Saturday, July 11, 2015

Edge 6 at Dancing on the Edge

Last night, as part of the Edge 6 program at this year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, I got a chance to revisit--and enjoy all over again--two works I had previously seen in earlier incarnations. A version of Tara Cheyenne Performance's how to be, which TCP AD and choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg has been developing with collaborators Justine Chambers, Susan Elliott, Kate Franklin, Josh Martin, Bevin Poole, Kim Stevenson, and Marcus Youssef since last fall, was showcased as part of Boca del Lupo's Micro-Performance Series earlier this spring. I wrote about that performance, a trio featuring Friedenberg, Franklin and Stevenson, and very much tailored to the tight confines of the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island where it was performed, here. For this iteration, which I was privileged to witness being partially built as part of a studio visit last month, Friedenberg has taken herself out of the dancing equation for the first time in her company's history. Instead, she has constructed from the abundant raw materials of movement and spoken text that are her stock in trade a series of vignettes for Stevenson, Franklin, Martin, Poole and Youssef that focus on what I will call the "doing of being," asking what it means when we materialize our aspirational or compensatory or competitive thoughts about who or what we wish to be as physical enactments of struggle or mimicry or synchronicity or incongruity.

For Youssef, a theatre artist, this means dealing with his anxiety about performing as a dancer in this piece, something Friedenberg showcases right at the top of the show. Just as Firehall AD and DOTE producer Donna Spencer is finishing her curtain speech, Youssef, nattily attired in suit jacket and tie, descends to the stage from where he had been sitting in the audience. He places a notebook before him on the floor, consults it briefly, and then begins to assume various ballet positions with his feet, eventually ending up in third--and demonstrating a fantastic turn-out in the process! More consultation of the book follows, and then an attempt at an arabesque. Next we get a bit of tap and step-dancing. And, finally, the big finish: a double pirouette with planted jazz hands. Consult, repeat: just as Youssef starts to win us over with his efforts, the other dancers--also surreptitiously embedded in the audience, and similarly attired in jackets and ties--descend one by one to the stage, with Stevenson (who happened to be sitting beside me) bringing up the rear. Forming a quartet upstage right, they cycle fluidly and in unison through the steps Youssef has been trying to master, and which he now seeks to match with ever increasing desperation to their rhythms. This sequence culminates with Youssef taking to the chair that has been positioned downstage centre, the other dancers clustered around him as he begins to talk to an off-stage analyst about his relationship with his father and an older sibling he never knew he had. The psychology of the group is still in play, however, as the other performers variously mimic and mock Youssef behind his back; whenever he turns around, they pretend to be engaged in some other activity: we hear the tail-end of a joke being told by Martin; or else Poole has launched herself into an energetic round of charades. In both cases, Youssef is clearly positioned as being on the outside of the group and amidst this at once proximate and separate relation of bodies before us we see how the principle of inclusion and exclusion is central to identity formation in our culture.

Each of the other performers experiences her or his own moment of separateness within the group, and to the extent that I read this piece as an attempt on Friedenberg's part to explore the question of dance ontology within a larger spectrum of ways of being in the world, it was fascinating to watch these amazingly talented but also very different movers explore the dialectic of coming together as an ensemble while also holding on to their individual expressiveness. This is a tension for any freelance dance artist performing in someone else's work, but throw in the fact that in this case the choreographer is known for her highly charismatic solo dance-theatre performances, and one can perhaps see why Friedenberg chose to absent herself from the stage in this case. Instead, the role of comic cut-up is here taken over by Stevenson, who in a virtuosic spoken word sequence demonstrates her mastery of faux-sincerity in praising the talents of her fellow performers in relation to herself, all the while simultaneously masquerading and revealing in her gestures the violence such comparisons are doing to her own psyche. Franklin is utterly compelling in a section in which she is literally straining to make herself seen and heard while being forcibly constrained by three of the other dancers. Poole makes Michael Bolton's power ballad "How Can We Be Lovers" utterly her own, despite the opprobrium of the others. And Martin has a hilarious Magic Mike moment in which we witness the uber B-boy give way to his inner Beyonce, swinging his hips, shaking his ass, and vogueing like there's no tomorrow. There's also a terrific duet between Stevenson and Franklin that turns (again, quite literally) on the often fine line between affection and aggression, as the two attempt to trade ever more physical kisses and caresses while also tossing out compliments that start to sound like personal indictments.

Before Stevenson and Franklin come to actual blows, Martin and Poole intervene, and the piece concludes with two couples waltzing to Prince's "Purple Rain." Youssef watches from the sidelines, the non-dancer yet again excluded from the group. Until, following a brief blackout, we see him centre stage, busting a set of grooves that, to refer back to his opening attempts to follow a choreographic score, suggests that sometimes to be part of a structure you just have to improvise.

Structured improvisation is the basis for Mutable Subject/Deanna Peters' NEW RAW. I first saw the piece as part of EDAM's fall choreographic series in 2013, and wrote briefly about that premiere here. Following a second outing in Edmonton in 2014, we are now getting, at DOTE 2015, version 3.0.

The piece begins with dancer Molly McDermott slouched in a chair downstage right, her head thrown back. She is illuminated from above by a soft spot. Peters stands beside her, in the half-light; her back is turned towards us, a sliver of which we can see courtesy of the suit jacket she is wearing back-to-front. As McDermott begins to twist and contort the lower half of her body in the chair, her toes somehow always in demi-pointe, Peters rests her right hand just above McDermott's right shoulder, as if seeking to calm or still or comfort her--or maybe just to prevent her movements from getting too out of control (a point to which I will return). At a certain point the chair begins to move, pulled backwards by an unseen Alexa Mardon, who is crouched behind it. By the time the chair comes to a stop upstage, McDermott's movements have become a riot of frenetic tics and crooked shapes and the chair starts to take on more ominous associations--as something to which McDermott's body has been tied or strapped, for example, and from which she is seeking to free herself (in which case that hovering hand of Peters is perhaps not so benevolent after all, and maybe that open slit from the backwards suit jacket starts to look like one we'd see on a standard issue hospital gown). Then, too, as an object that encodes and scripts an entire history of sedentary gendered behaviour, the chair carries associations of decorous bodily comportment (women don't usually get to manspread) against which McDermott might be rightly rebelling.

McDermott does eventually escape the chair's confines, and after she and Mardon exit the stage, Peters, still with her back too us, turns turntablist, putting on an old 45 and cranking up the volume. There follows a most compelling floor solo, in which Peters moves her body across the stage in a series of sexily languorous poses, exposing the gorgeous curves and silhouette of her back to us as the suit jacket falls about her head, but always keeping her face from us. Indeed, one of the things that is most interesting about the opening of NEW RAW is how consciously Peters has herself and her fellow female dancers avoid the (presumptively male) gaze of the audience: Peters dances with her back to us; McDermott, while in the chair, has her head cast upward to the ceiling; and Mardon in the opening sequence is completely invisible behind the chair. A little later on, following an amazingly physical duet between Mardon and McDermott in which the former aggressively "manhandles" (the word seems appropriate in this context) the latter, these three will perform an improvised trio of walking with album covers held in front of their faces. And when the fourth dancer in the group, Elissa Hanson, finally appears she does so by shimmying on stage on all fours, her ass in the air--and defiantly in our noses.

Hanson's delayed appearance is the prelude to the thumping climax of NEW RAW, in which the four dancers move from avoiding the potentially objectifying gaze of the audience to actively soliciting and even owning that gaze--of being quite explicitly in our faces. This begins when Hanson eventually stands upright and turns around, her acknowledgement of us and what we want prompting her to tease us with a catalogue of provocative poses culled from the catwalk and beauty pageants and striptease; a highlight during this sequence is when the flirty little moue Hanson begins to make with her mouth grows bigger and bigger, turning into a gaping open maw that functions simultaneously as a silent scream at the indignity of our presence before her. Thereafter, as the music gets louder and louder, the women improvise a series of forward and backward movement lines, their accelerations towards and retreats from us operating like a taunt. Yes, here we are dancing in front of you. But that doesn't mean we are dancing for you. It's a cheeky dance slap in the face. And it feels amazing.


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