At the same time, they serve as a protective buffer between their bodies and the hard surfaces and sharp edges of the space they are moving within. And it must be said, on this front, that D'Anunciacao and Bergonzoni are by no means cautious and delicate movers in this part of the piece, despite the physical restrictions placed upon them; I offered several empathetic winces for battered elbows and hips as both women flung themselves about with abandon. And yet, as much as the performers' costumes conjure the image of the air bags as comforting and pliably soft pillows, witnessing D'Anunciacao bury her face more than once within a well of plastic also brought to mind all those warnings one received as a kid about not putting plastic bags over your head. Here, another aspect of the air bags bears mentioning: the sound they make when the performers move with or against them. This reverberating acoustic echo was something that, from my own restricted viewing position, I came to anticipate and listen for as a reassurance that the performers were still in fact moving.

Eventually D'Anunciacao and Bergonzoni extricate themselves from the closet and bolt, along with their air bags, to two separate rooms at the back of the cottage. This is our cue to enter the performance space and take our seats within its tiny open kitchen. After a duet of opening and closing doors set to a bit of adapted text from a Brazilian writer, the final portion of the performance takes place in the kitchen. Retrieving two new air bags--one from the oven, the other from the fridge--D'Anunciacao and Bergonzoni roll with them across virtually every surface and into almost every nook and cranny in the room. This includes not just some inventive partnering on the floor, but also a sequence of amazing bodily juxtapositions involving the surfaces of appliances and countertops and the interiors of cabinets. Indeed, it was a compelling visual contrast to see D'Anunciacao, the taller of the two performers, maneuver her body along stove and counter tops, dipping her head into the sink while Bergonzoni, who is physically more compact, folded her limbs into the inside of the cabinet underneath. I wouldn't have been surprised, at that point, if they had gone on to change places by squeezing each of their bodies through the drain.

All of which speaks to how organically this piece was in tune with its site. I look forward to what else D'Aunciacao and her collective creates over the next three years.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Foreign Radical at the Cultch

Given the choice, would you rather have the freedom to assemble and associate with whomever you please OR the freedom to travel internationally? Such is the final question posed to audience members in Theatre Conspiracy's new show, Foreign Radical, on at the Vancity Culture Lab through next Saturday. But before we answer this question--and answer we must--we are tasked with making a series of other, equally complex and ethically challenging decisions.

Not only do these decisions have very immediate and real consequences for us within the conceptual parameters of the show (including being assembled into different groups based on our choices, or ushered mysteriously into different rooms), but also, we are led to believe, for Hesam (Aryo Khakpour), the alleged radical of the title, and detained under the auspices of a government watch list for being a suspected terrorist. Finally, and perhaps most terrifyingly, because the show is immersive and interactive we must make our split-second decisions not just under the watchful eye of our genial host (Milton Lim), but also in front of each other. It is one thing to respond to a series of ethical prompts  anonymously as part of a darkened proscenium audience by typing our answers into a video game console, as with Rimini Protokoll's Best Before, which ran at the Cultch in 2010 in a commission by the PuSh Festival. Theatre Conspiracy Artistic Director and Foreign Radical writer Tim Carlson, who has been very influenced by Rimini's particular brand of locally-inflected participatory theatre (he also worked on their 2011 production of 100% Vancouver), here ramps up the stakes by literally exposing the processes of data collection through which governments and corporations group us into good or bad citizens, good or bad consumers. We are not wont to think about such things when the interface is just us and our computer screen (as is the case as I type these words, with Google blogger no doubt tracking my every key stroke); however, faced with the embodied scrutiny of 15 other pairs of eyes, we may think twice about how we answer questions like whether or not we've viewed pornography in the last 24 hours; whether we regularly change our online passwords; if we've ever lied to security agents at the border.

Add to this the fact that based on our answers to the questions posed by our Host during this central section of the show we are then marshalled into different taped-off quadrants or opposing sides of the room, and one begins to understand how self-consciousness and second guessing based on where and beside whom folks end up standing becomes an added variable in this part of the show. Indeed, twice after a sequence of shufflings of bodies based on a succession of narrower and narrower questions the entire audience is then asked to identify among the assembled participants in one particular quadrant who looks the most paranoid (in our case, Elise) and who the most suspicious (Colin, though for a while it looked like it might be me). Because our ebullient and maximally energetic Host (who is played with an abundance of slick charm by Lim) presents all of this in the manner of a game show, we are somewhat seduced into treating this as all a bit of benign fun. However, things got really serious for me when we were showed four satirical Charlie Hebdo-style cartoons and had to choose one based on whether we found it the most offensive or the most funny. Easy enough if you can keep that choice to yourself. But when you have to not only move to a specific square based on that choice AND raise a colour-coded card identifying whether you found your cartoon funny or offensive, then, necessarily, you start to view your fellow audience members in a different light. It is in this way that Foreign Radical becomes much more than a simple agitprop indictment of surveillance culture and the contemporary security state. Carlson and his collaborators, including director Jeremy Waller (who participated with us as an audience member), strip the operations of ideology down to the level of the body: are you like me or not like me; are you with me or against me; do you share my values or not? Clap for yes; don't clap for no. It's a measure of how quickly this show got under my skin that, with each question posed, I was counting the claps.

Parallel to the audience's self-scrutiny, there is our judgment of Hesam, whose naked body, bent over a steel interrogation table, we encounter immediately upon entering the first room of the performance space (there are four of them in total). Several of us will reencounter him again, this time with his back strapped horizontally over the side of the table, his face upside down, denouncing our presence before him, telling us that, among other things, he would like to vomit in all of our faces. When Khakpour released his long arms from where they have been pinioned underneath the table, I winced, and it is sign of the actor's amazing kinaesthetic presence that even in those scenes where he is not speaking--of which there are several--I nevertheless felt something palpable (dignity, rage, resignation, despair, even a quiet joy) being communicated to me.

This, then, is the central paradox of Foreign Radical. Face to face with a body in pain, a body unlawfully and perhaps unjustly detained, we empathize with the person before us. But abstracted as data mined from different intelligence-gathering sources and the so-called forensic evidence found in his suitcase (plans in Arabic to build a bomb, anti-psychotic medication, boxcutters), we sit in cold judgment of the same body: is he a terrorist or not? The climax of the piece is a debate between audience members on this very topic. I was the spokesperson for the "con" side, and I'm pleased to say that we won the debate. Not that I take much comfort from that. For, if I'd answered the questions leading up to that point differently--or if the questions themselves had been different--I might have ended up on the other side.

The show ends with Hesam/Khakpour (he is both in and out of character at this point), accompanied by our ever-present Host, turning the tables and interrogating, or rather conversing with, two among us. This is done against a dually projected backdrop of a wide open expanse of desert plain and blue horizon. We have arrived at that final question about the freedom of collective assembly vs. the freedom of individual travel. The interrogations finish, the actors leave, and a door is opened. No instruction is given, but we are presented with one last choice. Do we leave one-by-one, or linger with the rest of the group to reflect on what we have just witnessed?

A suitably subtle ending to a very thoughtful show.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 5

Last night, despite being told the pace of learning new material would hereafter be speeding up, we mostly spent reviewing. Fair enough: there were a lot of people absent last week. And I myself didn't have a chance to review the videos sent by Jessica and Hayley--so I wasn't complaining.

Jessica did also set for us the facing for the last movement phrase from the beginning of the Part piece, which serves in to our transition to the waltz procession that we started with several weeks ago. Here, we were also more or less definitively paired up, and it just worked out that Suzie will be my partner. This is fantastic, because we have an easy camaraderie, she's super fun and funny, and she laughs sympathetically rather than mockingly at my general cluelessness. Plus she has a lovely Irish accent.

Musn't get too attached, though. During Le Grand Continental rehearsals there was a lot of shifting of positions before the actual performances. In our case, that's only nine weeks away.

Here's hoping it gets warmer and lighter soon so that we can move outside.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Blasted at Performance Works

Pedophilia (possibly incestuous), rape (vaginal and anal), cannibalism: just your typical Sunday afternoon at the theatre. At least it was for those of us in the audience at Performance Works yesterday, there to take in Pi Theatre's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted, directed by Richard Wolfe and on through Saturday, April 25th. The play premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1995, where its increasingly horrific catalogue of acts of violence and sexual degradation incensed critics. Never mind that Kane was referencing the very real atrocities then taking place in Bosnia, nor that she was consciously drawing on Greek tragedy--albeit in a way that makes plainly visible all the physical nastiness that in the classical tradition happened off-stage. To upstanding London theatregoers of the time, Kane was being unnecessarily provocative, too "in yer face," to reference the label that, for better or worse, got attached to Kane and several of her fellow upstart UK playwrighting contemporaries.

Now, of course, twenty years after its premiere (and sixteen after Kane's suicide in 1999) the play feels more relevant than ever, what with the various acts of unspeakable brutality we daily witness in the media emanating from Syria, or Iraq, or Kenya, or the Ukraine--not to mention the armed interventions our own governments in the West have undertaken in order to ensure, or so we are told, that such acts don't reach our shores. To that end, a nice touch by Wolfe in this production is having the voice of current UK Prime Minister David Cameron extolling on the radio at various points all that his government has done in the name of defending the integrity of the British Isles against the infidel hordes clawing at the gates. However, to Ian (Michael Kopsa), the male protagonist of Kane's play, such measures are too little and have come too late. A virulently racist, misogynistic and homophobic journalist whose specialty is covering sensational stories involving sex and murder--but who may also be an undercover government operative (he carries a gun)--the fiftyish Ian has taken refuge in a hotel room in the middle of the vile, foul-smelling city (we presume London, but in fact it's Leeds) he has come to loathe--in part because according to him it's now overrun with "Wogs." Joining Ian is Cate (Cherise Clarke), a much younger and extremely quiescent woman who just may be: a) mentally disabled; b) Ian's daughter; c) Ian's former lover; d) all of the above. At any rate, much of the first half of the play concerns Ian's attempts to cajole Cate into having sex with him, and Cate's attempts to fend him off.  When rhetorical persuasion fails, Ian simply takes what he has been denied when Cate is unable to defend herself: dry humping her on the floor when she is unconscious as a result of one of her fits and, it is suggested after one of the play's strategic blackouts, raping her when she is out cold during the night.

The relationship between Ian and Cate would quickly descend into caricature were it not for two things. First, Kane, is at pains to show us that her protagonists are much more complex than we might at first credit them to be. Ian's rage at the world comes from a deep vulnerability, a compensatory realization that as an aging white, middle class man whose body is rapidly betraying him (and whose past sins may be catching up with him), all he wants is for someone to love him. For her part, Cate has an inner core of strength, as well as a capacity for cold assessment of the situation when she needs it. She realizes that Ian is pathetic and ridiculous, and announces as much to him; but she also has compassion for him, as she does for humanity in general (there are several references to her taking care of her mother and brother, and she is shown caring for and, after it dies, burying an abandoned baby later in the play). Indeed, it is a mark of Kane's subtlety as a playwright that, almost without us knowing it, and in apparent contradiction of what we are witnessing physically on stage, we end up feeling that there is a real bond--something that indeed approximates love--between these two damaged souls. It helps, in this regard, that the roles are played by actors as talented as Kopsa and Clarke, who in their very demanding emotional and physical interactions over the course of the play effortlessly convey the complex shared history of their characters. In fact, the play ends with a quiet scene between the couple that, precisely because of all the horror that precedes it, is shatteringly tender, and that involves Ian uttering to Cate a simple "thank you."

Except that it's not that simple, and for Ian and us in the audience to feel any measure of grace at play's end we first have to earn it. Which is where the second, and primarily structural, innovation of Kane's writing comes in. She shows us that the domestic violence between Ian and Cate inside their hotel room is parallel to, and in fact an extension of, the military violence outside by having the latter literally intrude on the former. I am referring here to the appearance of the third character in the play, the Soldier (Raresh DiMofte), whose specific allegiance (apart from that he shows to the memory of his slaughtered girlfriend) is never identified, just as the factional conflict that mysteriously creeps up on Ian and Cate remains primarily allegorical. The Soldier is Ian's shadow self, the abjected other whose return is designed to remind Ian--and us--that, in direct antithesis to the compassion represented by Cate (who, crucially, during the scenes between the two men is locked in the bathroom), perhaps what most marks us as human is that we are capable of both imagining and doing just about anything. It's a brutal truth that is almost impossible to confront--which perhaps explains why, after he sodomizes him, the Soldier chews out Ian's eyes. As I said, Kane knew her Greek tragedy.

This is the second staging of Blasted that I have seen, the first being the celebrated Soho Rep run in New York in 2008 that starred the amazing Reed Birney and Marin Ireland. I have deliberately avoided comparing the two, as I wanted to judge Wolfe's production on its own terms. To that end, my first props go to the design team (led by the ubiquitous and super-talented Drew Facey--see my previous review of Indian Arm); not only have they created a more than credibly generic hotel room, but they manage to blow it up in a believable fashion. That I have spent more time in this review than in my previous one (which you can read here) contemplating the sophistication of Kane's script speaks to Wolfe's attentive care to its layered complexity. I do think the pacing in the second half flags a bit--the blackouts that mark the space between Ian's successive "states of emergency" could come more quickly (though I do understand that there are some basic technical encumbrances that are also being dealt with here). Finally, there is the question of nudity. Given what happens in the play, a degree of it is more or less to be expected. And yet, whereas we see Clarke full frontally in a longish scene where, following Ian's night-time sexual assault, she gets out of bed and traumatically stumbles into her clothes, we only ever see Kopsa's backside--despite ample opportunity, given what happens to him, to display more (and this goes for DiMofte as well). Not that I'm making an argument for upping the titillation quotient. And I have no idea whether this was a primarily directorial or an actorly decision. In the absence of that information, however, the decision does seem to replicate some familiar tropes of gendered gratuity--tropes that Kane's play, I would argue, expressly critiques.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Compagnie Käfig at the Playhouse

DanceHouse ended its 2014-15 season in a rousing fashion last night with the Vancouver premiere of Compagnie Käfig, a hybrid, polyglot evening of hip hop featuring a company of eleven amazing male dancers from Brazil, with artistic direction by the Algerian-French choreographer Mourad Merzouko (of Centre Choréographique de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne) and choreographic contributions by three other French and one other Brazilian artists. In this case, many cooks definitely makes for a steamy, sexy pot.

The piece opens with the dancers clumped together against a backlit scrim positioned upstage. Slowly a hand emerges, extends upwards, and spreads its fingers in a fluid sequence vaguely reminiscent of voguing. Eventually, as one of the members accompanies the rest of the company on what I took to be a traditional samba instrument, while also vocalizing a succession of beats, the men spread--or rather, glide--across the dance floor, toprocking in a fast and rhythmically compelling coordination of steps and arm waves before heading down to the floor to bust various individual power moves (back and shoulder spins, headstands, swipes, acrobatic flips) and freezes.

Indeed, what was so fascinating about last night's performance was the thoroughly intertwined mix of freestyle elements and clearly choreographed unison movement. These men are eminently watchable even when they are just bobbing their heads together. But add in differences in tempo, spatial configuration and lightning-quick changes in the quality of movement--in which the dancers switch from poeticism to power in the space of a few beats--and one sees just how much work has gone into this collaboration of styles.

Of course it helps that the company is very easy on the eyes. At the start of the piece the dancers are all properly--even somewhat formally--attired in dress shirts and ties. By the end, however, they are shirtless, their torsos glistening with sweat as they display their well-toned abs. That alone was worth the standing ovation they received--even before they treated us to a short freestylin' encore.

In his curtain speech before the show, DanceHouse producer Jim Smith announced next season's line-up, which includes a visit by another Brazilian company, Companhia Urbana de Dança. Also on tap is the Hofesh Schechter Company and the Vancouver premiere of Crytal Pite's newest work, Betroffenheit, a collaboration between her company Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theatre that will premiere later this summer in Toronto as part of the cultural component of the Pan Am Games. It's a shorter season that normal for DanceHouse (only three shows instead of the usual four), but with Schechter and Pite as part of the schedule, it should be memorable.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Indian Arm at Studio 16

I confess that Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf was not a play I was familiar with even two weeks ago. But when I learned it was to serve as the basis of Hiro Kanagawa's contemporary adaptation, Indian Arm, on at Studio 16 in a Rumble Theatre production directed by Stephen Drover through next Saturday, I duly did my homework.

One of Ibsen's later works, Little Eyolf revolves around another dysfunctional marriage, with Rita and Alfred Allmer in this case substituting for Nora and Torvald Helmer of A Doll's House (one even hears the character echos in the similar sounding surnames). Rita and Alfred are parents to a disabled child, Eyolf, whom Rita resents for coming between her and her husband (indeed, in typical Ibsonian fashion the boy's physical handicap is even linked to his mother's surfeit of passion, the result of an accident as a baby while his parents were absorbed in their lovemaking). However, onto this proto-kitchen sink/social problem narrative Ibsen, unusually for him, also overlays an allegorical frame in the character of the Rat-Woman, a Pied Piper-like figure who lures the now adolescent Eyolf to his death by drowning. In the wake of this tragedy, Rita and Alfred take turns blaming each other before coming to a kind of mutual understanding and forgiveness at the end. There is also a subplot involving Alfred's stepsister, Asta, and an engineer who is courting her, but that doesn't really figure in Kanagawa's version.

Indian Arm is the first play in a new commissioning project inaugurated by Rumble that will see classic plays from the Western dramatic canon adapted to contemporary Canadian (and, one assumes, largely West Coast) contexts (up next is Colleen Murphy's take on Titus Andronicus). For Kanagawa that has meant making the boy, Wolfie as he is called here (and played affectingly as a mentally disabled teenager by Richard Russ), an adopted First Nations child whose sudden interest in his heritage (encouraged by his father, but viewed with suspicion by his mother) is symptomatic of a larger narrative of Indigenous cultural inheritance that the playwright is interested in telling. To that end, we learn that Rita (Jennifer Copping) and her younger half-sister Asta (Caitlin McFarlane) are also dealing with the complicated legacy of their recently deceased father, Eric the Red, who in the 1960s built a cabin on traditional Tsleil-Waututh lands near Deep Cove and was allowed to remain living there by the local band council as a result of his compassion towards survivors of an Indian Residential School. One of those survivors, the elder Janice (played with a suitable mixture of gravitas and sly wit by Gloria May Eshibok), now keeps appearing outside the cabin, charming Wolfie by telling him that the Tsleil-Waututh people are also Children of the Wolf and disabusing an increasingly vexed Rita of the notion that her father was some saintly saviour of Indigenous peoples.

This is just one instance where Kanagawa weaves in references to other of Ibsen's works--in this case Ghosts. Indeed, one of the strengths of his adaptation is that, for those in the know, it is at once a recognizable updating of Ibsen's original and a wholly independent work that speaks powerfully to its local contexts of production--where, for example, Indigenous land claims and an obsession with real estate development are thoroughly and complexly intertwined. In particular, Janice--as a version of the Rat-Woman--is both allowed to represent a Trickster figure (the mischief-making Mouse-Woman of Haida legend) and to become a fully realized character in her own right, one who has a past with Rita's father and who, in the present, is also dealing with a troubled youth from her own community.

The trickier bit for the playwright is handling Ibsen's unique brand of nineteenth-century domestic melodrama. I was feeling neither the just-below-the-surface sexual heat nor the deeper layers of emotional resentment between Copping's Rita and Gerry Mackay's Alfred during the first act (which was compounded by Mackay stumbling over several of his lines). In the couple's climactic confrontation in act two things felt more real, in the same way that, as a result of Janice's return and her filling in of hers and Eric's backstory, Rita's conversion to the cause of Indigenous sovereignty seemed more justly earned.

At the heart of that cause is a deep-seated connection to the land, a focal point of Kanagawa's script that is wonderfully materialized in Drew Facey's amazing set, which manages to put us in the middle of a forest. There are still a few dramaturgical things to smooth over in this production, but what I like most about this play is that it refuses to apply the same principle to its politics.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mountain View Solstice Dancers: Rehearsal 4

We were reduced in numbers last night owing to the long weekend. Nevertheless, Jessica pressed ahead in teaching us new choreography.

Following from where we left off last week, we learned two new phrases of 16 counts each. When Jessica and Hayley (I'm still not sure I've got the right name) performed them successively for us to the music, they looked impossibly long and complicated. But when they were broken down and we assembled them together, in our own bodies, it was surprising not just how quickly (relatively speaking) we mastered them (again, relatively speaking). Even more surprising was how fast we sailed through them when we eventually put the phrases to the music. Then again, this is where time itself becomes relative in the dance studio. We've spent four weeks and a total of eight hours learning just 3.5 minutes of choreography. We're only half way through the first piece of music!

Speaking of that music, as with most post-classical compositions, it is incredibly difficult to count out the beats. There are very specific places in the Part piece where Jessica has us doing things, particularly during our walking circuits at the beginning. Last night Hayley was very helpfully counting out the beats so that we could know when these different bits were coming up. However, I'm pretty sure Mark and Diane don't have the budget to wire us all with ear pieces for the actual performance, so somehow we're going to have to each internalize this rhythm for ourselves.

Jessica and Hayley were going to spend the rest of the night after rehearsal making videos for us, which will definitely help. I've been lax in practising  at home so far. Partly that has to do with the frenzy of the end of term. However, I know the lack of visual aids is also a bit of a disincentive to using my own body to jog my memory--which is, of course, what I'll need to do come performance day.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

12 Minutes Max at The Dance Centre

After a little bit of a hiatus 12 Minutes Max has made a welcome return to The Dance Centre this past year. This is thanks in large measure to dancer and educator Kathryn Ricketts, who has overseen the last few Vancouver iterations of this unique process of research-creation facilitation and presentation of work-in-progress. The concept of 12 Minutes Max is that selected dance artists are given access to studio time and outside curatorial/dramaturgical eyes in order to explore and play with ideas for new work; they are then given the opportunity to present some of the results of their research before an audience at a public showing in which they have a maximum of twelve minutes of stage time.

Back in town from her new gig as a faculty member at the University of Regina, Kathryn was joined by fellow curators Kat Single-Dain and Maiko Yamamoto yesterday evening as they welcomed the artists chosen for this latest edition of 12 Minutes Max: Con8 Collective (Charlotte Newman and Georgina Alpen); Julianne Chapple; MAYCE (Robert Azevedo, Marisa Gold, and Antonio Somero); and Ziyian Kwan of dumb instrument Dance. It was great to see former students who make up MAYCE and one half of Con8 experiment in different--and very intelligent--ways with unison movement (about which there was an interesting question in the talkback), gestural repetition, and audience recognition. Julianne Chapple used an interesting ovoid steel sculpture designed by multidisciplinary artist Ed Spence to explore movement within and without its limits.

But mostly I was there to support Ziyian, who had invited me into the studio last week to witness and give feedback on some of the ideas she was exploring. Those ideas centre around love, which provides the framework for a commissioned piece that, as a duet with Noam Gagnon, will premiere later this July at the Dancing on the Edge Festival. For now, Ziyian was working on her own with various props to tackle head-on the outsized conventions and cultural cliches associated with romantic love. I won't spoil things for folks who intend to see the finished piece in July by identifying what those props are; but I will note here that they combine to contribute in multiply interesting ways to the intentionally "precarious" (Ziyian's word) movement vocabulary that Ziyian is exploring in her research.

Because love buoys you and it throws you off balance. You chase after it and sometimes it chases after you. Even if you're standing still, you can't help but feel its force--like Cupid's arrow piercing your flesh (another idea Ziyian is working with). It's been a pleasure seeing the development of these ideas, just as it was a pleasure to listen to Ziyian talk about them last night. I look forward to the next phase of the work's evolution.