Saturday, March 26, 2016

Onegin at the Arts Club

Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille clearly work well together. First, there was the smash hit Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata (written with Bill Richardson), which played the PuSh Festival in 2012 and may soon be heading to New York. Then there have been a string of East Van Pantos (written with Charlie Demers), which after three years have already become a York Theatre Christmas institution. Now comes their latest collaboration, Onegin, a "passionate new musical" currently playing at the Arts Club's new BMO Theatre in Olympic Village that Richard and I fittingly saw on Good Friday.

The work is adapted from both the Pushkin poem and the Tchaikovsky opera, and all the basic plot points are retained. Evgeni Onegin (Alessandro Juliani, making an assured Arts Club acting debut), a self-involved cad, arrives in sleepy St. Petersburg to preside impatiently over the death of his uncle. Soon he hooks up with his old friend, the poet Vladimir Lensky (Josh Epstein), who introduces Onegin to his fiancee, Olga (Lauren Jackson), and Olga's older sister, Tatyana (a stand-out Meg Roe). Tatyana, who up until this point has lived her life largely through books (as referenced in the piles of them that constitute a key feature of Drew Facey's set design), is instantly smitten with the dashing but reprobate Onegin--a man who refers to himself, in the hilarious song that heralds his arrival in town, as a "rock star."

Tatyana pours out her heart to Onegin in a letter, a scene which gives rise to one of Tchaikovsky's most famous arias, and which here, in "The Letter Song," Hille subtly references musically, while Gladstone cleverly enlists the front rows of the audience in the missive's delivery. (The thrust stage is configured in the round and Gladstone choreographs several moments of direct interaction between performers and audience members, including a drinking game involving shots of vodka. All of this feels organic to the production's overall storytelling frame rather than unnecessarily ingratiating and gimmicky.) Needless to say, Tatyana's feelings are not reciprocated by Onegin, who tells her he is not made for love, or at least the version that comes with marriage and domesticity. Tatyana is heartbroken, but unlike most tragic heroines from nineteenth-century opera the news doesn't kill her, and Gladstone and Hille give her a Heart-like power ballad to emphasize her strength and resilience--which Roe absolutely nails, complete with her own rock star guitar licks. (Another conceit of the production is that all of the actors are enlisted at different points to pick up instruments and supplement the house orchestra--Hille on piano and keyboards, Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar, and Marina Hasselberg on cello. This includes various turns at guitar and bass, as well as the tubular bells, and a virtuosic Caitriona Murphy--who plays Olga and Tatyana's mother--on violin.)

Onegin, having rebuffed Tatyana, is bored, and so at her name day celebrations (which features a wonderful Justin Timberlake/Bieber-esque falsetto tribute from Andrew McNee as the French tutor Monsieur Triquet) decides to flirt with her sister. Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with Lensky, who of course challenges Onegin to a duel. Neither man wants to go through with the gunfight, but their pride also prevents them from backing down. Inevitably, Lensky is killed, which sends Onegin into self-imposed exile traveling throughout Europe. Returning to St. Petersburg six years later, Onegin reencounters Tatyana at a ball thrown by Prince Gremin (Andrew Wheeler), the much older man to whom Tatyana is married. It's now Onegin's turn to be smitten, and so cue a repeat of the earlier letter scene. But while Tatyana's feelings for Onegin are undeniably rekindled, she tells him "no." Their tragedy, it would seem, boils down to a case of missed timing--something less grand and operatic than consumption, perhaps, but also something to which audience members tapping into their own "only if's" can potentially better relate. And it is to Hille and Gladstone's credit that in a musical filled with its share of belly laughs they mostly eschew their natural impulse towards irony, opting instead for plainness of meaning and unadorned sincerity. Indeed, one might say that Onegin is to Craigslist what Stephen Sondheim's Passion is to Into the Woods.

At the same time, the emotional tone of the work never feels manipulative or heavy-handed. And I think that has a lot to do with the scale of this staging. From the compactness of the company and orchestra to the subtle brocaded and damasked references to White Russian society contained in Jacqueline Firkins' costumes and Facey's drapey backdrop, and from simple dramaturgical effects (a cup of red wine on a white sheet to evoke Lensky's spilled blood on the snowy forest floor) to the intimate size of the house: nothing here feels overproduced, and so consequently every choice registers as at once inevitable and absolutely authentic.

This is a Broadway-worthy musical that, mercifully, forgoes Broadway-style spectacle. And for that there is only one word: Nostrovia!


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 10

Ten weeks into this project, we now have a fairly established routine. Upon arriving at Justine's sixth floor office at The Dance Centre, the first thing we do after doffing our coats is unpack our snacks: today it was a delicious pumpkin muffin sliced six ways and a bag of trail mix from Alexa; gluten-free multi-seed crackers from me; and jujubes from Justine. Then we gossip and catch up for a bit, which this morning included me asking Justine how her talk went last night at An Exact Vertigo; smashingly, was Alexa's verdict. (I had wanted to go, and was ever so close physically, but a Zee Zee Theatre board meeting at Playwrights Theatre Centre ran way longer than I expected.) Then we start to work.

Or, rather, I should say that we turn to the next phase of our work. For, as subsequently came up in conversation with James Gnam (today's interviewee), friendship and the work that goes into sustaining a meaningful friendship is an important medium for facilitating collaboration on any dance-based project. So it is in our case that the social conversation that always accompanies our sessions necessarily spills over into and informs whatever it is that we are building or trying to work through in our process at a given point. That includes the sample choreographic scores that Alexa and I brought to today's meeting. Based on Justine's suggestion that moving forward we should devote a portion of our weekly time together to crafting some of the potential physical content for whatever performance results from all of this, Alexa created a score based on a compilation of the different individual gestures she noted during the first minute of our video footage with Rob Kitsos. We cycled through these a few times before turning our attention to my score, which I put together by reviewing some of my old blog posts on dance shows I'd seen in 2009.

The parameters I gave myself were, for each review, to pick a temporal reference ("This past Thursday..."), a movement description of some sort ("crashing briefly to the floor..."), and a transition word or phrase, preferably adverbial ("Actually..." or "When, for example..."). Working chronologically, I isolated ten such groupings over the course of the year; the challenge will now be to think of how we might present this on stage--or even if we want to. One possible idea is to have a couple of timelines on the floor--e.g., a yearly horizontal, and a weekly vertical one--that would give us different quadrants to move to depending on how we cut up the text (assuming, that is, I continue with a similar rubric for 2010-2016; the gap of 2006-2008 is a whole other story). What happens next is anyone's guess, but as Justine suggested, it will most likely have to involve a studio. I am constantly second-guessing my involvement in this project, especially when it comes to the future tense performance I keep deluding myself into thinking will forever remain hypothetical. But taking a page from Alexa's reading of Claire Bishop on the idea of "de-skilling," I am ever so slowly coming round to letting go of the question "Am I qualified to do this?" and embracing instead the question "Why do I want to do this?" Today, with Justine and Alexa's help, I discovered that one of the answers to the latter question is, my terror at executing it notwithstanding, I really really really want to make a dance with these two women!

And James Gnam, when he arrived, gave me further license to think I can in fact contribute in meaningful ways to this project when he noted in passing that James Proudfoot had choreographed the ending to the piece James G and Natalie had performed at Evann Siebens' The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-Thon! last weekend. Which, given James P's years lighting just about every dance show in this city, makes absolute sense. (Needless to say, James P is on our list to interview...)

James G gave an incredibly thoughtful interview, and one of the most interesting things for me was thinking about how we might inhabit in performance the pauses in his responses to our questions. There were many of them, but they were also so full of genuine reflection, and always eventually led to an amazing personal story, or a powerful insight about the larger institution of dance. Indeed, James' narrative of how he came to leave Ballet BC in 2008 and begin to dance for Peter Bingham at EDAM (with no previous training in contact) encapsulated at once all that is good and bad about the profession. Particularly in Peter's and Ballet BC AD John Alleyne's different reactions to a serious injury sustained by James while he was in rehearsals for both men we had clearly illustrated for us two different models of dance collaboration: one that James called "transactional," and one that was based more on what Ali Denham referred to in her interview as an "ethic of care."

James also talked about his ongoing "heterosexual male dance love affair" with Jacques Poulin-Denis, whom he first met in 2011 while collaborating on Triptych, a choreographic research project that brought together dance artists from Vancouver, Montreal and Italy (Sylvia Gribaudi was the third member of James and Jacques's collaborative team). So sympatico are the two Js, that James now spends up to a third of each year in Montreal (in fact, he's off to the city next week for three months). But that doesn't mean he and Natalie are leaving Vancouver any time soon, at least to judge by the happy news of plastic orchid factory, MACHiNENOiSY, and Tara Cheyenne Performance joining forces to lease a space together in Chinatown. At the same time, James didn't hesitate to talk about how hard it is to make work in Vancouver; paradoxically, however, he said that he thinks it is because of the city's myriad constraints (from cost of living to a presentation and curation model for dance that is festival-dependent and has very little to do with the work itself) that many of the artists he admires have chosen to stay--because the obstacles fuel an aesthetic that pushes back against them.

As James noted, the precarity of being a dance artist is always already a political statement. Why not explore that in the social obligations and affective intensities embedded in the micro-aesthetics  of your work instead of succumbing to the macro-economics of infrastructural scale that demands your work be more: more spectacular; more excessive; just more?

Vancouver dance artists are already habituated to making do with less. In James' blue sky future for the community--which he very much sees as being "in transition"--these artists will not only feel individually empowered, but also be institutionally enabled to make something out of this making do.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-Thon! at WAAP

Prior to last night's Ballet BC performance, my colleague Roxanne and I hiked over to the Wil Aballe Art Projects (WAAP) space to take in artist Evann Siebens' exhibition The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-Thon. Siebens is a former National Ballet of Canada and Bonn Ballet dancer; she has also studied filmmaking and philosophy at New York University, and as part of her multi-media practice has made several award-winning dance films. For this show Siebens has ransacked her archive of dance footage to create a video installation that via multiple monitors and projections showcases the movement of a range of local and international artists. Mixed media collages featuring image and text, along with a reproduction of Yvonne Rainer's famous "No Manifesto," accompany the installation, contributing to Siebens' own "personal manifesto and mediated lexicon" on how to translate dance to film.

And yesterday she showed us how in an accompanying performance series called "Moving Camera Improv," which took place at her nearby studio. Following a mass choreographic walk to the studio, spectators encountered plastic orchid factory's James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam performing a structured improvisation to a recorded audio score of John Cage reciting an interview with Robert Rauschenberg. A camera with a live projected feed was perched on a rolling dolly; every now and then James would move it to so as to zero in on Natalie's feet, or else to project different sized and configured images of his own body on different parts of the studio walls. Justine A. Chambers followed with a mashed-up reperformance of two iconic postmodern works from the Judson Church era: Trisha Brown's Homemade, in which she famously danced with a projector mounted via a baby carrier on her back, her live movements synchronizing with mediated images of the same dance that played across the studio's walls, ceiling and audience; and Yvonne Rainer's Duet, which ends with a series of 19 poses that she and Brown first cycled through in 1963. In Chambers' combining of these works, the recorded images of her performing Duet further recombine in uncanny ways with her fully present and fluidly embodied movements, not least because she does not pause between each pose, so that in concert with the doubly ambulant projections (that is, Chambers moving on screen, but also moving the screen around the studio) there is produced what it only seems appropriate to deem a wholly new concept of montage.

Finally, the series concludes with Siebens herself taking up a camera to capture the live improvised movements of her three collaborators. In so doing, she demonstrates not only that her movement training is still deeply embedded in her body, but also--and likely as a result--that she has an intuitive feel for how to maneuver a camera both in relation to the bodies maneuvering around her (including those in the audience) and the general ambient environment (as when, in a wonderful moment, she gently palpates the camera in response to the thrumming soundscore and James' pulsating arm and wrist).


Ballet BC's Program 2

Ballet BC's second performance offering during this, its 30th anniversary season, was an all Medhi Walerski program. It begins with a reworking of Prelude, which the choreographer first created for the company in February 2014, and which I wrote about here. For this version, Walerski has expanded the piece to accommodate nine additional dancers from Arts Umbrella on top of Ballet BC's full complement of 16 company members and three apprentices. It's a wonderfully crowded stage and Walerski exploits the bodily massings effectively by moving between straight lines and simple unison and chaotic swirlings of individual dancers' limbs and torsos that get distributed across the stage. At the heart of the work, however, remains a romantic pas de deux; the always elegant Rachel Meyer reprises her role and this time is partnered by Scott Fowler, who seems to grow in strength as a dancer each season. The duet unfolds in stages, a story of longing and loss as it intersects with the passage of time--something that is reinforced by the repeated pendulum-like swinging of the arms of the dancers in the corps, as well as by their encircling of the lovers in a crouched and swaying clockwise two-step. Maybe it was just a result of the extra dancers, but I was indeed struck this time by how much this piece draws from conventions of classic nineteenth-century story ballet, from the deconstructed port de bras that I read into the recurring gestural motif of the corps dancers delicately balancing one extended wrist upon the other in front of their chests to Fowler's thrashings on the floor following Meyer's slow backwards exit upstage evoking so many lovestruck male dancers driven mad by the premature deaths or general unattainability of their sylph-like objects of desire.

That Prelude and the second piece on the program, the world premiere of the new commission Natus, are meant to be read as linked somehow (at least in this staging) can be seen from the fact that the company took no bows at the end of the former. Moreover, following intermission audience members return to their seats to encounter the image of a man (Fowler, presumably) suspended above the stage, his dimly lit floating body resembling an oversized fetus. At this point the house lights are still up but a hush has slowly fallen over the audience and out of this transitional space there emerges a voice asking if we have our tickets. The voice is attached to Peter Smida, who enters from the back of the orchestra seats and wends his way to the stage, switching back and forth between genial conversation with the audience and the anxious recitation of items on a list. Having reached the front row, he selects an older female patron to accompany him in a brief waltz, before becoming distracted once again with his list; the items on it seem to be for a party, but despite the subsequent appearance of a cake it's not entirely clear that the party is celebratory. Verbal, visual, and musical references to a funeral also abound--which may be Smida's own, as at the end of his opening monologue he throws himself into the orchestra pit.

With Petite Cérémonie (a Ballet BC audience favourite, though I'll frankly be glad not to see it programmed again for a good long while) Walerski established that he is fond of mixing dance and physical comedy, movement and talking. And yet while I am normally a fan of text in dance, and while I have always responded to Smida as a charismatic performer, here I found the extended chatter to be gimmicky and I wanted it to stop. Especially at the end, when Smida enters wearing a jacket that seems to be covered with flower petals and starts a final long list about what he loves that builds into a screaming riot of free association, I found the device incredibly distracting and would simply have preferred to concentrate wholly on the final long sequence of explosive unison, which is performed to traditional Japanese drumming. Walerski is clearly an adept choreographer of hypnotic group patterning (an earlier sequence featured alternating gendered lines of running dancers, with one group having to duck under the arms of the other, which each time had me anticipating someone being cuffed in the head). He also knows how to balance the maximalist spectacle with the spare and simple; as in Prelude there is an effecting duet, danced by Smida and Livona Ellis, which is all the more compelling for the toning down of Smida's previous glossolalia. It is thus perplexing to me why Walerski feels the need to embellish his work unnecessarily with theatrical tricks which, in this case, seem to be about ingratiating himself to the audience (though, judging by the enthusiastic response, it seemed to work).

In her curtain speech Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar announced the line-up for the 2016-17 season. It starts in November with new work by the company's next choreographer-in-residence, Cayetano Soto. In the spring of 2017 there is an all-Canadian (and, more specifically, all Vancouver) program featuring works by Wen Wei Wang, Lesley Telford, Crystal Pite, and Company 605--my mind is already racing about how the latter's Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin will set their style on Ballet BC's dancers. Finally, the season concludes with a mixed program that, among other things, will showcase something from Batsheva's Ohad Naharin.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Words in Motion at The Chan Centre

Yesterday evening I hiked it out to UBC's Chan Centre in order to take in a unique evening of words and dance. Words in Motion is a co-presentation with The Dance Centre that pairs three Vancouver writers with three local choreographers. Over the past year the artists have been working together, as well as with different dancers, designers, and musicians, to explore what happens when language and narrative are translated in and through the body. I have been peripherally involved in the last phase of the series' development as I had initially been asked to lead a book club in which interested audience members would read the specific works of literatures being adapted prior to the staged performances. That didn't work out as planned; however, I still got to sit in on a couple of rehearsals, as well as attend the filming of the artist conversations that precede each piece, which provided some unique insights into each of the creative processes.

The first pairing on the program was between poet and novelist Aislinn Hunter and dancer and choreographer Anusha Fernando. The text being interpreted was Hunter's dense and complex novel The World Before Us, which explores the connections between Jane, an archivist working in present-day London, and two sets of events that happened in Yorkshire in the recent and far past--both of which haunt Jane in different ways. Fernando is trained in Bharata Natyam, a form of Indian classical dance that is based on a storytelling tradition anchored in a specific repertoire of gestures and poses. Fernando combines this repertoire with the somatic practices of Tai Chi and Yoga to explore dynamics of spatial distance and proximity and the temporal flow of energy between herself and her two fellow dancers (Louise Ettling and Kelly Maclean). Additionally, the recorded voice of Veda Hille reading the prologue from the novel acts as a verbal score that the dancers, through their movement combinations and poses, sometimes enact more mimetically and sometimes more abstractly.

In the second pairing playwright and memoirist Carmen Aguirre reads her short story "Open Fire" live on stage while choreographer and dancer Olivia C. Davies, joined by fellow performers Alejandra Miranda and Sindy Angel, physicalize its action and themes in a parallel kinetic register. Aguirre, an acclaimed actor, has amazing stage presence and a powerful voice, and it was fascinating watching and listening to her as she responded to the dancers in real-time--and vice-versa. However, a side-effect of this staging choice was that the movement mostly came across as quite literal and illustrative, rather than exploiting the productive gaps or intervals when the same story is translated from one medium to another.

Finally, choreographer Paras Terezakis chose to work with Nancy Lee's short story collection Dead Girls. Drawing from different images and phrases in the book (as well as the book itself as object), Terezakis conjures a physical environment that consciously explores the interplay between and mutability of representational and non-representational forms. To this end, the hundreds of styrofoam cups scattered across the stage floor at the start of the piece (and upon which dancer Michelle Lui lies prone) evoke the chalk outline of a dead body on the street; but they will also eventually be stacked into various towers that suggest a scale architectural model of an urban landscape. Similarly, the dancers (Lui, joined by Thoenn Glover and Arash Khakpour) partner in ways that speak to different entanglements based on obligation or indebtedness or violence or love. However, Terezakis' juxtapositions between bold externally-directed physicality and small and tender moments of stilled self-care (captured for us via video) are equally evocative of how the embodied language of dance can capture the tone and emotional textures of a literary work in non-expository way.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 9

Following a debrief of the excellent Exact Vertigo conversation at UNIT/PITT Projects on Wednesday evening, and after a bit of Thursday morning chocolate cake, yesterday Justine and Alexa helped me to record a short movement-based video loop I wished to use as a supplement to an academic paper I'm currently writing. I had brought matching sailor hats for the occasion, though I'm not sure they exactly suited our physical score. We chose to cycle through a few of the poses from the end of the "Duet" section of Yvonne Rainer's Terrain, which she first performed at Judson Church with Trisha Brown, I believe, and which Justine will be reperforming as part of a collaboration with the video artist Evann Siebens this coming Saturday evening. Even with Justine beside me calling out the movements, I was pretty hopeless--but, in terms of my paper, that's partly the illustrative point.

The real challenge will come in the following weeks as we work to develop potential scores for our own project in conjunction with our interviews and writing. As Justine suggested, it makes sense to pursue these tracks together rather than tacking movement on at the very end.

In the second hour we were joined by Delia Brett, the latest Vancouver dance artist to consent to an interview. She shared some amazing stories, including the decision of her ballet teacher that Delia alone among her students was a "modern dancer," and so deserving of extra tutelage in the form--which apparently amounted to biweekly lessons in working with a theraband and flexing her feet. Delia also told us about her first encounter with Peter Bingham, which was when he came to Duncan as part of a theatre festival to give a workshop and chose Delia (who was around 14 at the time) as his demonstration partner for various contact techniques. Delia said that the moment Peter sloughed his body down the side of hers she knew she wanted to trade in her then burgeoning film and television acting career for a life in dance.

This life has meant dancing for a who's who of Vancouver choreographers, culminating in her joining forces with Daelik, following what they dubbed the disastrous "Homewreck" tour, to build MACHiNENOiSY into the company it is today. Along the way there was a hair-raising trip to Belgium in 2003 for a festival of Canadian dance that also involved Justine, and during which Delia's body went into full system collapse. Except for when she was on stage--which Justine confirmed by describing the incredible backbend accompanied by forward tendu that she still remembers Delia performing. And, I should say on this last point, that Delia was incredibly physical over the course of her interview, which gives us some added material to work with.

While Delia expressed a lot of frustration with the dance scene in Vancouver, particularly with respect to its different presentational, institutional, and financial impediments, she also said that she couldn't ever foresee a future where she wasn't dancing. Having just seen her in Bingham's Secret Life of Trees that is something to treasure.


Vital Few Rehearsal at VIDF

This is an insane weekend for dance shows: it's the last weekend of VIDF; Ballet BC's Program 2 kicks off tonight at the Queen E; Words in Motion, a collaboration between The Dance Centre and UBC's Chan Centre, takes place Friday and Saturday; and Justine Chambers and James Gnam and Natalie LeFebvre Gnam are collaborating with mixed media artist Evann Siebens for a showing of "The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-thon!" at WAAP on Saturday. Something had to give, and owing to previous commitments it ended up being VIDF. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed to be missing the premiere of Company 605's latest work, Vital Few. However, thanks to the intervention of Ziyian Kwan, whose latest creation for dumb instrument Dance, Still Rhyming, will be preceding Vital Few on VIDF's free Roundhouse Exhibition Hall stage tonight through Saturday, I was able to get 605 founders Josh Martin and Lisa Gelley to consent to let me watch a run through of the piece yesterday afternoon.

Vital Few is built from some of the work that 605 showed at VIDF last year, but they have expanded the piece quite substantially. There is, quite simply, an amazing amount of dancing jammed into the show's 75+ minutes, most of it featuring the full company complement of six dancers (Martin, joined by Laura Avery, Hayden Fong, Renee Sigouin, Jessica Wilkie, and Sophia Wolfe; co-director Gelley was watching over everything from the tech booth). The piece begins with Avery entering stage left, walking downstage centre and staring out searchingly at the audience; Martin soon joins Avery, embracing her, but in a way that requires a constant shifting of their responses to each other, with Martin actively adjusting Avery's limbs, moving one arm here, shifting her head there. Not that it felt to me that Martin was treating Avery like a wind-up doll; it was more like he was dissatisfied with the external representation of bodily affect each pose was conveying and that he was in search of something more authentic--because, presumably, more natural.

Soon Avery and Martin are joined by the rest of the dancers, who pile on in a group hug, but one that is constantly in motion, with different bodies darting out from under, or else diving back into, the mass of bent torsos, tucked heads and wrap-around limbs. It was like the company was playing a completely upright game of Twister. Eventually Avery's head pops out of this restless bodily mass, her expression as quizzical as when she first entered on stage, her hair none the worse for wear. Two arms belonging to her still enmeshed confreres slice the air, like a conductor, or reach around to scratch the back of the dancer most downstage to the audience (Martin as I recall). Again, I didn't really register this as a visual cliche, 605's version of a many-armed Hindu goddess practicing her mudras. Instead, I saw it as a concrete physical articulation of the company's method, which is all about how the individual moves with and in response to the group, and which involves a mix of improvisation and set choreography.

To this end, when we start to hear the first of the two Enrico Caruso songs used in the piece, the dancers begin breaking apart, spitting out duos and trios that approximate the occasional waltz step or bit of classical partnering, before reforming like an amoeba under a microscope. Eventually, however, the amoeba does unfurl into a chain, and then the chain itself splits apart, with each of the dancers taking turns at some solo freestyling. But it is 605's version of serial, shared, or transferred movement, their very own hybrid of canon and unison formations, that always captivates me. The way they begin a movement phrase in one body and transport it mid-articulation to another without interrupting the flow, but also while frequently changing the direction, is something that I experience in my own body as an uncanny bit of mirrored rippling, almost as though we in the audience should be doing the wave in response--except for the fact that in this case, apart from the assembled crew and videographer, I was an audience of one.

Maybe as a result of the piece's opening tableau, I found myself focusing a lot on the dancers' arms in Vital Few. They do a lot of work here: they hail, they wave, they signal; they are cocked above the eyes when someone looks out, or raised heraldically above the head when someone else wants to pose; they are used to push people out of the way and also offered in support. More than once, as in the jazzy swingtime number where Fong is a standout, they are used to square off space between dancers, or to frame parts of their bodies, a game tinged with shades of threatened violence that leads to a series of increasingly fast and more complex interlocking Lego-like combinations of so many arms akimbo.

Not everything worked for me in the show. I thought it was a bit too long and it felt like there were two endings (a note Martin confirmed to me afterwards that they'd received from others). Following a particularly vigorous and rhythmically hypnotic group sequence danced to a loop of what sounded like a record stuck in a groove (shades of Inheritor Album?), the dancers all eventually arrive upstage, freezing one by one in a rectangle of white light. I heard myself audibly exhaling at that point, which suggests to me this would be an appropriate place for a blackout. Instead, the piece continues for another fifteen minutes or so, culminating in the group ripping up the shiny reflective Mylar floor surface taped over the white Marley, and which casts such amazing effects of light upon the upstage screen wall throughout much of the piece. The sheets are piled upstage where before the dancers' bodies had stood, a shiny aluminum mass that in its lumpen and amorphous shape recalls the fluid and heaving mass of bodies downstage at the top of the show, and that perhaps serves as a metaphor for all of the vital energy the dancers have literally left on the floor.

But to bypass interpretation and to settle into the experience of this moment (that was for you Deanna!), this second ending wasn't as satisfying for me. This is partly because it felt like I had seen it before. I am thinking in particular of DanceHouse's 2012 presentation of Blush by Gallim Dance (who were just back in town last week as part of Chutzpah!). There a similar instance of "tearing up the dance floor" came as a shock, but the effect still somehow registered as being very much inside the world of the dance; but in the case of Vital Few, by contrast, I couldn't help thinking I was watching the striking of a stage set. That's an ending, to be sure, but maybe one that's a bit too "meta" for a piece that is otherwise so focused on what remains so vital about the pure art of dance.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Memory Wax/Retazos at VIDF

Last night's audience at the Vancouver Playhouse for VIDF's presentation of the international collaboration between Sweden's Memory Wax and Cuba's Retazos was woefully small. That's a shame, because folks missed some amazing dancing and equally inventive stage theatre.

The first of the two pieces on the program, Possible Impossible, begins with a nattily dressed balladeer enchanting us, and the space into which he enters (which includes a table, a wardrobe on wheels and a couple of empty door frames), with a song of welcome. Soon he is joined on stage by seven other performers (four men and three women), who begin to bang out a syncopated drum beat on the table. (The table must have been amplified by an overhead mike given the resulting resonance in the theatre.) The rhythm begins to overtake a couple of the dancers, who start to shake their hips and shimmy their shoulders as they move downstage. But this is only the beginning of the carnival atmosphere, and over the next 50 minutes the dancers will don white masks and blond fright wings as, drawing additionally from traditions of clowning and mime, they conjure various scenarios of encounter staged at the thresholds of reality and fantasy. To this end, those moveable empty door frames become sites for some uncanny mirrored partnering, and the table acts as a rostrum for a group sequence of combative jostling that reminded me very much of Kurt Jooss's The Green Table.

The second piece on the program is called Crisálida, and it begins with a lone female dancer perched on a chair centre stage. Her back is to us, and all we see is her long legs extended in the air as she cycles through a sequence of developpés, criss-crossed knee folds, single and double leg extensions, and of course an impossibly wide mid-air split. During the course of this a male dancer enters and attempts to partner the woman, or at the very least to arrest the movement of her legs. But she will have none of this, her legs refusing to be directed by the man, and instead very much directing him, including when they land on his chest and push him away. All of this is the prelude to a partnering sequence featuring the piece's full complement of eight dancers, and which was refreshing for its mostly genderless choreography: the women lift the men at various points and there are several same-sex combinations. The verticality of this section is contrasted with the horizontality of the hip-hop infused floorwork that follows, which is rendered all the more visually stunning by the fact that it is captured by a live video feed and projected onto the upstage screen, so that at various moments it looks like the dancers, in their different formations, are hanging precariously from a wall or the side of a building. The piece concludes with more partnering, only this time enhanced by the fact that all the dancers are additionally moving with and around their own chair.

The collaboration between these two companies has certainly yielded stunning results. I hope there will be more to come, and that next time they come through Vancouver they will get the sizeable audience they deserve.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Secret Life of Trees at VIDF

In The Secret Life of Trees, which is on at the Roundhouse as part of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival through this evening, EDAM's Peter Bingham takes his choreographic inspiration from the idea that trees communicate with each other (and presumably their environment) through their "intricate entwining root systems." Likewise, in creating this piece, Bingham and his dancers have worked to develop "different sensory pathways to connect to each other" in the space and time of performance.

Such communication begins when dancers Walter Kubanek, Chengxin Wei, Anne Cooper and Olivia Shaffer enter through one of the three square archways--one stage left, two stage right--positioned in front of the wings, portals one imagines to the forest that lies just beyond. Kubanek and Wei slide to the floor upstage, sitting back-to-back, with Wei facing the audience. Cooper and Shaffer lie supine on the floor in two rectangles of light stage right. Wei begins to move his feet, turning them in and out, left and right; he raises his arms and domes his hands, rotating them at the wrist, first this way, and then that, as if telegraphing some secret gestural message. It's one that Cooper and Shaffer pick up on, their feet responding in kind to Wei's proffered address (which we also hear, briefly, in a bit of voiceover).

Just how in sync these three dancers are becomes clear after Kubanek exits the stage and, following a robust contact sequence, the trio separates for some isolated unison floorwork. The dancers are positioned so closely to one another, and their movements are so complicated and physical that it is a wonder they don't hit each other when blindly extending a leg into space, or when rolling backwards in this or that direction. But then just as trees seem to be able to make room for one another on a crowded forest floor, so are dancers of this caliber able to draw on a highly honed kinaesthetic awareness, a keen sense not just of back and front but also, in this case, of beside.

There then follows two gorgeous duets. The first, featuring Shaffer and Delia Brett, is faster and more vigorous and covers much more stage space in its incorporation of lateral lifts and rolls, and in the dancers' explorations of different surfaces of bodily contact and support. The second, between Brett and James Gnam, is slower and more still. It begins with the two dancers walking downstage and matter-of-factly removing their shirts. As the voiceover tells us that we are about to hear a selection of plant songs, Brett slowly begins to trace her fingers in looping and intertwining patterns along Gnam's back and arms, like a childhood game of spelling out letters and words up and down a friend's spine. Brett's touch is delicate and tender, like a lover's, and Gnam's vertebrae and ribs respond to the intimacy by undulating like tree branches swaying in a gentle breeze. When Gnam reciprocates he also reaches around to touch the small and vulnerable area between Brett's throat and breastbone, which struck me as an especially solicitous moment. After this sequence the dancers move further upstage, and amid a series of black and white and colour video projections by Chris Randle that are accompanied by a voiceover narrative written and spoken by Bingham, Brett and Gnam cycle through several semi-lifted poses, their limbs a tangled system of support and ballast.

The piece concludes with a final trio, this time with Kubanek, who has been something of a silent observer up until now, joining Shaffer and Wei in a bit of balletic parody before moving into a final and highly satisfying contact sequence. If, in their rhizomatic structural threading, tree roots have a mostly horizontal orientation, and if they further work to stabilize not just the tree trunks to which they are attached, but also the soil around them, then they are an apt metaphor for the connection to and from ground that is at the heart of contact.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 8

Yesterday Justine, Alexa and I talked about the email. That would be the "very intense" screed we received from "someone who has been observing and investing in contemporary dance in [Vancouver] for 25 years." Having heard about our project, he connected some very disconnected dots about our "10 year memory chip" and fired off a salvo in which he excoriated us for our "very problematic" focus on only the most recent "golden age of Vancouver dance," which he claimed did "a great disservice to all the choreographers and dancers who busted their asses here and created this scene."

Never mind the very problematic fact that the email was only addressed to Justine and I, and that our interlocutor didn't seem to know that Alexa is a member of our project; this particular 'j'accuse' was undertaken without full possession of the facts tout court. (I do think indignation registers so much better in French.)

Here is an excerpt from my reply:

Dear __________


Contrary to what your email seems to be suggesting, we are not being willfully blind to all the important work that has been done in dance in this city prior to 2006. Rather, we are trying, on the one hand, to be practical about what we are able to accomplish with this project, and so imposing some arbitrary parameters re the jumping off point for our investigations (the jumping off point, let me stress, but by no means the end). Then, too, the starting point of 2006 was chosen because it also reflects in a very material way each of our own connections with the Vancouver dance community: it was around this time that Justine moved to the city, that I began to become more immersed in and write about the dance I was seeing, and that Alexa began her academic studies at SFU and her dance training at Modus. More than anything our individual personal histories of dance in the city explain the choice of dates.

That said, we have always taken as a given that this story we are telling is not the whole story and that it is also just that--a story. We are neither presuming to tell the definitive history of dance in the last decade nor suggesting that there aren't other histories that might intersect with and/or contest ours. In fact part of our interest in beginning with "present" dance history in Vancouver is to reveal how that story inevitably compels one to look backward. It might surprise you, in the interviews we have conducted so far, just how many of the names on your list of folks we are apparently leaving out have been mentioned. Not, it is true, Pipo Damiano, but to turn around the question you pose to us at the beginning and end of your email: what or who does it serve to suggest one genealogy is superior to another? Foregrounding the necessary subjectivity of our experience in and representation of Vancouver dance has always been a priority for us--this means starting from our own critical and artistic practices and moving outward from there, a process of generating historical context and storytelling content that we hope unfolds in an organic, daisy chain kind of manner.

To reiterate, we admit to being bad ethnographers (and I think I can say that with some legitimacy as I'm currently co-teaching a graduate seminar with a real ethnographer). We are not interested in telling the history of Vancouver dance, whether recent or going back to its origins (wherever that might be); instead, we are interested in what stories about Vancouver dance get told to us: by our interview subjects; by the reviews and critical writing we plan to comb through; by the daily sign-in logs at the Dance Centre front desk; by the posters on the walls at Harbour Dance; by the spaces folks rehearse, hang out, have coffee or gossip in; etc. In terms of the interviews, we have only just started and we have a long list.... We have some prompts, but mostly we're just interested in having people talk.

And from this talk we are further interested in points of connection, and of divergence--especially re the same story that gets told differently. We have an idea to create a rhizomatic installation to map said connections, and also a performance score of some sort--but a score that deliberately abstracts and even overtly fictionalizes what's been told to us. In this way I hope you see that, again, we are not being presumptuous about purporting to tell the definitive history of Vancouver dance. But neither are we being precious about what that history is, or who gets to tell it, and from what starting point.

To that end, we fully understand that others might want to write different or parallel or supplementary or oppositional histories to ours. Personally, however, I do question how resentment can operate alongside respect as a motivator for such interventions.We are also planning on some sort of publication to accompany the project, a kind of scrap book of our process. I hope you might think about letting us include your email.


Sunday, March 6, 2016

To Colour Thought at the Shadbolt

To Colour Thought, a mixed program by Vanessa Goodman and her company Action at a Distance, played at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby from Wednesday through Saturday of this past week. Goodman has been in residence at the Shadbolt for the past six weeks developing the second half of her piece Wells Hill, which is scheduled to have its full-length premiere at SFU Woodward's in 2017.

First up, however, was the solo Container, which I first saw at last year's Dancing on the Edge Festival, and which I wrote about here. The work has changed quite a bit. It still begins with Goodman clad in nude dance semis and combat boots; but the music at the beginning is now a Yiddish folk song ("Chiribim Chiribom," to be precise, here played instrumentally). In the horizontal line of upstage light that traverses the stage Goodman raises her hands and starts to shimmy her shoulders, a trace smile playing across her lips as a kinetic memory of collective social dancing takes hold of her body. But she doesn't give herself over to this memory completely, and as the folk song is gradually superseded by Locsil's original sound composition, the shoulder shimmy becomes more of a twitch, a phantom bit of tradition (shades of Fiddler on the Roof, which feels appropriate) that remains written on Goodman's body even as she moulds herself into a modern dancing machine. For the sequences that follow, which include Goodman robotically moving forwards and backwards in crosshatched diagonals of light, seem to explore the tensions embedded within prescribed pathways of embodiment--not least with respect to gender, as the visual juxtaposition of Goodman's semi-naked body and fierce footwear would seem to suggest, and as her self-conscious foregrounding of the semiotics of erotic display indeed confirms.

Then, a surprise: returning upstage, Goodman kicks off her boots, lets loose her hair, kneels on the floor and withdraws from somewhere behind her a folded white cloth. She turns the cloth around ceremonially and then unfolds it with careful precision before holding it up to her torso. Slipping into the simple shift, Goodman is instantly recognizable as girlish and feminine. That this transformation coincides with the return of "Chiribim Chiribom," this time with the lyrics sung by The Barry Sisters, glamorous stars of the Klezmer circuit in 1950s US, reinforces what I read as Goodman's danced exploration of the co-imbricatedness of gender and cultural identity.

Following intermission we were shown the second half of Wells Hill, Goodman's riff on the interface between art and information as theorized by Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould (I wrote about the first part, which premiered at last year's Chutzpah! Festival, here). In this part Goodman is working with McLuhan's notion that all media are fundamentally extensions of human faculties (whether psychical or physical), with electronic media, in particular, being an adjunct to our central nervous system (the quote to this effect, from The Medium is the Massage, is referenced at the end of this 30-minute excerpt). All of this is brought out quite viscerally in the piece via the immersive lighting and media designs of James Proudfoot and Ben Didier. Fluorescent and neon tubes flash stage left and right and pixelated projections wash over the white Marley floor. According to McLuhan, information overload is a condition of electronic media and Goodman takes this maxim seriously, keeping all five of her gorgeous dancers (Lara Barclay, Karissa Barry, Dario Dinuzzi, Alexa Mardon and Bevin Poole) on stage throughout the piece, and likewise keeping them in constant motion. Moreover, our attention is purposefully divided between the workings of the group, which includes simple patterns of unison movement, more complex partnering sequences, and whole body chains and collective lifts, and that of different individuals who occasionally break off to improvise on their own in an upstage or downstage corner, often punctuating their movements with signature repeated gestures.

In his Laws of Media McLuhan wrote that "The artist is the person who invents the means to bridge between biological inheritance and the environments created by technological innovation." In Wells Hill Goodman is showing us, through the medium of dance, just what such a bridging might look like.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Foutrement at VIDF

I caught a performance of the first mainstage show at the 2016 Vancouver International Dance Festival last night. Foutrement, by Compagnie Virginie Brunelle, explores the dynamics of a love triangle. It begins with dancers Isabelle Arcand and Simon-Xavier Lefebvre marching on stage in their underwear and wearing football padding on their upper torsos; oh yes, Arcand is also in point shoes. To the strains of "Casta Diva," from Bellini's Norma, Arcand rises on point, leaps straight up into the air and is caught by Lefebvre. This move repeats itself until Lefebvre loses interest, with Arcand nevertheless continuing to throw herself at her partner, and consequently falling to the ground at his feet as he retreats with indifference upstage.

In foregrounding from the outset the cliché of love as combat, Brunelle is also, necessarily, tackling (and here the football gear seems an appropriate metaphor) the highly gendered conventions of classical dance. But rather than exploding those conventions, in Foutrement it seems to me that Brunelle ends up reinforcing them. The point shoe, onto the toes of which Arcand repeatedly floats and flutters before Lefebvre, is an especially powerful physical reminder that in ballet, as Susan Leigh Foster has so eloquently put it, "she extends while he supports." In this respect, I found that, within the specific recent tradition of point work in contemporary dance emerging from Québec, Brunelle's choreographic ethos in Foutrement aligns more with Édouard Lock's fetishization of ballet shoes (and, by extension, the female leg to which they are appended) in the later performances of La La La Human Steps than with, say, Marie Chouinard's prosthetic deconstruction of the device in bODY rEMIX/the gOLDBERG vARIATIONS (notwithstanding Arcand's naked torso and the acoustic uses to which she sometimes puts her shoes).

Then, too, during the pirouettes and lifts and drags in the duet that follows the dancers' removal of their football padding, I couldn't help thinking about something else Foster has noted regarding the inequities embedded into classical dance partnering: whereas the woman mostly touches the man's hands, forearms or shoulders, he additionally grips her by her wrists, armpits, thighs, waist, buttocks, pubis and head. Add to this the fact that Lefebvre, though a gifted mover, is stocky bordering on flabby, whereas Arcand and fellow female dancer Claudine Hébert--who supplants Arcand in Lefebvre's affections later on in the piece--are rail thin, and you can perhaps see why the unexamined politics of this piece made me uneasy even as the technical virtuosity of the dancers blew my mind.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Gay Heritage Project at The Cultch

When we use the word "heritage" we are likely often referring to an individual's or a group's ethnic or cultural lineage and traditions, or else to the shared history--including built--of a community or nation. So what might it mean to think of sexuality as having a heritage? How would one conceive of mapping a specifically "gay heritage" given that modern notions of sexual identity are belated historical constructs that simultaneously subsume and marginalize an entire spectrum of non-Western same-sex amatory and kinship relations, let alone some of the very real divisions that persist in the LGBTQ rainbow coalition in countries like Canada? And, even more pertinently, how would you turn these questions into a work of performance that sought to provoke critical thought and reflection even as it remained committed to entertaining its diverse audience? These are just some of the questions behind The Gay Heritage Project, a work of devised theatre created and performed by Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir. It premiered to acclaim last year at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto and has now arrived in Vancouver for a two-week run at The Cultch's Historic Theatre.

Thirty years ago, in the climactic scene of the off-Broadway premiere of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, the firebrand protagonist Ned Weeks delivered the following speech: "I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold." Several of these same figures turn up in The Gay Heritage Project, either named and voiced directly in some of the work's historical set pieces, or referred to in passing via a montage of images on screen or a medley of song (the work's multiple choral arrangements were overseen by Kushnir, who has a beautiful voice). However, GHP's creators, all able-bodied, white middle-class urban gay men in their thirties, are neither so presumptuous as to think that there is an unbroken line of connection between their contemporary "post-AIDS," post-same-sex marriage millennial queer identities and the forebears cited by Kramer, nor unaware of the other differences--not least with respect to gender--masked within such a totalizing genealogy.

On the former front, the performers do their best, over the course of the show, to become good Foucauldians, accepting that homosexuality as we have come to know it is a social construction invented in the nineteenth century even as they rail against the jargon of queer theory and its mute opacity in the face of one's contradictory response to the boy-love of a Socrates or a da Vinci or a Marlowe. This particular line of inquiry culminates in a brilliant scene in which Atkins at once spoofs and pays loving homage to that classic icon of gay heritage, The Wizard of Oz. Foucault himself is inserted into the role of the Wizard, and while on the one hand he tells all the friends of Dorothy that we can never find a fixed and stable home in homo, he also says the flip side of this is that we can choose with whom we wish to queerly affiliate ourselves (in these and similar scenes I detected the hand of my Dublin-based academic colleague, J. Paul Halferty, who served as dramaturge for the show).

Anxieties around the parameters and limits of queer affiliation are also front and centre in the many scenes in which the creators stage various debates about whom they are speaking for in the piece, as well as those voices they are necessarily leaving out. Dunn visits an imaginary queer archive to get a storytelling license for the show, only to be shown what a very narrow remit said license would cover. At the same time, Kushnir introduces us, via a Reading Rainbow sequence, to a succession of non-Western stories of same-sex relationships. And Atkins takes a bus ride in which he discovers just how fraught and tenuous are the lines of connection between different members of the queer community.

It struck me that after the third or fourth of such scenes the GHP boys were being a bit too defensive regarding anticipated critiques of the show's premise. Much more successful for me was the balance struck by each of the creator-performers' micro and macro focus on the meaning of "gay heritage." By that I mean that the effort at synthesizing transculturally and transhistorically an archive of queerness finds its narrative corollary not just in the more specific focus on Canadian issues and landmarks, but in each of the performers' attempts to reconcile their sexuality with their own family histories and disaporas. Gay heritage, we discover, includes Atkins' boyhood fascination with the figure skating of Brian Orser, Kushnir's adult quest to discover what it means to be a gay Ukrainian, and Dunn's cross-generational channeling of an Irish love song between two men. Equally, we are reminded that gay heritage means not being complacent in submitting without question to a progressivist narrative of history that might seek to overwrite that which doesn't fit within its ameliorative ethos or about which we might feel uneasy or ashamed. Such questions are brought out most powerfully in: an alley encounter between "gay identity" and "gay desire" enacted by Kushnir; an "It Gets Worse" sequence featuring Dunn as the Roman emperor Tiberius; and a victim impact statement made by Atkins during the murder trial of HIV, in which he elaborates on what he, as a gay man born into the era of anti-retrovirals who has never known someone who has died of AIDS, has nevertheless lost as a result of the disease.

A work brimming with both intellect and unabashed sentiment, and featuring three charismatic performers engaged in a non-stop dialogue with each other, with their imagined interlocutors, and with us, The Gay Heritage Project is a production that excites and educates.