Saturday, April 30, 2016

Superimposition at the Chan Centre

Turning Point Ensemble's last concert of the 2015/16 season, Superimposition, takes place this weekend at the Chan Centre's Telus Studio. TPE is sharing the stage with the Nu:BC Collective (flutist Paolo Bortolussi, cellist Eric Wilson, and pianist Corey Hamm), a trio that has been an ensemble-in-residence at UBC for the past decade.

Last night's performance opened with TPE presenting a lively septet by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. Nu:BC followed with a new arrangement of Ana Sokolović's Portrait Parle, a violin concerto transposed to the flute. As Bortolussi indicated in introducing the piece, this involved a bit of head-scratching, including how one plays the actual scratch of a string on a wind instrument. The first half of the program then concluded with the premiere of John Oliver's Cool Cut, a jazz concerto in five songs that saw TPE accompanying the solo alto saxophonist Julia Nolan. The quotations of Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life and Dave Brubeck's Take Five, among other jazz classics, were wonderfully accomplished, and it was a great to hear TPE's crackerjack musicians getting into the swing of things.

Following intermission, we were treated to two more premieres. The first, Dorothy Chang's Bagatelles, was a series of six short studies for Nu:BC, each exploring a different theme. Finally, Aaron Gervais's Break Up or Make Up pitted the Nu:BC and TPE ensembles against each other, albeit in a way that was less about who could dominate or subdue the other musically than about Gervais's own compositional battle with Lisztian Romanticism.

I actually lied when I opened this post by saying that this was the last concert of the season for TPE. In fact, the ensemble will be premiering a new cello concerto by TPE Artistic Director and Conductor Owen Underhill on the afternoon of June 5th at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. This will be followed by an exclusive wine tasting and reception featuring more music at L'Abattoir restaurant that will double as a fundraiser for TPE. More information and tickets can be found here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 14

Justine was in the studio with Jenn Goodwin and we had no interview scheduled, so Alexa and I took the opportunity to work on some of our scores.

Specifically, we paired some of the transition words from an earlier score I had created out of past reviews from this blog with some of the physical gestures Alexa has begun compiling from our video footage.

This is as far as we got:

Actually: Knuckles to lips; inhale; wipe hands across cheeks;

Still: Holding cup in left hand; look right; raise eyebrows; slight smile;

However: Leaning back in chair; twisting a pretend napkin; inhale;

But: Cross left leg over right; place palms on thighs; right hand to hairline; drawing fingers across forehead.

Not sure what, if anything, we'll do with this material, but it's sure fun to create. I don't think I'll look at adverbs in quite the same way ever again.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 13

Justine is super-busy with childcare and other commitments this week, so today it was just Alexa and I on hand to interview Deanna Peters. As usual, we began with our "So when did you come to/start dancing in Vancouver?" question; and, as usual, I learned something new from Deanna's response. In this case it was about the connection between the former dance program at what was then Grant Macewan College in Edmonton and the dance program at SFU. I had long known about the impressive roster of GMC alums in Vancouver (Molly McDermott, Kim Stevenson, Walter Kubanek, Carolyn Woods, to name just a few). But I had never known that there was a formal exchange between GMC and SFU, and that several folks who had started their training at GMC under Brian Webb, like Deanna, ended up graduating from SFU.

Not that the latter institutional fit was a great one, and Deanna talked frankly about her difficulties with the SFU dance curriculum as it then existed in the early 2000s. This was offset to a degree by some of the amazing professional opportunities that Deanna was able to take advantage of while still a student, including dancing for Paul-André Fortier, and in Bill Coleman's Grasslands, a large-scale, all-day site-specific work set in a national park in Deanna's home province of Saskatchewan that included collaborations from Margie Gillis, and Robin and Edward Poitras. It also required Deanna to set off, at the outset, on a one-kilometre long improvisation across the prairie grass, her body getting smaller and smaller as she receded into the horizon.

While Deanna's description of dancing in Alvin Tolentino's BODYGlass at Centre A was fascinating, I was most interested to hear Deanna talk about the mentorship she has received--as well as the occasional difficulties she has faced--in working with two "strong" women of Vancouver dance: Barbara Bourget and Jennifer Mascall. Barbara was one of Deanna's sessional instructors at SFU and invited her to join Kokoro as a result. Deanna said that she liked that, as the new person, she was never made to feel she had to earn her place, and that she was immediately given complex and challenging solos to perform. She also said that the experience of dancing for Barbara and Jay, so physically intense yet also so creatively rewarding, made her feel like she could do anything. Deanna also expressed gratitude for the many opportunities she has been given from Jennifer, from dancing to rehearsal directing to producing; at the same time, she was open about some of her problems, including around dancer safety, with Jennifer's process.

Mutable subject, which Deanna rightly insists is not a company, was born in 2008 when she needed a name for a presentation series she was putting together that included The Contingency Plan and The Story of Force in Motion. Deanna Peters Dance sounded too precious and also didn't seem to do justice to the range of creative practices and presentation platforms Deanna was becoming more involved in--including web design (which Deanna puts to great use on the wonderful ms site). The work Deanna has created under the Mutable Subject banner, including Cutaway and New Raw (which will tour to Toronto in August as part of SummerWorks), does seem to be a model for a more distributive and, in Deanna's words, "peer-to-peer" style of working, in which the process is as much about fostering lasting and mutually supportive creative and personal relationships as it is about making a piece.

And on this front Deanna is hopeful for the future of Vancouver dance. At the same time, she said that people can't just talk about the need for more of these kind of grassroots initiatives; resources need to be put behind them in order to challenge entrenched presentation models. It continues to be difficult for Deanna to find support to produce the kind of ensemble stage work that she is drawn to. Which does make one wonder: when a cast of four dancers is considered "large," something must be wrong.


Saturday, April 16, 2016

FUSE: This is Now at the VAG

I haven't been to a FUSE in a while and despite my difficulties in shaking this cold I'm currently battling, last night I made sure to haul myself to the latest iteration. This only partly had to do with getting a first glimpse of the current MashUp show on at the VAG--about which I have been hearing such wildly divergent things. (I'll have to go back more than once in the coming weeks to judge for myself.) I was mostly inspired by the fact that this latest iteration of FUSE was curated by Joyce Rosario, Associate Curator at the PuSh Festival. And that it featured some of my favourite local artists.

In "Backing it Up," Justine A. Chambers took the sometimes maligned, often overlooked role of the back-up dancer and moved it centre stage--or at least into a corner alcove on the second floor of the gallery, a nice bit of (de)focalization that hints at various overlapping ideas of recessiveness at play in this ubiquitous pop culture phenomenon. That is, the whole raison-d'être of back-up dancers is to recede into the distance; at the same time, no matter the dominant celebrity parent they are working for, there appears to be a standard repertoire of moves that they all inherit. Chambers plays with this by building her score on a basic step-touch sequence. To a loop of classic Motown tunes, a gaggle of Modus Operandi dancers shift their weight from one leg to the other and snap their fingers in time to the music, occasionally changing their facings and group formations. But then something far more interesting starts to happen: entropy inserts itself within this simple bit of unison. The automatic--and automaton-like--steps and snaps dissolve into a chaotic riot of off-beat tics and awkward, non-synchronous gestures, the various head shakes and eye rolls and face brushes refusing to be disciplined by an imposed technique of anonymous legibility, and imposing instead 20+ separate scores that say: "Look at me, see me, I am a body that matters--even here, in the back row."

Circling briefly around Natalie Gan's "Chinese Vaginies" (which already by 8:30 had a long waitlist), I made my way briefly to the third floor annex to take in Remy Siu's "New Eyes-Study #2," an impressive immersive installation of light and sound and smoke. Then it was up to the fourth floor for fellow Hong Kong Exile member Milton Lim's "okay.odd," an eye-popping and satirical video take on the practice of mindful meditation and linguistic free association.

I spent the most time in the adjacent rooftop pavilion, where the musician and DJ Kareem Abdul Jabaastard and the dance artist Deana Peters/Mutable Subject (together with friends, including Elissa Hanson and Kristina Lemieux and Alexa Mardon) were throwing a dance party called "This is Not a Performance!" With an amazing playlist of song mash-ups and an equally amazing view of the city, it was hard to resist this particular groove.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 12

Today we had MACHiNENOiSY's Daelik in the house, which was the first time in this process we've had a chance to interview the other half of a dance couple, our conversation with Delia Brett having taken place just over three weeks ago. While Delia let us know when she and Daelik started making work together, and when the company was officially incorporated, Daelik filled in some other crucial details. For example, he told us that the idea for the company was first born while Daelik was living in Berlin, and that initially he had thought it would be a project that moved between that city and Vancouver. He also said that the name of the company came from the title of a show that he made in 1997 or 1998 with Antonija Livingstone and Melissa Montgomery as part of the collective Trinkets and Atrocities. Among other things the show, which toured to Seattle, involved Antonija and Daelik eating cake on stage and then throwing up.

Amazingly, this is not the only show Daelik's been in that has involved a cake and someone being sick on stage (albeit in this case unintentionally). He recounted a fantastic story about a performance of Serge Bennathan's "When Grandmothers Fly Away" for Contemporary Dancers. He and Julia Aplin were guest artists in the show, and during this particular performance Julia had the flu; at the end of a solo Julia performs Daelik is meant to carry on a cake, whose candles Julia is supposed to blow out. Except on this evening she rushed to the side of the stage to puke instead. Someone behind Daelik whispered for him to "keep going," and from there it was a frenzy of improvising who does what and when--which included Daelik grabbing a mop and pretending that his cleaning up of Julia's vomit was part of the show.

Daelik suggested he has an uncanny ability to focus during a crisis, and from the stories he told I believe him. Some of these crises have been creative, such as the time when, two days before he was to premiere a work for five men at Dancing on the Edge, one of his dancers had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized; the piece became a quartet overnight. Other crises have been physical, like the time he tore the cartilage in his knee on stage, but kept going. Or an incident Alexa brought up from a story Daelik shared during one of his teaching stints at Modus: riding his bicycle and braking suddenly, Daelik flipped over his handle bars but somehow had enough presence of mind and, more to the point, awareness of his body moving through space, to miraculously land in a seated position on a nearby bench. As Daelik suggested, talking about another time when he intuitively negotiated a collapsing ladder and landed on his bum never the worse for wear, his extensive contact training has taught him not to fear falling and to work with, rather than against, gravity.

And speaking of contact, Daelik also told a moving story about his first professional job dancing for Peter Bingham at EDAM; the piece ended with a duet between himself and Susan Elliott, and on the last evening of the run he was so overcome by emotion that he burst into tears.

Looking to the future, Daelik is hopeful for the creative opportunities that will ideally emerge as a result of MACHiNENOiSY's shared space in Chinatown with plastic orchid factory and Tara Cheyenne Performance. Like Su-Feh last week, he's also heartened by the drive and intelligence and creative energy of the younger generation of dance artists currently making work in the city. As he put it, being an established professional who has slogged for so long in the wilderness of limited resources and indifferent attention, it's easy to be affronted by young upstarts who come along and say, "Whatever, we're going to put on a festival." But then you remember that you did the same thing once.


The Invisible Hand at The Cultch

When Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced played the Arts Club's Stanley Theatre last fall, I was nonplussed by the production and frankly perplexed as to all the critical kudos trailing the play--which seemed to me over-plotted and rife with cliches about Muslim-American men (you can read my review here). Now comes Pi Theatre's Canadian premiere of Aktar's follow-up drama, The Invisible Hand, which is on at The Cultch's Historic Theatre through April 23rd. I still think Akhtar has a problem with endings, with this one thrown at us like an abrupt cliff edge as opposed to Disgraced's overly tidy circularity. Nevertheless, I felt more invested in both the characters and the issues being explored in this play, which in its probing of the links between global finance and global terrorism and its distilling of the history and economics of a western country's involvement in a so-called "failed" Muslim state registered to me as Akhtar's theatrical attempt to do for Pakistan what Tony Kushner tried to take on with respect to Afghanistan in Homebody/Kabul. Then, again, maybe it's just that Akhtar is better at suspense than domestic melodrama.

The play opens with a quiet tableau whose visual juxtapositions are rife with meaning: a machine gun-toting Dar (played by Conor Wylie, who also appeared in the Arts Club production of Disgraced) is standing over a seated and handcuffed Nick (Craig Erickson, who is on stage for the entire length of the play). Dar holds Nick's raised hands in his, and at first it appears that the two might be praying together; instead the captor is merely cutting his prisoner's fingernails, which along with Erickson's growth of beard neatly telegraphs for the audience that Nick has been held for some time. Soon the two men fall into a stilted conversation, with Nick asking after Dar's mother; things get more animated, however, when Dar thanks Nick for some previous financial advice, which apparently allowed Dar to make a tidy profit on some stockpiled potatoes. However, the connection between the two men is sundered by the entrance of Bashir (Muish Sharma), who knows about Dar's transaction and is not happy about it, beating the younger and physically smaller man and accusing Nick of corrupting him with visions of the almighty American dollar.

For Nick, it turns out, is a futures trader at Citibank; he is being held prisoner after a bungled kidnapping (they were supposed to get Nick's boss). The $10 million ransom being demanded for his release has not yet been paid because, as Bashir explains, the leader of their organization, Imam Saleem (Shaker Paleja) has just been labeled a terrorist. But as Saleem puts it to Nick when he finally appears, he is not motivated by the religious extremism of either the Taliban or the even more militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi organization (the ones responsible for the execution of journalist Daniel Pearl). Instead, he is on a crusade to rid Pakistan of corruption, in part by circumventing the normal channels of government aid and finding a way to give money directly to those in his community most in need. This is where the play gets interesting. Recognizing that his captors no longer see him as an asset, Nick proposes to Saleem and Bashir that he be allowed to use his skills as a trader to raise the ransom himself, parlaying an initial input of capital from his personal offshore Cayman Island accounts into a stock portfolio that would see all profits going to the Imam in exchange for Nick's eventual release. Soon enough Bashir is seated behind a computer, with Nick advising him about "puts" and "options" and, above all, the sublime beauty of the short sell.

In these core scenes between Nick and Bashir, Akhtar certainly indulges in his obvious knowledge of economics. Nick, for example, schools Bashir in the intricacies of the Bretton-Woods agreement (upon which he wrote his senior Princeton thesis), which put in place the first global monetary system post-WW II by tying the currencies of independent nation-states to a gold standard backed by a fixed exchange rate of American dollars. Curiously, however, Akhtar leaves unstated the other part of the contemporary global financial equation, namely when Richard Nixon took the US dollar off the gold standard in 1971, an event that has allowed the US Federal Reserve to respond to perceived financial crises at home as it sees fit (by, for example, raising or lowering interest rates, or printing more money). However, Nixon's move also paved the way for unscrupulous traders on Wall Street to short investors on Main Street (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, anyone?), as well as to take advantage of unstable situations abroad by buying up worthless stocks and properties and converting everything into American dollars--what has come to be known (after Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine and other texts) as "disaster capitalism." We see precisely this intersection of the "free market" and political crisis play out when, having been tipped off that the Minister of the Interior will be the target of violence, Nick has Bashir buy up various water-related stocks and then sell them as the price begins to fall. In these scenes, which sometimes become a little talky, Sharma and Erickson display an easy chemistry mixed with the heady intoxication of profit, like they are old bros bonding over a bet they have just won--in this case one worth $700,000.

Things take a twist in the second act when, having attempted a bold escape, Nick is now tied to a ball and chain, albeit in far posher digs (the wonderful set is by David Roberts, who almost does as good a job here as Drew Facey, who designed Pi's Jessie Award-winning production of Blasted last season). He and Bashir are still working together and still reeling in the profits, with Bashir now a seasoned trader savvy to the ups and downs of the market. Indeed, having been alerted by Nick at the end of the first act about Saleem's suspicious personal withdrawals from their accounts, Bashir appears to be putting in place a set of contingency plans as the $10 million benchmark for Nick's release approaches. Meanwhile Saleem also returns to warn Nick of the consequences should he be plotting some sort of double cross with Bashir. And all the while the American drones are getting closer and closer. It is to Akhtar's credit that he keeps us guessing until the end about who is most playing whom among this triumvirate. And the ending, as clunkily as it arrives, is thematically satisfying, if only for the way in which it shows us how well Bashir has absorbed Nick's lessons.

Under the direction of Richard Wolfe, the play steadily accrues tension and depth, and the scene transitions are additionally enhanced by the amazing vocalizations of Fathieh Honari (Chris Grdina is responsible for the music; the sound effects are by Christopher Kelly). Wolfe also elicits terrific performances from the entire cast, especially Sharma and Erickson. Sharma is a big man and he plays on that physicality by taking up and claiming space--including, in one especially funny scene, Nick's bed. Sharma also manages to convey in his lower class English accent and his violent temper how much of his character's extremist politics are grounded in the racism and poverty he experienced growing up in Houndswell, outside of London. Erickson negotiates Nick's transitions between fearful vulnerability and blustery bravado with tremendous skill. No matter the life and death situation he is in, Nick can't help succumbing to the addictive lure of the next trade--which is often where capitalism and terrorism fatefully (and often fatally) intersect.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2010): Post 11

Yesterday battery opera's Lee Su-Feh stopped by the sixth floor offices of The Dance Centre to chat with Justine, Alexa and I. She talked about coming to Vancouver in 1988 as a landed immigrant and that one of the first shows she saw was a piece by  Peter Bingham featuring Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras. That combination alone seems kinaesthetically perplexing, although I do know that Noam and Dana first met taking class with Peter at EDAM. However, what Su-Feh remembers most about the show was that while thematically it was supposed to be about conflict, she registered the exact opposite from the dancers' bodies. As she put it, she left the show thinking, "Wow, people are really happy here!"

Before forming battery opera with David McIntosh in 1995, Su-Feh created her own work (including her first piece in Vancouver, Tiger), and it was while presenting a couple of her solos at Dancing on the Edge that she met Anne Troake, who asked her to join D.U.C.K., or Daring Unknown Choreographers Kollective. Su-Feh then recounted the story behind a piece in which DUCK stopped folks on the street and asked them what they'd like to see in a dance show; they put every suggestion into the show. But at the end of the piece there is a moment in which the women dancers insert clothes hangars underneath their tops, deftly removing them to reveal the word "Mine" written across their backs. On the first evening they performed the piece, December 5, 1989, the moment received huge laughs. But on the second evening, with the news of the massacre at École polytechnique fresh in everyone's minds, there was nothing but silence.

Su-Feh also talked about dancing for Pipo Damiano and Susan Elliott in their company Frozen Eye, which when Susan took over its sole direction morphed into Anatomica. She was also in a piece that Cornelius Fischer-Credo made for Dancecorps based on the story of Joan of Arc; Su-Feh wore a nun's habit and walked around the studio with a television monitor strapped to her belly--and from which glowed the saintly image of Jean Seberg. The nun's habit, together with the red dress at the heart of Su-Feh's three-part solo, The Character of Dubious Morality, definitely has to become part of our costume repertoire.

In talking about dance moments that have stood out for her, Su-Feh focused on Spektator (2003) as a highlight for battery opera. An intensely physical work built around different bloodsports, including cock fighting, the piece features some very complicated rule-based scores of combat. By the intermission the piece's first audiences were in a frenzy, placing bets on which dancer would win. At the end, with a winner declared and his foe "dead" beside him on the stage, the audience leapt to its feet in wild applause. It was the "woo-woo" moment that Su-Feh said she'd always wanted for battery opera--whose work up until that point had mostly met with polite confusion. However, the Spektator ensemble couldn't bask in the moment because they deliberately forsook a bow at the end of the show.

Incidentally, in what forms part of another eery accident of timing in Su-Feh's dance career, battery opera first presented a portion of Spektator outside The Dance Centre on 9/11.

Towards the end of the interview, in reflecting on why she has stayed in Vancouver, and on what the future of Vancouver dance holds, Su-Feh said that having come to the city for love, it is now the place to which she is most connected in the world. And that, she elaborated, is because of the relationships she has formed here, which precisely because they require constant work and collaboration become a form of choreography. As for the future, Su-Feh said she's less interested in dance per se, than in bodies. And precisely because of Vancouver's unsettled colonial history and its links to resource extraction, among other fraught practices of place, thinking choreographically about how bodies are connected to larger pressing planetary questions means that this city becomes an interesting lab and a potential microcosm for how to be globally, and how to move together locally.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

Companhia Urbana de Dança at the Playhouse

The latest season of DanceHouse concluded last night at the Playhouse with a presentation of two works by the Rio-based company Companhia Urbana de Dança--in their Canadian debut no less. Led by Artistic Director and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie (who, judging by the final moments of the pre-show talk, is a force of nature), the company combines hip-hop with contemporary and Afro-Brazilian social dance forms, creating a hybrid style that is reflective of the mixed backgrounds of its eight core members, all of whom have grown up in the favelas of Rio.

The evening opened with ID: Entidades, which in its structure, isolation of individual movement patterns, and sparse use of music, almost struck me as a formalist study of the fusion of hip hop and contemporary dance technique. The piece begins with the eight dancers (seven men and one woman) sitting on the floor in a line upstage, elbows on knees, like they are on a break in the studio and waiting to be called upon to try out some new combination of choreography. One of them gets up and advances towards a waist-high beam of soft light emanating from the wings; he begins to slowly undulate his head and torso as he moves horizontally across the stage. Because it is hard to see the lower half of his body, it is as if he is floating magically in space, or bobbing on the surface of water. Eventually the other dancers will arise from their sedentary positions and advance toward the audience, each of them also showcasing what impossibly fluid things they can do with their apparently boneless bodies: an arm wave that ripples back and forth like a snapped elastic band; a slow back bend in which the dancer's head almost reaches the floor before an elbow emerges for support; a handstand and leg freeze that is held for what feels like a full minute. Suspension has always been a key element of hip hop--the ability of b-boys and girls, in the midst of their pyrotechnic freestyle routines to hold a position for just a beat longer than seems humanly possible, or to pop, float, slide and glide their liquid limbs and bodies as if attached to invisible strings. But in slowing things down even further, Destri Lie also shows how such moves overlap with many release-based currents in postmodern dance, the troubling of poles between verticality and low-to-the-ground, balance and asymmetry being common to both styles. Indeed, at moments during several of the partnering sequences in ID I was almost reminded of contact improvisation. And in perhaps my favourite section of the entire work, a deconstructed trio featuring explosive unison downrock footwork punctuated by the occasional hand spin, airflare and leg freeze, the dancers' turned backs during the occasional pauses in the routine suggested to me a similar eschewing of a virtuosic presentational style in much contemporary dance.

Not that Companhia Urbana de Dança isn't above shamelessly playing to its audience, as was demonstrated by the second piece on the program, Na Pista. This work, which the program note explains was born from each dancer's investigation of his or her roots, begins with several members of the company entering from the audience, all nattily dressed, exuberantly shouting at each other, and seemingly pumped to party. On stage, which is open to the back safety wall and wings, a cluster of chairs is positioned in the centre, underneath a disco ball. One of the dancers calls to the DJ for some music and the men begin busting some moves in a circle around the chairs. The music stops suddenly and everyone scrambles to find a seat, with one in their lot laughingly out of luck. He removes one of the chairs and himself upstage and the game of musical chairs continues in this manner until there are only two dancers and one chair remaining. Except our expectation that a winner will emerge from this pair is thwarted when, after some cat and mouse house jiving around the chair that begins to escalate in the scale of displayed power moves, the rest of the crew, cheering from the sidelines, decides to join in and a running circle around the chair begins. It's at this point that the lone female member of the company emerges from the wings, joins the circle and, of course, secures ownership of the chair when the music finally stops. Na Pista takes its joyful energy and ethos from the idea of what it means to be part of a dance crew, in which cooperation and competition go hand in hand. Thus, the dancers work together seamlessly from the upstage chorus line of chairs to create amazing unison movement (which includes perfectly synchronized breaks to sip from their water bottles). But they also get to bust out individually to showcase their own signature styles, or to have friendly dance offs in pairs. It's a combination that is hard to resist and at the conclusion of the piece the audience was instantly on its feet, a mutual love fest that was rewarded with a bonus bit of b-boying as the company took its bows.