Sunday, August 20, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina, Part 1 at SFU Woodward's and Vines Art Festival at Trout Lake

I couldn't attend yesterday's counter-demonstration protesting the gathering organized by the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam at City Hall because I had committed to previous plans. However, it seemed appropriate, given the WCAI organizers' base dissembling that their quarrels with Islam were cultural and not racist, that my plans involved an engagement with different forms of free cultural expression that were in direct dialogue with their environments.

My first stop was the atrium at SFU Woodward's. There, starting at 2 pm (and then again at 3 pm), Kokoro Dance presented a free showing of the first half of their reworked Embryotrophic Cavatina, which will have its full-length premiere at the Roundhouse September 20-29. The genesis of the piece dates back to 1998, when Kokoro founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi created the first iteration of the work for themselves and dancers Ziyian Kwan and Michael Whitfield. They then reworked it a year later into a shorter 30-minute piece that was performed at Dancing on the Edge with the same company; this version featured as a musical score the first half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend, written as a tribute to the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, with whom Preisner had collaborated on the Three Colours trilogy. Last year, Barbara and Jay remounted this second version of EC on twenty dancers from Danza Teatro Retazos in Havana. It was at that time that they got the idea to revisit the piece a fourth time, choreographing a new second half that would accompany the remainder of Preisner's album.

We'll have to wait until September to see what that looks like. But yesterday interested audience members were offered a glimpse of the original 1999 version of EC, with dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski joining Bourget and Hirabayashi to round out the quartet. Performed in the circle of the basketball court between London Drugs and Nester's Market, and with Preisner's music issuing clearly and pristinely from two speakers, the piece seemed expressly designed for this space. Likewise the match between choreography and music. In its elegiac tempo, simple harmonies and showcasing of the soprano voice, Preisner's Requiem put me in mind of fellow Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Except whereas Górecki's work is a slow and steady build to a haunting emotional lament, Preisner's work features more tonal peaks and valleys. Bourget and Hirabayashi play with this in terms of the way they contrast bodies crumpling in on themselves (splayed knees and twisted lower legs; bent backs; hands thrust backwards between thighs) with movement that extends horizontally and vertically into space (a simple reach outward from the torso of one arm and the tracing of the other up the length of this proffered limb; or the joyous leap into and catching of air that comes with Kokoro's trademark ecstasy jumps). The intervals between the Requiem's movements, and especially the soprano parts (e.g. from the Kyrie Eleison to the Dies Irae), also give the dancers ample opportunity to explore that quintessential butoh element of ma, the gap or pause or negative space between different structural parts. Kokoro is expert at expanding our sense of time: by sustaining our interest in a held pose (the opening butoh-at-rest position: bent knees, shoulders soft, eyes staring off into the distance); by forcing a perceptual recalibration through a barely registered shift in our attention (when, in the course of said pose, four heads slowly start to turn to the left); by isolating our focus on the seemingly smallest part of a dancer's body (for me it was a wagging index finger near the end of this showing). All of these actions that look like inaction, these doings that simultaneously undo our expectations about what should happen next, or what even constitutes movement, encourages even greater contemplation in the audience. To the point that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing happening all around me in the Woodward's atrium, my attention was never less than riveted on the dancers in front of me.

After the Kokoro performance I hopped on my bike and cycled over to Trout Lake to take in some of the main "earthstage" shows at this year's Vines Art Festival. The festival was started by Artistic Director Heather Lamoureux in 2015 with two aims: to make contemporary performance more accessible by siting it in a public park (and making it free); and to promote environmental awareness by showcasing work that responds to its natural setting and that is engaged with themes of climate activism and sustainability. The 2015 festival, a one-day event in Trout Lake, mounted with a budget raised solely through door-to-door fundraising by Heather, was a huge success. In 2016 the festival not only attracted major corporate and government sponsors, but it also expanded to four days and multiple sites, with events taking place at Hadden Park in Kits Beach, Pandora Park on the East Side, Maclean Park in Strathcona, and its mainstage site of Trout Lake. This year Heather has grown the festival even further, expanding events to ten days and spreading them across seven Vancouver parks.

However, the main event continues to be the culminating day-long series of performances, workshops and installations at Trout Lake Park. Unfortunately, this year my timing was not so great. I arrived too late to take in Robert Leveroos and Isabelle Kirouac's Alien Forms, and only caught the tail end of Meegin Pye's Boxed In (which seemed to be about homelessness and housing affordability). I did catch the Blue Cedar Stage set of the Son Bohemio trio, who were back again this year with their mix of Argentinian folk songs. And I stuck around long enough to see and hear A Complicated Intelligence, a collaborative sound installation-cum-interactive performance by Stefan Smulovitz, Lara Amelie Abadir, Dave Biddle and beekeeper Andrew Scott. Learning about how bees communicate with each other (by vomiting into each other's mouths) and deal with genetic diversity (by cannibalizing eggs deemed insufficiently heterogeneous) was all I needed as a capstone to how art can trump the rhetoric of white supremacy.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 36

Earlier this afternoon I found myself perched on the beautiful back deck of Wen Wei Wang, interviewing him about his dance history. It began at the age of six in Communist China when, having seen a performance of the revolutionary model opera White Haired Girl, Wang decided he wanted to become a dancer. His parents were less than pleased, but when he later auditioned and was accepted to the army art school in his home province, they relented; becoming a company member and then a soloist of a dance company within a military academy was somehow acceptable. During this time, Wang had already started choreographing, even winning a major televised dance competition in 1987 for a duet, Love Song, that he had co-choreographed and performed with a fellow company member.

Having been accepted into a prestigious choreographic program in Beijing in 1989, Wang left before completing the program in order to attend a summer dance intensive at SFU in 1991. His trip was sponsored by Grant Strate, who would end up becoming Wang's life partner. Almost immediately after completing the SFU residency, Wang was hired by Judith Marcuse. From there he went on to become a company member of Ballet BC, where, but for a brief stint with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, he remained until 2000. In 2003, he formed his own company, immediately garnering acclaim for highly theatrical works that mixed Western and Asian dance traditions.

Wang's most recent full-length work for his own company, Dialogue, premiered this past May at the Dance Centre (see my review here). It will be remounted as part of this year's Dance in Vancouver biennial, where it will coincide with the unveiling of our own Vancouver Dance Histories project. I feel like we still have so much work to do--and interviews to collect. But slowly things are coming together, and I can't wait to get back into the studio with Justine and Alexa to brainstorm further some of our ideas for making sense (and nonsense) of the tangled web of connections we've been unraveling over the past two years.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the Next Room at the Jericho Arts Centre

Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is a strange work of theatre. Paradoxically, had it been even stranger--that is, had the playwright found a way both in content and form to match her provocative subject matter to a more radical and intersectional feminist/queer politics--the play might have been successful. But after first appearing to mock them, Ruhl instead opts to embrace the conventions of the nineteenth-century drawing room comedy, including its bourgeois hetero-patriarchal ending. This results in a play that veers wildly in its tone and that ends up reinscribing the very domestic structures--not least the whole idea of the family itself--it appears to be questioning. Director Keltie Forsyth, overseeing Ensemble Theatre Company's production of the play, which runs in repertory as part of their annual summer theatre festival until August 17, does her best to navigate these swings, but notwithstanding some fine performances and compelling dramatic moments, this staging leaves me flummoxed as to why the play (which ran on Broadway and was nominated for a handful of Tony awards) has garnered so much critical praise.

At the centre of the play, which is set in the late 1800s, just after the dawn of electricity, is Catherine Givings (Lindsay Nelson), an upper-middle-class woman in New York who is frustrated by the inattention of her husband, Dr. Givings (Sebastain Kroon), and also by her inability to breastfeed her newborn daughter. Dr. Givings' speciality is treating female hysteria and as a result of Edison's discovery of electrical current, Givings has found a sure-fire way to cure his patients: by applying a vibratory pulse to their pubic areas, which is supposed to relieve the pressure upon their wombs and restore them to a more contemplative mood. Thus does Ruhl introduce the conceit contained in the parenthesis of her play's title by anchoring her plot in actual history. Catherine, listening to her husband treat Mrs. Daldry (an excellent Christine Reinfort) "in the next room," becomes intrigued by her cries of pleasure and after forming a friendship with the woman over the course of successive visits (and also after sneaking into her husband's operating room and testing the machine on herself), Catherine convinces Mrs. Daldry that they should compare their respective responses to the vibrating machine's stimulus. But by this point we have learned that Mrs. Daldry much prefers the manual stimulation of Dr. Givings' assistant, Annie (Alexis Kellum-Creer), whose physiological and emotional attentions she finds much more satisfying than those of her husband (an incredibly stiff David Wallace).

Added to this mix are two sub-plots. The first concerns a black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Mariam Barry, playing the character's suffering of numerous racist slights with just the right mix of dignity and quietly contained rage), hired to tend to the Givings' baby. The second involves a worldly painter, Leo Irving (Francis Winter), who has come to Dr. Givings for his own treatment for male hysteria (cue the vibrating anal probe). Catherine and Leo enjoy a brief flirtation that succeeds in arousing the jealousy of Dr. Givings; however, Leo only has eyes for Elizabeth. All of this culminates in a clumsy denouement that leaves no one happy except the white bourgeois heterosexual professional couple, who rediscover their passion for each other (and, it turns out, the sudden obsolescence of Dr. Givings' machine) by making love in the snow. To be sure, in this scene it is Catherine who takes control of the lovemaking, undressing her husband and making his nude body an object of erotic display. But the fact that she ends up on top in the play's concluding tableau does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that earlier in the second act the same-sex possibilities that Ruhl telegraphs in Mrs. Daldry and Annie's one shared kiss are shut down immediately and with absolute finality as soon as the two women break off from their lip-lock: "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again," Mrs. Daldry states to Annie as she moves with purpose towards the door. Similarly, the implicit critique of white liberal feminism that Ruhl seems to be embedding in her script via her suggestion that first wave suffrage in America depended on the labour of black women's bodies gets muddied by having the relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth triangulated through a man, and a rather caricatured cad at that.

I should emphasize that I see these problems as intrinsic to the structure of the play, not as symptomatic of specific choices made in this production. Indeed, given my misgivings (forgive the pun) about the play's politics, I think that Forsyth has done a remarkable job in spotlighting multiple connections between the women characters in particular, ones that suggest possible alternative outcomes for them all. On the topic of lighting, however, the dimming and raising of the lights every time Catherine turned off or on her newfangled electric lamp drove me a bit batty. As did the rickety door between the living room and Dr. Givings' operating theatre. However, Julie White's costumes were a marvel of period detail. Indeed, the successive scenes of Mrs. Daldry undressing and dressing with Annie's assistance before and after her treatments distilled for me into a wordless pantomime much that this play was trying to say about female repression and empowerment.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wreck Beach Butoh 2018

Owing to unexpected summer teaching commitments, I was unable to participate in Kokoro Dance's annual Wreck Beach Butoh process. This was disappointing, as I had hoped to make it three years in a row. That said, I did drop in on a couple of free morning classes down at KW Studios over the past two weeks, and so I got a glimpse of what Barbara and Jay were putting together this year. I also got to say hello to some of WBB's returning crew: Tuan and Keith and Bronwyn and Leslie and Noriko and Yvonne. It was a kick to be dancing in KW's new atrium studio, as we had a built-in audience from everyone who happened to be hanging out or wandering through the basketball courts at SFU Woodward's.

This morning, I made my way to Wreck Beach to see the weekend's final performance. I'd told Barbara that I would volunteer to carry one of Kokoro's red donation buckets, and also to police anyone trying to take photos. I proved to be a surprisingly good enforcer on both counts. Otherwise, I just generally enjoyed being a spectator, which I admit meant indulging in some relief at not having to go into and (even worse) get out of the water this year: though the sun was out and things got progressively warmer as the performance went on, there was a strong wind throughout.

There was some repeat choreography that I recognized: the pirate laughs and the tick tock walk and the ecstasy jumps, for example. But the core of this year's work was a central section that involved the dancers torquing their torsos toward the sun and gently turning in the breeze, and then drawing one arm up the other and across the face in a sequence that initiates a danced exploration of the senses. It was quite moving and tender to watch, especially in the way that the dancers moved into and out of unison. However, there was also some cheekiness--quite literally--as Barbara led the dancers in a group ass grab and wiggle directed at the audience.

The start of each WBB is always memorable, and this year I was struck by the fact that the slow and sensuously gestural unison walk toward the water by the clustered group of white painted dancers was accompanied by a chorus of sounds. Various other whoops and caws recurred throughout the piece, but this opening sequence of movement and sound was especially unique.

One final thing I noted was the way in which I was able to anticipate the directional flow of much of the choreography. To be sure, Barbara and Jay generally begin with a southward trajectory along the beach following the dancers' emergence from the water, before doubling back on themselves. However, I also think my instinctive knowledge of when and where to walk contained within it residual kinetic memories of having danced in previous WBB performances. Whatever the case, it was a nice feeling to have.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 35

Earlier this afternoon Kim Stevenson dropped by my SFU Woodward's office to share with me her Vancouver dance history. Like Molly McDermott and Deanna Peters and others, Kim came to the dance program at SFU via Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, where she was heavily influenced by the teaching and mentorship of Brian Webb and Heidi Bunting. Arriving at SFU in 2005, Kim immediately connected with the aesthetic of my colleague, Rob Kitsos, and post-graduation she has continued to dance regularly for him--most recently in Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival (about which I have blogged in greater detail here).

In addition to apprenticing with and dancing for the likes of Susan Elliott and Barbara Bourget and Serge Bennathan, Kim also joined with Molly, Cort Gerlock, Roxoliana Prus, and Ellen Luchkow to form the collective The Story of Force in Motion, commissioning work from Deanna Peters, Heidi Bunting, Shauna Elton, and also creating their own work. Most recently Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg has been a major influence on the direction of Kim's career. After appearing briefly in an excerpt of Highgate at Dance in Vancouver several years ago, Kim apprenticed with Tara as part of the process for Porno Death Cult. And she has been part of all three versions of How to Be: at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island; at Dancing on the Edge a couple of years ago; and at the premiere of the full version of the work at the Cultch this past April. While I couldn't see the latter version, I have closely watched the evolution of this piece and I told Kim that her facility with text and movement was just amazing to watch, and also that her humour just slayed me. Interestingly, Kim said that she'd never been more terrified performing before, but that the process had also liberated something in her regarding the combination of text and movement and that there is talk of working with Tara in the future on a solo for Kim.

In the meantime, Kim is busy with running her own dance studio, The Happening, on Fraser Street. As Kim put it to me, she has always enjoyed teaching, and at a certain point decided that if she wanted to remain in Vancouver and have any kind of lifestyle to speak of that she needed to find a supplement to her life as a pick-up professional dancer--and ideally one that didn't involving serving at a restaurant. It's been a huge and at times scary undertaking, but four years in the move seems to be paying off. Kim is just about to expand her space with a second, adjacent studio and has hired Natalie LeFebvre Gnam to teach the students ballet. The goal is to get to a place where Kim can hire more additional instructors and leave the day-to-day operations of the studio to others, while she pursues a parallel performance and choreographic career.

I was immensely happy to hear that, because we need performers as talented and charismatic as Kim to continue to appear on our stages. And we also need her mentoring the next generation of dance bunnies.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Edge 7 at DOTE

Dancing on the Edge Festival's Edge 7 program is made up of two works-in-progress that, in their full iterations, should be back at the Firehall soon. UNTITLEDdiSTANCE is a collaboration between dance artists Emmalena Fredriksson and Arash Khakpour. Based on their common, but also very different, immigrant experiences, the work opens with the artists addressing the audience in Swedish and Farsi, respectively, before segueing into the mutual instruction and execution of a floor sequence that provides them--and us--with an entree into a shared language of movement. That language is largely contact-based and in between giving and taking each other's weight and limbs in the next section, they each narrate their experiences of being othered--because of the way they look, or how they speak--in their adopted home of Vancouver. Not that the work is all about warm and fuzzy support. Indeed, the rest of the piece plays out as a series of increasingly high stakes games in which, for example, one performer, seated in front of a computer, will ask the other an impossible to answer question ("Do you feel more eastern or western?" "Would you kill a cat for a million dollars?") that s/he must respond to during an improvised solo, the movement choices of which are then interpreted and projected for us by the seated interlocutor through Google translate. In this way, and throughout the piece more generally, Fredriksson and Khakpour cannily combine language and movement to show that no matter how we position ourselves, we must always negotiate that position in relation to others--and also that, as in this case, part of that negotiation is developing a shared sense of trust.

An excerpt from Contes Cruels, by Les Productions Figlio's Serge Bennathan, was the second piece on the program. A full-length version of the work will premiere at the Firehall next May and seems to build on Bennathan's earlier Just Words. As in that work, Contes Cruels combines poetic text by the choreographer with original music by Bertrand Chénier to work through a near-death experience. However, here Bennathan has expanded his roster of dancers, with Josh Martin and Molly McDermott joining Hilary Maxwell and Karissa Barry in a quartet that sometimes moves in regimented response to and ethereally against the choreographer's onstage commands. Bennathan's repeated prompts of "Blackout" and "Lights up" late in the piece serve as an especially apt metaphor not just for a physical resurrection, but also for artistic reinvention. In this respect, Martin, who takes over some of the text early in the piece, is clearly meant to be Bennathan's dance double, or avatar, and the women his trio of muses, with their frequent blind but powerhouse leaps into space, or their held poses and offstage looks into the distance, incarnating for us what it means to embrace the unknown.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 34

Earlier this afternoon I interviewed Lara Barclay for our Vancouver Dance Histories project. I got to know Lara while participating as one of the community dancers on the PuSh Festival presentation of Sylvain Émard's Le Grand Continental, for which she served as rehearsal director. Since that time I have enjoyed watching her perform in work by Jennifer Mascall and Vanessa Goodman, among other local choreographers. And yet while Lara grew up and began her dance training in Port Moody, most of her adolescence was spent studying at the National Ballet School in Toronto, where, as she put it, she was always the tallest girl in the class (and frequently taller than her male partners as well). Following graduation from NBS, Lara won a scholarship to study in Europe, and she ended up in Hamburg, taking class and studying with John Neumeier. Her first company job, however, was in the northern port city of Kiel, Germany, where she danced repertoire that included works by Johann Kresnik and Martin Stiefermann. While in Europe, Lara also took class with Bill Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt and workshops with Frey Faust and Lloyd Newson. As she put it to me, it was in Europe that she discovered a whole other world of dance--and also that ballet was, quite literally, not ever going to be the right dance fit for her.

Following this initial stint in Germany, Lara moved back to Toronto to take up a position with Toronto Dance Theatre, where she remained for three years, dancing in works by Christopher House and James Kudelka, and also reconnecting with mentor Peggy Baker, who first taught her modern dance at NBS. Dominque Dumais and Kevin O'Day, who were just starting up a new company in Mannheim, lured Lara back to Germany, but it was in 2006--following a soccer-themed gig during the world-cup with Brazilian-based choreographer Deborah Colker--that Lara and her husband made the big move back to Vancouver. This coincided with the birth of Lara's first daughter and a slight shift in focus to teaching (with Monica Proença, Lara is the co-founder of the Lamondance Company, a pre-professional training program in North Vancouver). However, very soon after arriving back in the Vancouver area, Josh Beamish asked Lara to work with Move: the company. And then, in 2012, came a transformative collaboration with Aszure Barton, who invited Lara to be part of the creative process that led to Awaa, a piece about motherhood and masculine-feminine relations that I remember seeing at the Chutzpah! Festival, and in which Lara is the lone female dancer among a cast of six other male dancers. Lara continues to tour the piece in slightly different iterations to this day (including an upcoming stint next month in LA), and she said that working with Barton taught her to discover patience on stage.

Lara ended our interview by saying this is a transformative time in her career. She's recently had surgery on her right foot, which has meant making certain adjustments in her dancing. As she framed things, aging as a dancer means you have to become better at listening to your body, and also choosing work that pertains to what it is that you are still able to do to the best of your abilities, and without fear of injury. Lara is also interested in moving into the area of expressive arts therapy, and she and her family are contemplating a move back to Germany. If and when this happens, I will be sad to have Lara leave the Vancouver dance community. In the immediate future, however, I can look forward to seeing Lara (alongside VDH co-conspirator Alexa Mardon) once again in the full-length premiere this fall of Vanessa Goodman's Wells Hill.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Edge 2 at DOTE

Last evening's Edge 2 program at the Dancing on the Edge Festival was an immensely satisfying mix of very different, but equally strong, short works. Natasha Bakht's Blessed Unrest, a solo danced by Monica Shah, led things off. Bakht, who just happens to have a side gig as an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa (!), is trained in bharatannatyam, and in this work she gives the classical Indian form a contemporary twist, not least through her choice of music. In the first and most extended section, Shah's intricate footwork, knee bends and hand gestures are performed to a bracingly fast piano composition by Alexander MacSween, and are additionally set against a projected backdrop of the blankly white looped end of a film reel. However, at a certain point the piano music cuts out, an inky black projection of what looks like a river bed comes up, and Shah slows things way down. Indeed, this section begins with the dancer splaying the toes on her right foot in such an unhurried yet utterly compelling way that I would have been content to watch this one gesture for the rest of the piece. In this fusion of tempos and tones, Bakht shows that contemporary Indian dance is as exciting and complexly varied as any western concert dance form.

An excerpt from Jennifer Mascall's work-in-progress, Quartet, was shown next. Mascall, subbing for Vanessa Goodman, served as on-stage intermediary for the audience, announcing from a downstage right stool that what we were watching was a lecture-demonstration about a process concerning what we know, and what we don't know. An exploration of voice as much as movement, dancers Anne Cooper, Eloi Homier and Walter Kubanek sing, grunt, breathe, and speak with varying degrees of intelligibility, while simultaneously and/or in counterpoint interposing their bodies between or alongside each other. Within these circuits of vocal and kinetic communication, the performers are variously in and out of sync with each other, Homier's off-beat syncopation in a tap sequence, for example, or his slightly different tonal inflections in a virtuoso grunting session with Cooper and Kubanek, indicative of the ways in which sense-making is inherently sensual. As slyly funny as it is sharply intelligent, this excerpt is hopefully the first of many iterations of Quartet.

Finally, demonstrating that she can go compositionally maximalist when she wants to, Yvonne Ng, whose spare autobiographical solo is also included in this year's Edge 1 program, serves up a boldly expressive (and even expressionist) trio with her excerpt of Zhōng Xīn. Superbly danced by Mairéad Filgate, Irvin Chow and Luke Garwood to a booming score by Max Richter, the work plays out, on one level, as a love triangle in which none of the points can connect. Indeed, it was surprising to me just how little actual partnering there was in the piece. Instead, like sub-atomic particles colliding in space, the dancers are as repelled as they are attracted by each other's energy, and the moments that registered most powerfully for me were the ones in which each performer obsessively repeated a gestural or movement pattern in his or her own isolated world: Filgate, otherwise standing still, windmilling her arms wildly in the air; Chow running from point to point on the floor like he is playing tag with himself; and Garwood, at both the top and the end of the show, waving his hands in front of his face. As with the excerpt from Quartet, what Ng showed here only wets one's appetite for more.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Edge 1 at DOTE

The offerings in the 2017 Dancing on the Edge Festival's first mixed program, Edge 1, were, well, mixed. Reversing the order in the printed program, the first piece presented was local choreographer Chick Snipper's Phasmida & Scorpiones: a study. Performers Jess Ames and Julianne Chapple wear matching coral-coloured lyotards with cross-hatched stitching on the backs, and also black leggings. While one of the dancers lies supine on the floor upstage right, with one hand stretched above her head, the other moves out of a lunge she is holding centre stage and into a deep plie, the first phase in her own eventual trajectory floorwards. Here she will begin a series of crawling patterns across the stage, her body low to the floor, her arms outstretched and bent at the elbows, feet flexed: in other words, an approximation of the morphology of the predatory arachnids in Snipper's title. By contrast, the other dancer's orbit is upwards, her physical vocabulary and locomotion more vertical, with her limbs tending towards a series of extensions: and thus do we discover (with the aid of a bit of post-show Googling) that phasmida are a class of stick-like insects. Of course, arachnid and insect must meet, and in Snipper's study they do so twice: once on the floor, rolling onto and over each other in some contact-inspired phrasing; and once while standing, leaning into each other's chests, entwining their arms, syncing two of their knees together, and beginning an approximation of a slow, three-legged walk upstage. I'm not sure if this meant that the scorpion wins out over the phasmid, but it did register to me as one more way in which this piece was a bit too literal and representational in the physical phrasing it was deploying.

Representational gestures also figured in Yvonne Ng's Weave ... part one, a solo in which she tells the story of her mother's complicated patrimony through speech and movement. However, for every rocking back and forth of Ng's arms to indicate a swaddling baby there was also a through-line bodily grammar of more formally repetitive and non-expressive gestural sequences, the patterning of Ng's limbs, when combined with her talk, putting me in mind of the mathematically-inflected work of Sarah Chase. Additionally layered over top of this is a meta-commentary in which every so often Ng will comment on either the appropriateness or the ridiculousness of the particular movement she is executing. The approach works, and not just because the petite Ng, artistic director of the Toronto-based tiger princess dance projects, is such a charismatic performer. The combination of deconstructed formalism and emotional lyricism captures the complicated story of Asian feminine identity that Ng is trying to tell, which we discover is as much about finding an anchor for herself where her mother had none.

Last on the program was Tedd Robinson's Logarian Rhapsody, a commission for the Winnipeg-based dance artist Alexandra Elliott. A duet that Elliott dances with Ian Mozden, it begins with the performers whispering offstage. Eventually they enter, their eyes rimmed in black kohl, and dressed like lounge singers from the 1970s in white leisure suits. Mozden appears to be holding some orb-like object in one hand. That object turns out to be a green apple and via snippets of the live whispering of the dancers, and also via the voiceover that eventually joins this whispering, we learn that both dancers wish to eat the apple. However, it takes a very long time for either of them to do so, and first we must cycle through a series of anticipatory tableaux: Mozden coming downstage to show us the apple and comment on how desirously delicious it looks; Elliott placing the apple on Mozden's shoulder for them and us to admire, or be in fearsome awe of; Elliott and Mozden trading the apple back and forth; Elliott rolling the apple on the floor; and so on. We go through variations of this sequence many, many times, and while I normally find Robinson's conceptual imagination highly engaging, here the conceit felt tedious. Adam and Eve: we get it. Just someone please bite the apple already. Spoiler alert: they both eventually do so, and the choreographic effect is decidedly anti-climactic. There is, however, a final saving grace: a fantastic lighting cue to end the piece.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Beijing Modern Dance Company at DOTE

The 29th edition of the Dancing on the Edge Festival (DOTE) kicked off last night with the Canadian premiere of Beijing Modern Dance Company's Oath--Midnight Rain. The company's artistic director and the choreographer of the piece, Gao Yanjinzi, has been to Vancouver--and DOTE--before, having previously collaborated with Wen Wai Wang and Sammy Chien (who translated for her from the stage) on Made in China. The piece she presented for us last night, which first showed at the 2006 Venice Biennale, explores concepts associated with the Buddhist wheel of life, or Samsara, a temporal cycle of suffering that encompasses death and rebirth, but also the liminal or threshold spaces linking binary pairings of night and day, black and white, ending and beginning.

Gao investigates these spaces of transformation through a series of linked movement studies in which four male and one female dancers incarnate, in turn, a flower, a blade of grass, a fish, a mosquito, and a bird. For example, in an opening sequence which put me in mind of Anna Pavlova's dying swan, a male dancer sits centre stage amid a swath of blue tulle, which he will eventually gather up around and then over his head, spreading his arms out to the sides to effect a kind of blooming. But he also shows us the stem of the flower by rolling over from the floor onto his shoulders and raising his bare legs to the ceiling in a series of developpés. With the exception of the winged dancer caught in a web of cloth and dripping a beard of blood (and also a whole lot of talcum powder), I confess it was not always clear to me which of the aforementioned non-human figures or elements the dancers were personifying. Were we meant to see the swaying in the wind of a blade of grass in the second dancer's snaking on the floor and through the air her horse-hair wand? The darting of a fish through water in the third dancer's gracefully flowing arm sleeves? And the rest and flight of a bird in the coquettish poses and oscillating swaying of the fifth dancer on a swing descended from the rafters? In the end, I was glad that the choreography eschewed overt mimeticism, with Gao clearly incorporating some of the abstract gestural vocabulary of classical Chinese opera into each section (and also, it seemed, some of its gender-bending conventions with the costuming and make-up of three of the male dancers).

However, in the movement of the sixth dancer, a kind of hungry ghost figure veiled in red who serves to link each section and also occasionally interacts with the other dancers, I detected some traces of classical Indian dance. The music in these sections may have also contributed to this sensation, but it's also a reminder that the idea of Samsara (a Sanskrit word) crosses various Eastern religions, including Hinduism. At the very least, the mix of classical and modern traditions in Oath (including in the utterly mesmerizing sound score) can be seen as another way in which Gao is exploring this idea of liminal transformation.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Battle Your Demons in Dreamspace at the James Black Gallery

Last night at sunset, just as the province was experiencing the twilight and eventual eclipse of Christy Clark's Liberal government, I was gazing up into the open bay windows at the front of the James Black Gallery on East 6th Avenue in Vancouver, luxuriating in the warmth of a gorgeous summer evening and the proximate haze of pot smoke, and thus somatically primed to receive the healing trans-dimensional message of love delivered by the bewitching lounge singer Linda Foxx.

Foxx is the creation of multi-talented performance artist Layla Marcelle Mrozowski, who in collaboration with musician and mixed-media artist Dave Biddle--and accompanied by back-up dancers Justine A. Chambers, Alex Mah, and Andrea Cownden--stageed an hour-long virtual or conceptual concert/house party called Battle Your Demons in Dreamspace. Lipsynching to a clutch of "synthetic" voice-altered songs created and played by Biddle through vocoder technology, Foxx/Mrozowski, sporting a bright orange wig and wearing day-glo blue lipstick, invited us in the most sinuously seductive manner possible to throw off any remaining inhibitions we might have and indulge in the myriad pleasures afforded by an apocalypse that is not just imminent, but that has already arrived.

In a world where the earthquake is here, where fear can be buckled into a car seat and sent on its way, and where caged goats patiently offer up their necks to the impress of our newly sharpened incisors, the only thing we need to do to prepare for the time of love, Ms. Foxx instructs us, is to get in touch with our bodies: feel the earth underneath our feet; breathe in through our noses and out through our mouths; rub our tongues along our teeth (and taste that goat's blood). And, above all, unloosen our hips and groove to the music she is carrying to us via her other-worldly voice.

Maybe it's because I'm currently watching The Leftovers on television, or maybe it's just that in this current socio-political moment nothing seems out of the ordinary any more, but I found Foxx's strangely unsettling message just the narcotic of belief that I needed on this particular evening.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Cinerama at Spanish Banks

Extending their enquiries into the principles of materialist scenography and the performativity of performance environments, Fight With a Stick's (FWS) latest production is called Cinerama, and is a site-based work set on Spanish Banks at low tide. At an appointed time (it varies each day) and regardless of the weather, audience members assemble just beyond the beach's western concession stand. After checking in with an attendant yesterday afternoon around 1:15 pm and receiving some general instructions, we are all issued noise-cancelling earphones and instructed to head off in the general direction of one of the many container ships dotting the horizon.

It was a surprisingly long trek, a good 12-15 minutes, before we arrived at the playing space, which was an instructive lesson in just how vast a sweep of shoreline is covered by the intertidal, or littoral, zone the closer one gets to the mouth of the ocean. This initial journey was also a crucial first phase of the performance. For me, the earphones accomplished two interrelated goals. First, they made me more aware of my breathing, which in turn put me more in touch with my body as a whole, including the feel of the sand underneath my bare feet and the warmth of the water collecting in different tidal pools. At the same time, the absence of sound extended my visual sense outward, so that the entire panorama in front and to either side of me--from the human and animal action on the sand, to those sublimely disturbing ships set against the backdrop of the north shore mountains, to the built cityscape to my right, and to the hazy, shimmery archipelago of Vancouver and the Gulf Islands to my left--seemed to present itself as a series of shifting relationships of scale that regardless of actual physical distances nevertheless felt collectively within and out of reach, all at once: as if my body might punch through a trompe l'oeil painted backdrop on an old-school Hollywood studio set at any moment. In this way, the opening walk in Cinerama sets up the context for the rest of the piece, which seeks to make manifest the mechanisms by which we frame--and, by extension, annex--the natural spaces around us.

Once we arrive at the playing space, which FWS has positioned several hundred metres from the edge of what is already the incoming tide, we are instructed by sound designer Nancy Tam to place our headphones in an awaiting wagon and to take a seat on any of the vertically staggered chairs not marked with an X that have been anchored into the sand. To the backs of the X-marked chairs have been affixed mini-iPods, from which issue Tam's score, a mix of recorded extra-diagetic nautical sounds (the whoosh of water ebbing and flowing, boat horns, the squawking of birds) that combines with the live diagetic noise being produced around us (including the curious and/or flummoxed comments from passersby who happen upon the scene). Produced through this hybrid double-act of DJing is an assemblage of the natural and the mechanical, the ambient and the amplified, that is in keeping with Cinerama's overall troubling of the categories of background and foreground, and that contributes to an exploration of an idea of "atmosphere" that is at once theatrical and climatological.

Thus seated and newly "attuned" to our environment, we await the next phase of the performance. Not that things aren't already happening all around us: folks of every age and shape and state of undress promenading on the sand and in the surf; dogs chasing after balls; kids water skimming; birds and the occasional float plane soaring past in the sky. And not that we aren't also, as previously mentioned, the surveilled object of other onlookers' more or less focussed gaze. But at a certain point these multiple circuits of looking start to shift in a single direction as, on our left (or western) periphery, we begin to become aware of something (and someone) advancing towards us from the horizon. Two large steel frames, mobile picture windows onto the vista's equally portable vanishing point, are being carried by FWS performer-devisers, one person on either side of the frame and similarly apparelled in designer all-weather hazmat-style suits that Natalie Purschwitz has assembled from fabric that seems to mimic the elements of sea and sky, clouds and earth, so that at a greater remove it appears as if the performers are at one with their surroundings and that the frames are moving all on their own (a trick of perception FWS had previously experimented with in the award-winning Revolutions). Somewhere in this process I must have looked away, because when next I focussed on the progress of the advancing frames and performers, two had suddenly multiplied to five (and four to ten); I can only surmise that three of the frames had been positioned to lie in the sand more proximately to where the audience was seated and that as the more distant ones crossed their paths, they were raised up and also started moving. At any rate, the peripatetic journey of the frames ends when they are installed at different junctures in between the staggered line-up of audience chairs, so that depending on where one is seated in this line-up one's experience of watching watchers watch is diffracted x-fold.

Had the performance ended here I would have been supremely (and sublimely) satisfied, so content was I to stare out through the four frames in front of me, this mise-en-abyme of human and non-human actants coalescing into a single long take that was refreshingly contemplative: an installation- or site-based version of slow cinema. However, the performance was far from over and the frames, no matter our initial expectations, did not remain stationary. Instead, over the next half hour or so the FWS performers (company co-directors Steven Hill and Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, alongside collaborators who included Scott Billings, Delia Brett, Elissa Hanson, Josh Hite, Diego Romero, and Paula Viitanen) manipulated the frames in a kind of mechanical ballet. The movement started slowly and subtly, with the frames being raised up and down a quarter-inch or so, and rippling backwards from the frame positioned closest to the water. Eventually the tempo picked up and the up-and-down movement was supplemented by the frames being tilted forwards and backwards, shifted horizontally to the left and the right, and arced vertically on their axes by incremental degrees. As this was going on, the tide was slowly (and then more and more quickly) creeping in, with the movement of the frames not so much mimicking as complementing the locomotive drift of the water, which swirls and eddies from different directions, picking up speed and force, until what seemed impossibly distant and at a safely calculable physical and temporal remove is suddenly lapping at your knees.

And this, finally, is what comprises the brilliance of this production, what I'll call the framing of the rhythms of diurnal events. The tide goes out and it comes back in. Still at this point in the anthropocene such a statement remains a dialectical certainty. Cinerama focuses our attention on the inevitability of waiting for what we know is coming. And the payoff is that we still end up surprised.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music on Main at Frankie's Jazz Club

Having just come back from the city of Brahms' birth (and having actually walked through the very square where his childhood house still stands), it was appropriate that last night Richard and I should attend a Music on Main fundraising concert that culminated in a sonata (Cello Sonata in F No. 2, Op. 99, to be precise) by the composer. It was part of a program pairing Jane Hayes on piano and Rebecca Wenham on cello that also featured works by Robert Schumann (his increasingly exuberant Fantasy Pieces Op. 73) and Claude Debussy (the late Spanish-inflected Cello Sonata from 1915).

All of this was presented in the intimate setting of Frankie's Jazz Club, on Beatty Street, a throwback to MoM's pioneering presentations of classical and contemporary music at The Cellar a few years ago. It was certainly a treat to be able to experience up close the musical chemistry between Hayes and Wenham, and to do so while enjoying a glass of wine. I also appreciated the commentary by both artists in between each piece, which added rich context to our listening enjoyment. For example, Wenham noted that Schumann, who wrote his Fantasy Pieces in three frenetic days, originally composed the work for piano and clarinet, but that he also authorized its transcription for cello. Hayes asked us to think about flamenco dancers as we absorbed the piano part of the last movement of Debussy's sonata. And both added equally rich commentary to their dual introduction of the concluding Brahms piece.

The evening was also a chance for MoM's David Pay to announce their upcoming 2017/18 season. One of the highlights will be MoM's co-hosting of the International Society for Contemporary Music's World New Music Days in Vancouver in 2017. This is the first time this globetrotting presentation of the best in contemporary world new music has been to Canada in 30+ years, and it will be a terrific opportunity to hear compositions representing some 50 nations. Good on MoM for taking the lead in bringing this event to Vancouver.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Vu du pont at Theater der Welt Festival

Our second outing to the Theater der Welt Festival here in Hamburg was to celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove's French-language version of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which is having its German premiere at the venerated Thalia Theater. I had always wanted to see a production by van Hove, whose radical adaptations/deconstructions of classics from the dramatic canon, most designed by his long-term partner Jan Versweyveld, have earned him an international reputation. He has a particular affinity for twentieth-century American plays, and this is his second major production of a Miller work; The Crucible ran on Broadway alongside Bridge in 2016, with the latter earning two Tony awards.

Miller's Bridge, which began as a one-act verse drama, and which also seeded the screenplay for On the Waterfront, was the playwright's attempt to transpose the structure and themes of classical Greek tragedy to an American context. It centres on Eddie Carbone, who works alongside his friend Louis as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie is married to Beatrice, and together the childless couple has raised Catherine, the orphaned daughter of Beatrice's sister. At the play's opening Catherine has just turned 18 and has gotten a job as a stenographer, earning more money in a week than her stepfather. This is the first of the jolts to Eddie's old-school masculine sense of how the world should be. The second comes when Catherine falls in love with Rodolfo, one of two illegal Italian immigrants whom Eddie has agreed to take in and help find work. Eddie is convinced that Rodolfo, who is blond and likes to sing, cook and sew, is gay and only wants to marry Catherine so that he can stay in the country legally. This climaxes in Eddie publicly kissing Rodolfo in an attempt to expose the latter's hidden sexuality, but the act actually reveals more about Eddie's own latent tendencies. When Catherine still refuses to part with Rodolfo, a desperate Eddie calls the immigration authorities, a move that has graver consequences for the second of the two migrant workers, Marco; his subsequent revenge is the final piece of Eddie's tragic downfall.

All of this is narrated to us by the lawyer Alfieri, Miller's allusion to Vittorio Alfieri, considered the founder of Italian tragedy. In Bridge Alfieri is at once the conduit between the old world and the new world, and between the world of the play and the audience. His pronouncements--to both Eddie and Marco--on the coldness of the law, and the fateful consequences for those who would take it into their own hands, continue to have resonance. And, indeed, there is a way in which van Hove's production read to me on one level as a comment on the current global refugee crisis--and America's apparent indifference to that crisis under its current presidential administration. Versweyveld's set may have had something to do with this impression. At the top of the show the audience, which is configured in the round, is confronted with a huge steel-grey box that could double as a shipping container; when the play begins, the bottom half of the box rises to reveal the playing space, a bare white floor enclosed by a low glass wall, and with a single upstage door from which the actors enter and exit. All of the action--which takes place over a continuous two hours, with no scene breaks or blackouts--occurs in this space, and the spareness of van Hove's staging, together with the removal of any overt markers of the narrative's Brooklyn setting, seems to be part of the director's attempt to recuperate the play as a tragedy tout court--rather than as an expressly American tragedy.

Notwithstanding this impulse, as well as the fact that van Hove has successfully staged a version of this production in London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris, there is still a way in which this piece seems quintessentially of its time--and, even more so, of a particular period in Miller's writing life when he was wrestling with what it meant, for him, to be an American man. Eddie is such a curious character; to my mind, he comes across as a kind of male hysteric. Maybe it was this particular view, or maybe it was the overall acting style of this company from Paris' Odeon Theatre, that suggested to me that Bridge is fundamentally a work of melodrama rather than tragedy. Then again, we're having a melodramatic moment, so maybe this is exactly the right register in which to stage this play.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Doors at Theater Der Welt Festival in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg, Germany at the moment attending the annual Performance Studies international conference. It has been programmed in conjunction with the biannual Theater der Welt Festival, which moves around different German cities every two years. Last night Richard and I attended a performance of Belarus Free Theatre's latest production, Burning Doors. As political theatre, it makes anything I've seen before in North America under that label pale by comparison, not least because BFT company members are clear that the stakes of their performance choices must match the stakes of the personal choices of the dissidents whose stories they are telling on stage.

Founded in 2005 in Minsk and banned from its own country on political grounds soon after, BFT works in exile from London, combining agitprop and physical theatre aesthetics in a manner that is at once virtuosic and visceral, making every moment seem as if it is a matter of life and death. For Burning Doors, the company is collaborating with Maria Aloyhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the painter Egon Schiele, the piece explores the relationship between the body, power, and art, focussing specifically on the stories of incarceration of three dissident artists in Russia: Aloyhina; the St. Petersburg-based performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison, serving a twenty year sentence. The production of Burning Doors is dedicated expressly to raising international awareness regarding Sentsov's detention.

As the performance was in Russian and Belarussian, with German surtitles, it is impossible for me to distill the entire narrative of the piece (although an English translation of the script was very graciously provided). That said, I could follow that each of the three artists' stories were being told in turn, and that these stories were likewise being juxtaposed with two additional layers of meta-narrative: one in which the Foucauldian routines of discipline and punishment inside the prison are clinically dissected for the audience; and one in which Russia's bureaucratic administration of political protest is played for existential--and scatological--laughs (most often featuring a pair of hapless Kremlin clerks, and accounting for the relevance of Dostoevsky as an authorial source). However, it is the scenes of extreme physicality that most affectively demonstrate how the brutality of dictatorial regimes is visited upon the bodies of its political dissidents. While these scenes occur throughout the piece, the last twenty minutes comprise a steady accretion of acts of physical extremity that in their duration and accumulation literally knocked the wind out of me: and repeated punches and kicks to the gut are indeed part of this sequence.

None of this is easy to watch, but it definitely conveys in a startlingly felt way that communicating the risks of protest demands similar aesthetic risks. I am so glad that I got to see the work of this brave and urgently relevant company.

Addendum: I just learned that Burning Doors will play Seattle's On the Boards from September 28-October 1. I urge folks in the Vancouver region to head down to check out this thrilling show.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Soliloquy in English and All the Way at the rEvolver Festival

I had hoped to get to much more of this year's rEvolver Festival than at present looks likely. I blame the fact that, unusually for me, I'm teaching this summer, am fighting a cold, and am preparing for a conference in Hamburg next week.

That said, I did want to plug one show that has its last performance this evening. O, o, o, o's All the Way, playing The Russian Hall at 8 pm, promises to be a wild and surreal ride into the world of haunted houses and game shows (and what, really, is the difference). Any company that can use the word "hypnagogic" in its show description has to be on to something. This super-talented collective of SFU Theatre grads haven't made a ton of work (because they're all busy with other gigs), but when they do it's usually a stunner. Check out my review of their site-specific take on a short play by Caryl Churchill here.

And I also wanted to give a brief shout out to the one rEvolver show that I did get to, Patrick Blenkarn's Soliloquy in English. This intimate take on an old-fashioned reading circle has three more performances: today at 5 and 8 pm, and tomorrow at 7 pm. The piece involves audience members reading together from the contents of a hand-made book that Blenkarn has crafted from interviews with friends and acquaintances for whom English is an additional language. At once a political commentary on the hegemony of English as a global (and globalizing) lingua franca and an alternately funny and moving concatenation of voices remembering what it's like to dream and swear and sing in another tongue, Soliloquy's spare dramaturgy also effectively implicates participants in the story being told. For we each take turns reading different passages in the book, a pattern of arrows indicating when we are to pass the book to our left or to our right. I found this simple physical act of passing an open book to a neighbour and indicating the place on the page where they are to continue reading to be one of the purest elaborations of what I understand to be the goal of relational aesthetics in art and performance. That last Sunday our group of five (including Blenkarn) lingered after we'd turned the final page of the book to keep talking about what we'd just experienced certainly attests to the larger conversations this work will inevitably spark among those lucky enough to participate in it.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Convergence at EDAM

EDAM's latest choreographic series is on at the Western Front through June 2. It features new works by Peter Bingham, Vanessa Goodman and Noam Gagnon.

Talking to Bingham and dancer Delia Brett at different points during the evening's intermissions, I learned that Convergence, the work by Bingham that opens the evening, is structured around a series of restrictions the choreographer has given his seven dancers, including Brett, Anne Cooper, Elissa Hanson, Walter Kubanek, Diego Romero, Renée Sigouin, and Olivia Shaffer. The restrictions involve spending at least thirty per cent of the fifteen-minute piece hugging one of the studio's two side walls (which is how we encounter the dancers when the work opens), hewing closely to a specific individual line in space, and only engaging in contact with another body or bodies when those lines converge. Within those and a few other parameters, the dancers are free to improvise as they wish and what results is in part an almost slow motion breaking apart of some of the key principles of contact improvisation: that is, the finding of another body in space and what does or does not happen gravitationally as a result of that encounter. Indeed, some of the most enjoyable moments for me in the piece came when two or more dancers converged upon each other and humorously paused to decide who was leading and who was following whom.

Goodman's Accumulating is a trio featuring the choreographer and dancers Karissa Barry and Alexa Mardon, and showcasing an impressive sound and visual design by loscil (aka, local electro-acoustic composer Scott Morgan). The work opens with the three dancers dispersed in space upstage. Goodman is perched atop a speaker stage right. Barry is seated on a chair stage left. And Mardon hovers stationary in the upstage right doorway, her upstretched hands appearing to grip the upper lip of its inside frame. At a certain point Mardon lets go of her grip, crosses the threshold into the studio space and begins a dynamic and hyper-kinetic ten-minute solo, one in which her arms, tellingly, seem to function like antennae, propelling her forward as if in search of another door frame to attach themselves to. While this is happening, Barry is slowly crumbling forward in her chair and Goodman is turning this way and that atop her speaker, as if she is a stuck toy dancer in a malfunctioning music box. As part of the soundscore, we hear about the physiological make-up of the heart as an organ, and a video of what looks like smoke circles and rings slowly starts to creep up the backstage wall. Mardon eventually comes to rest and Barry, who by this time is slumped on the floor in front of her chair, begins her own solo, only hers is more fluid and languid, with the movement issuing more from the pelvis, hips and legs. The two dancers eventually join in a mirrored duet, their movements not quite in unison, but their hitherto distinct vocabularies now meshing in a complementary and mutually sustaining way. It's hard not to think of the figure performed by Goodman as having a hand in bringing the other two dancers together, especially when they come to rest in a seated position on the floor just to the left of her station and then collapse backward in exhaustion. This is the cue for Goodman to begin a contained mechanical sequence of movements atop her speaker, which in turn reanimates the other two dancers, who are given a final coda downstage before helping to disappear each other in a replacement series of poses in that upstage right doorway.

Gagnon's between us--what a difference a day makes is also a trio and likewise has a fantastic commissioned score, this time something a bit more industrial by James Coomber. To thrashing guitar sounds, Graham Kaplan, who is positioned downstage right, bends at the waist and grinds his shoulders forwards and backwards with such violence that I was sure one was going to pop out of its socket. Meanwhile, starting from her spot upstage left Lara Barclay begins a slow sinuous all-body crawl across the backstage wall. Positioned centre stage with her back to the audience, Heather Dotto moves forward and backward like a robot, her torso also hingeing with whiplash speed in either direction. Indeed, the extremity of each of the performers' bodily contortions and both the repetitiveness and physical force with which they executed them over the course of the piece's twenty minutes are what registered most with me in between us. At different points Kaplan partners both Dotto and Barclay, but each connection seems to be structured as much on repulsion as on attraction, with Kaplan and Dotto shoving their pelvises together like magnets, but then arcing their upper bodies away from each other like evil laughing clowns. The implicit violence in the lifts that Kaplan performs with Barclay is later completed when Barclay, chasing after Dotto and Kaplan, throws herself backwards on the floor, a discarded third wheel. And, indeed, it is possible to read the work through the lens of a love triangle. But, really, it is enough of a kinetic high just to absorb each new jolt and shock that emerges from this talented force field.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Dialogue at The Dance Centre

Wen Wai Wang's newest full-length dance, Dialogue, premiered at the Dance Centre last night. Inspired in part by the movement history of Wang's own migrant body, the work was built on and in collaboration with six talented young male dancers in the city: Ralph Escamillan, Andrew Haydock, Arash Khakpour, Tyler Layton-Olson, Nicholas Lydiate, and Alex Tam. As I understand Wang's process, each dancer was invited to bring aspects of his own dance training and personal story to the work. The result is a unique and deeply engaging meditation on what it means to communicate kinetically across cultural identity and individual experience.

With the house lights still up, five of the dancers--Escamillan, Haydock, Khakpour, Layton-Olson, and Tam--enter and casually sit down on the chairs that have been positioned along the upstage wall. During the curtain speech they stare out at the audience, while alternately crossing their legs demurely (Escamillan), or lifting one up to the edge of the chair (Haydock), or manspreading (Tam and Khakpour), or slouching (Layton-Olson), each physical choice already inviting us to read their bodies--and thus their identities--in different ways. Lydiate only enters at the end of the curtain speech, pausing to stand in front of the remaining empty chair, and trading some not very friendly looks with his fellow dancers. Indeed, when Lydiate finally does sit down, this is the cue for the others to move their chairs into a semi-circle centre stage, with Tam beginning a relay of hand and arm gestures that gets taken up, adapted and expanded in turn by each of the other dancers. The gestures grow steadily bigger and bolder in their sweep out from the dancers' torsos and the arcs they make through the air, with Lydiate eventually joining the circle as the thrown movements ricochet back and forth from body to body at a faster and faster pace. It was like we were watching a seated hip hop dance circle, each dancer's ever more complicated gestures at once an invitation and a challenge to the others to top. This opening sequence is echoed later in the work when the dancers, standing now, form another semi-circle around the body of Khakpour, who has just finished a wrenchingly physical floor solo. Drawing their bodies into various Transformer-esque poses while simultaneously making lock and load sounds with their voices, the dancers now use their newly weaponized limbs to send imaginary bullets around the circle, but with each ricochet this time additionally passing through the defenceless body of Khakpour.

Much like the ethos of hip hop, the literal momentum of Dialogue accrues through the tension between these alternately combative and collaborative group sequences and individual moments of virtuosic solo improvisation. For example, early on in the piece, during a section featuring club music, the dancers groove on the spot in their own singular ways, alternately slowing down and speeding up the tempo, moving in and out of unison. But what's most striking about the tableau Wang creates here is that the two white dancers face front, while the dancers of colour have their backs turned to the audience, a simple yet highly effective comment on the politics of (in)visibility in social spaces, and one that is tellingly followed by a solo from Lydiate in his tighty whities. This dialectics of surface and depth, inside and outside, looking and being seen is further highlighted in the sequence that immediately follows, which sees each of the dancers don a hat (initially in Khakpour's case, a hair pic) that presumably somehow telegraphs an aspect of their personality, and then rotate through a series of poses as Elvis' Love Me Tender plays.

All of this builds to what I found to be the most arresting section of the dance, which immediately follows the aforementioned Transformer sequence. The dancers link arms and gather in a circle around Khakpour who, at first feeling trapped, lifts his shirt up over his head, a cloaking movement he has made before that is rich in imagistic associations we are wont to project onto Khakpour's Muslim body: from balaclava to veil. Here, however, the other dancers seem intent on letting Khakpour be seen, removing the mask and insisting on their own presence by placing their hands in turn in front of his face. This is followed by Escamillan then ducking his head and shoulders inside the circle, which sets off a succession of similar breaches by the group that gets repeated twice, with the circle eventually breaking apart to form a linked chain, the tethering of each of the men's bodies and the flow of movement that now gets passed up and down the line here suggesting balance and mutual support rather than competition and one upmanship.

I would have preferred if Dialogue ended there, but the piece--which, in my view, is about 10-15 minutes too long--continues on for a series of codas that culminates in a disco ball-infused tango duet between Escamillan (in heels) and Khakpour. I appreciated Escamillan's physical and emotional commitment to this scene, but structurally and conceptually it seemed to signal the start of a separate journey rather than satisfactorily concluding this one. Such caveats aside, Wang and his dancers have crafted a rich aesthetic and affective experience with this work and I hope, beyond its brief run here in Vancouver, that it tours widely.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Children of God at the York Theatre

Corey Payette's ambitious and urgently important new musical, Children of God, had its world premiere last night at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, in a co-presentation between Urban Ink, Raven Theatre, The Cultch, and the National Arts Centre, to which the work will tour later in June. The polymathic Payette is the book writer, composer, lyricist and director of the work, which has been seven years in development, and which aims to tell through the popular and often insistently sunny form of musical theatre a story about one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history, namely the lives, cultural identity and sense of family connection stolen from a generation of Indigenous children in this country as a result of the residential school system, as well as the intergenerational trauma that continues to resound from these events.

The work is structurally complex, adopting a split timeframe in which present day Tom (an excellent Herbie Barnes), recently separated from his wife and back living at home on the reserve with his mother, Rita (Cathy Elliott, in a shattering performance), is trying to get back on his feet by hopefully landing a new job with Wilson (Kevin Loring), a former classmate at a Catholic residential school. The meeting with Wilson stirs up painful memories, which unfold in flashbacks, and in which we learn that little Tommy's sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott, who has a beautifully soaring voice) has attempted more than once to run away from the school--not least, as we eventually discover, to flee the sexual predation of the school's main priest, Father Christopher (Michael Torontow). When Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindstrom, very affecting in an emotionally demanding and complex role) discovers this abuse, and also the pregnancy that results, the impasse of inaction that results from the conflict between her obedience to her faith's chain of command and what she knows in her heart to be wrong leads to a series of tragic events that will mark all of the students at the school, including Wilson's younger brother Vincent (Aaron M. Wells) and Julia's friends Joanna (Kim Harvey) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott).

Payette compresses all of this action into a tight two acts, and the actor-driven transitions between scenes and timeframes are handled smoothly and efficiently, with old-style iron dormitory beds and a row of wooden desks, among other material signifiers, enough to sketch the enforced erasure of the children's Indigenous identities through sameness and spatial enclosure from their communities. Likewise, the songs and musical score are excellent, advancing both the narrative and emotional journeys of the characters in compelling ways, alternating deftly between rousing ensemble numbers and intimate solos, and also providing numerous transcendent moments of audience identification and empathy that we crave from the musical theatre form. Payette is an incredibly gifted composer and lyricist, though I was a bit surprised at how much of this work hued to classic western musical idioms (the musicians include Brian Chan on cello, Allen Cole on piano, Martin Reisle on guitar, and Elliot Vaughan on viola). The exception comes in two numbers accompanied by traditional drumming and sung in Ojibwe: Gimikwenden Ina (Do You Remember?) is a joyous ode to the survival of cultural memory sung by the residential school students near the end of the first act that is accompanied by a simple yet absolutely stunning bit of choreography that transforms a bedsheet into the surface of a drum, and that I thought should have closed the first act rather than the darker number that followed; and Baamaapii Ka Wab Migo (Until We See You Again) is at once a lament and a celebration of Julia's spirit led by Rita at the end of the musical that insistently rises in pitch and rhythm and emotional intensity until it envelopes not just the rest of the cast and musicians, all of whom join Rita and Tom on stage, but sweeps across the entire audience, with everyone standing, clasping hands and joining in the chorus as a resurrected Julia appears in a bright red dress and wafts up the aisle as she is sent on her journey to the other side.

That ending is one of the more memorable I have seen in the theatre, musical or otherwise, in a long time. However, dramaturgically, the work is not perfect. Having the male residential school children played by adult actors, while understandable in terms of the work's structure and the inevitable limited resources accompanying such a production, was somewhat jarring given that the women playing the female children were much closer in age to their characters. The vexed relationship between Tom and Rita, the ultimate repairing of which over the course of the musical speaks to the heart of the issue of intergenerational trauma that is one of the most damaging legacies of the residential school system, gets somewhat buried among the many strands of Children's plot. We understand that Tom partly blames his mother for abandoning him and his sister when they needed her most; but we only witness Rita being rebuffed in her efforts to visit her children in one brief scene in the first act, and the tortuous guilt that she carries within her is only fully revealed at the end of the musical. An ironic consequence of consigning this story of fractured Indigenous kinship structures to the margins of the story is that the relationship between Father Christopher and Sister Bernadette comes all the more to the fore. To be sure, in taking pains to sketch out the various hierarchical and patriarchal structures propping up the Catholic residential school system, Payette is seeking to complexify a story in which it would be easy to condemn all teachers and white authority figures as part of the system and thus worthy of condemnation. At the same time, I found myself wondering on more than one occasion last night why it was that I found my sympathies gravitating as much toward Sister Bernadette as towards Tom and Julia and Rita.

No doubt such a response says as much about me, as a settler theatregoer, as it does about this amazing exploration through performance of what meaningful truth and reconciliation might look like in this country. Caveats aside, Children of God is a powerful work of living history and it should be seen by audiences across Canada.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 33

This past week Justine and Alexa and I have been working in the studio at The Dance Centre, developing some preliminary text and gesture scores from the video interviews we have assembled so far. We also visited with Natalie Purschwitz about our planned rhizomatic installation that will take over the stairwell and Faris lobby beginning in September. Our plans for the various components are still evolving, but one thing that has become increasingly clear is how much work we still have to do, not least with respect to completing our outstanding interviews.

And so, on that front, this afternoon I met my colleague Judith Garay at SFU Woodward's to talk about her dance history. It is an incredibly varied and peripatetic one. Judith was actually born in BC (something I didn't know), but moved with her family at a very young age to London (her dad was in the navy). That's where she took her first dance class. Returning to Victoria at age seven, she began taking class once a week in Victoria with Vivian Briggs. Following a move to Halifax, she continued her training, but she only really got serious about things after she enrolled at NASCAD (she was intending to be a fashion and textile designer) and met her first modern and professional dance instructor, Anita Martin. From there, she took a couple of summer intensives at Toronto Dance Theatre, but realizing she needed more structured instruction, she headed off to London to study with London Contemporary Dance Theatre at The Place. It was in London that Judith met her life partner, Anthony Morgan, also a dancer. Following their time in London, the pair decided to return to North America, but whereas Judith wanted to relocate to Toronto, Anthony was keen to try to New York.

Judith agreed to try out the Big Apple for three months, but she ended up staying for sixteen years. That was because very soon after arriving in the city, Judith hooked up with Pearl Lang at the Ailey School. Lang, along with Alfredo Corvino (a former Ballets Russes dancer and a master teacher of ballet at Julliard), became a key mentor. Then, too, there was the fact that soon after arriving in New York Judith joined the Martha Graham Company, quickly becoming a principal dancer there. This was at the height of Graham's fame, with celebrities like Liza Minnelli routinely dropping by the studio, and Halston, Graham's preferred costume designer, giving the dancers rides in his limo. And yet at the same time, Judith said that was living below the poverty line in a roach-infested railroad apartment in a slum, saving up her per diems while on tour in order to help make ends meet.

One of Judith's favourite memories from her time with the Graham company was being asked to reconstruct a three-minute 1926 solo by Graham called Tanagra. They had only some silent film footage to go by and had to guess at which piece of Satie music was being used, but Judith said the six month experience remains an important memory.

It was in January 1992 that Judith returned to BC to take up a guest teaching position at the School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU. She stayed on for an extra six weeks over the summer to lead the School's Off-Centre Dance Company on a tour of the province. That experience, Judith said, is what hooked her, and so when Santa Aloi encouraged her to apply for the full-time, tenure-track position that opened up that fall, she did. She has been at SFU ever since, and while Judith admitted that she still has a somewhat vexed relationship with the institutional structures of the academy, she also said that she enjoys teaching, especially with SFU's cohort system, where one is able to watch the evolution of a dancer over the course of four or more years. She also admitted that after being poor for most of her life as a working dancer, having a steady paycheque was something that she came to appreciate.

Of course Judith is perhaps best known in the Vancouver dance community for leading her company Dancers Dancing, which has given many emerging dance artists their first job, and which, during its formative years, regularly toured to all regions of BC. Judith said that bringing dance to communities in BC beyond Vancouver and Victoria became something of her mission--though it was also a mission that essentially required her to work two full-time jobs. This explains why she has backed away from the rigorous touring schedule in the last decade.

But she still has a keen eye for emerging talent, and on that front Judith concluded her interview by saying that as a dance city Vancouver is completely unrecognizable from what it was when she returned in the early 1990s. She admitted that she couldn't keep up with all the talent, but she also said that that was a good thing.