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.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Marriage of Figaro at the Vancouver Playhouse

The Vancouver Opera has just wrapped up its inaugural festival format--in which it has moved its operations from a full season of stand-alone productions spread out over the course of a calendar year to a two and a half week festival incorporating three works in repertory and a number of parallel concerts, talks, installations, and related events. Richard and I finally got to see one of the main stage productions yesterday afternoon when we attended one of the final performances of The Marriage of Figaro, which was playing at the Vancouver Playhouse.

I have to say that this production, following upon the PuSh Festival's very successful presentation of Third World Bunfight's version of Verdi's Macbeth, has confirmed that the Playhouse is now my preferred venue to see opera in the city. The intimacy of the space makes the music and singing feel at once warmer and fuller, and the action just generally more alive. Additionally, given that Mozart's score (which is closer to chamber opera than the grand 19th-century romantic works of Verdi) calls for the recitative parts of the libretto to be sung to a harpsichord, being that much closer to the orchestra means that every note feels that much more resonant.

Of course proximity also means that the design of your production needs to hold up to thorough visual scrutiny. Happily on that front this version exceeds expectations. Director Rachel Peake has opted for a modern-dress take on the comic plot, but one that allows for a few historical anachronisms. As such, Drew Facey's gorgeous set--which morphs over the course of the opera's four acts from the interior of servant Susanna's chambers to those of her mistress, Countess Almaviva, to the grand hall and finally the exterior gardens of the estate--references 18th-century neoclassicism in its pediments and brocaded walls, but it is also sleekly and unfussily modern, with minimal furnishings and, most arrestingly, a mirrored floor for the interior scenes. The costumes, by hot young Albertan designer Sid Neigum, alternate between finely tailored monochromes for the lovers Susanna and Figaro to riotous patterns for the buffon characters of Cherubino and Barbarina, and from the plainly utilitarian (the quasi-military fatigues worn by the Count) to the overly decorative (the hooped dress worn by the Countess in Act 3). All of this is beautifully lit by lighting designer John Webber.

The performances were also uniformly excellent. The new paradigm in opera these days is for singers, no matter how fine the voice, to also be actors, and Peake draws fine comic texture--and timing--from the entire cast. Because this is opera buffa, most of the characters are broad and recognizable types; nevertheless, for us to be seduced by the sentiment of the arias, not to mention accept the implausibility of the plot, we have to believe the Countess' pain and the see-saw outrage of Figaro and Susanna at each other's apparent infidelity. On this front, the characters' various asides--a key part of the myriad stratagems and deceptions and counterplots set in motion in this opera--are especially well handled, not least in the opening act's catfight between Susanna and Marcellina, the latter seeking Figaro as her own boy-toy, only to have it revealed in Act 3 that she is his long-lost mother!

For me, the women in this production outshone the men in terms of overall vocal quality. Caitlin Wood as Susanna, Leslie Ann Bradley as Countess Almaviva, and the wonderful Mireille Lebel as a willowy and physically elastic Cherubino were special standouts. Among the men I was most captivated by Phillip Addis as Count Almaviva, both in terms of singing and acting. Alex Lawrence was suitably dashing as our put-upon hero, Figaro, but he had some trouble with breath in his lower register (which, to be sure, is pretty low given that Figaro is written as a baritone and not a tenor), and there were a few cracks in the upper register as well. But these are minor quibbles and the entire cast and crew are to be commended for this spirited and refreshed take on a classic from the operatic repertoire.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ballet BC's Program 3 at the Queen E

Ballet BC concluded its 2016/17 season with a mixed program of three works that I was hoping would challenge and engage me more than they did. For reasons of time and general polemicizing I will concentrate mostly on the first piece in this response.

The evening opened with the world premiere of Israeli-born and Paris-based Emmanuel Gat's LOCK. Like compatriot Ohad Naharin (also on the program), Gat started dancing relatively late (at age 23), but seems to have been similarly (and preternaturally) gifted, soon founding his own company in Tel Aviv before decamping for France and accruing a steady wave of major international commissions. Also like many contemporary Israeli choreographers (including Sharon Eyal and her partner Gai Behar, whose Bill, we learned, will be receiving a Ballet BC remount next season), Gat exercises full creative control over the composition and design of his work, in this case providing the music and lighting for LOCK in addition to the choreography. That said, the piece's first section begins in silence. On a square of white Marley Andrew Bartee, distinguished from the rest of the grey shorts and t-shirts clad company by his green pants and black top, accompanies Kristen Wicklund (I think) in an extended floor sequence. The two dancers crab-crawl backwards and forwards, extend their legs horizontally over each other's supine torsos, and variously step into, over and on each other's limbs as the rest of the performers watch from either side of the stage. Eventually, as the music is haltingly introduced--a screech of horns here, a droning guitar lick there, some intermittent bass--so too do the other dancers make their way onto the Marley, each seeming to improvise a personal repertoire of moves: from the tiny beating of a breast to a whole body sway and shimmy to the floor. It is clear, especially in moments when the dancers come to stillness, pause to look at each other, and then launch into another sequence of gestures and movement phrases, that there is a score that's being followed. However, I confess that it often felt like I was watching a rehearsal warm-up or an improv class, and I longed for a clearer conceptual and kinetic through-line to connect what I was seeing. That came, briefly, after a faux blackout when the dancers formed into two groups and began a counterpoint of unison movement, one group rounder and lope-ier in the swaying of their torsos and weighting of their lower bodies, the other's leg extensions more precise and angular. But this didn't last for long and soon it was back to trying to make sense of the central muddle into which Gat very literally thrusts his dancers. In this respect I hazard to say that my frustrations with LOCK are one of the potential pitfalls of a company like Ballet BC chasing after star international choreographers for new commissions to add to their repertoire. With only a limited time to create the work, and perhaps over-extended in terms of ideas for a new work, the default starting point becomes the dancers and their process--as Gat himself acknowledges in his program note. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, especially if the company is as talented as Ballet BC; however, I question the wisdom of making process the product in the context of a full company piece for a ballet company (even one as adventurously contemporary as this one) without a rigorous embedding within the work of the reasons for this. Otherwise it feels, as has been the case with other recent Ballet BC commissions from jet-setting international choreographers, that I am watching a bunch of talented dancers show me some interesting moves rather than a dance that is interesting because of how those moves cohere in a meaningful way. Here I come back to the figure of Bartee, around whom the other dancers are apparently pivoting, but who never gets his expected solo--except, arguably, in a brief flourish and then hasty retreat at the end.

The second piece on the program was Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar's newest work, Keep Driving, I'm Dreaming. A commission from the National Arts Centre (where it premiered last month) as part of their ENCOUNT3RS project, which paired three Canadian choreographers with three Canadian composers to create new works set to original music, Molnar's piece features a big, bold and lushly jazzy score by Nicole Lizée. It also has a fantastic, Hollywood-style lighting design by Jock Munro, with six follow spots combining and dividing over the course of the work in a way that suggested the glamorously over-the-top illumination of a 1940s studio soundstage. Into these spots run and slide a succession of eight dancers, the momentary catching of themselves in the floodlights prompting a vision of who or where else they might be through brief bursts of movement. In this, there is a way in which the choreography, together with the music, the lighting design, and the costumes by Kate Burrows, suggests a romantic dreamworld that incorporates both a fantasy future and a nostalgic past, much in the vein of the recent La La Land. I will admit, however, that this trope, along with all the running more generally, started to wear on me. I much preferred when Molnar slowed things down a bit and made the movement more contained and precise, as with a pair of mirrored duets in which, for example, the time lag of non-unison unison succinctly telegraphed the idea of watching your life unfold before you like a movie. Also successful was the closing image of the piece, in which the dancers, staggered horizontally, take turns running toward the lip of the stage and leap into the air--and, it almost seems, out over the first rows of the audience--before retreating back upstage and starting over again. As a representation of the work's dialectical backwards-forwards temporality and the desire to break through the artificial frame separating spectator and performer this closing tableau played out beautifully.

The evening concluded with the company's presentation of Minus 16, a kind of greatest hits of excerpts from some of Batsheva choreographer Naharin's most celebrated works. These include the driving and explosive chair canon set to the traditional Israeli folksong Echad Mi Yodea; the gorgeous duet from Mabul (1992), set to Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and featuring the male dancer entering bent at the waist, his arms extended in supplication or prayer, gently nudging the female dancer across the stage, until she grabs his hands and places his arms about her waist; and the audience participation favourite in which the dancers invite spectators up onto to the stage to dance with them. It was a lot of fun and I can see why dance companies the world over are anxious to have something by Mr. Gaga in their repertoires. But the fact that I'd seen versions of most of these works in 2009 as part of DanceHouse's presentation of Batsheva in another Naharin touring compilation, Deca Dance, meant that I largely knew what was coming. No complaints on that front, but in terms of the rousing, crowd-pleasing finish that this work--and the evening as a whole--builds to, it does seem like Ballet BC, in this instance, is a little late to the party.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Long Division: Second Closing

Today's matinee is the last performance of this remount of Long Division. It would be wonderful to have a second week of shows, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to revisit the work at all. The play is definitely stronger as a result, the actors have made new discoveries in the text and with their characters, and the work--especially Lauchlin's set and Lesley's choreography--looks great in the Annex space. Immense thanks to Richard Wolfe for making all of this happen.

Later this evening, after our strike, the cast and crew will come over to our place to celebrate. In the meantime, I thought I would share a response to the play by my friend Ziyian Kwan. I have enjoyed writing about Ziyian's work in this space over the years and it is a treat for me to receive her sensitive response to my own creative efforts.


Dear Peter,
Rodney and I attended Long Division last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I thought it would be a fun exercise to do as you do and write about the experience the morning after. And to limit the writing to within 500 words, in a tone inspired by yours. Herewith:
On the day I saw Long Division, playwright Peter Dickinson’s partner Richard visited my husband’s bookshop, The Paperhound, to purchase a precious pamphlet. Later that evening, upon arriving at the Annex Theatre, I ran into David Kaye, an actor I haven’t seen for years, who lives in my building of 18 units. Then as I found my seat in the theatre, I realized that Jimmy Tait, whom I hadn’t seen since attending a showing of Misunderstood, was beside me. Hugs were exchanged.
All this to ask, what are the odds of running into people who are on the periphery of our lives – in places where we share common interests, in remote cities yet untraveled, or in our dreams? Are these collisions accident or fate? I think of times when the course of my life was changed as a direct result of such chance meetings.
Long Division invited me to consider the gravity and levity of encounters with people. I found myself wishing to remember exact lines that were pithy analogies of math and human exchange. The text, which was delivered by a fine cast of actors, was recognizably Peter Dickinson’s: the sing-song syntax and dry lyricism of precise words that captured potent questions about life. Throughout, the clever use of phrases such as “in addition” to describe events.
Whereas much of the play was a silky cocoon of existential inquiry, the story revealed a tragedy. This tension worked, yet I occasionally wished for a less emphatic treatment of human drama. But then, I know nothing about theatre….
I do know a little about dance and found choreographer Lesley Telford’s work bang on. Without being illustrative or literal, the actors moved through space to navigate circumstances in time. The dance, though abstract, seemed natural, and added texture to characters and scenes. And, the movement was styling!
I also liked the projection of mathematical formulas on a backdrop of Pythagorean 3D triangles. Coming from dance, where projections are often used but usually ignored, I appreciated that the actors actually looked at the projections to confirm that, indeed, complex equations attend the sum total of life’s many variables.
My favorite of the play’s many equations and corresponding metaphors was this: the empty set is a subset of every set.
Like many people, I often feel like the outcast quality in a mass quantity of digits that belong. But Long Division helps me with this affliction, suggesting that the nothingness of my empty set is part of a greater equation: humanity.  
This morning I woke up and thought about my life as an artist and realized that if nothing else, I have at my side and within me, the exponential prowess of zero.
Thank you for the beautiful work, Peter.
With love,


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Three Sets/Relating at a Distance at The Dance Centre

The three pieces included as part of Lesley Telford's first full program of dance to be presented in Canada under the auspices of her company Inverso Productions reveal some common preoccupations. First, all combine--to greater or lesser degrees--text and movement. IF, an earlier and shorter version of which was developed in 2007 for a Nederlands Dans Theater workshop, is set to a poem by Anne Carson, "Seated Figure with Red Angle"--and here spoken in recorded voiceover by Amos Ben-Tal. My Tongue, Your Ear, from 2011, features its two dancers speaking aloud excerpts from Wislava Szymborska's poem "Tower of Babel." And Spooky Action at a Distance, receiving its phase one premiere as part of Telford's residency at The Dance Centre, is accompanied by an original spoken word score by writer and musician Barbara Adler, who speaks the text live.

Then, too, all three works are concerned with patterns of attraction and repulsion, proximity and distance, action and reaction. In IF these impulses manifest as a roundelay of occupations of and displacements from a chair positioned downstage right. As the piece begins, dancer Maya Tenzer is perched on it. Behind her, all the way upstage, is Eden Solomon. Both dancers are lit in such a way that as Solomon advances toward Tenzer in the chair the former's shadow gradually overtakes and subsumes the latter's physical presence (the lighting, adapted from an original concept by Jeroen Cool, is by my colleague Kyla Gardiner, who does amazing work throughout). Meanwhile visible offstage right is Stéphanie Cyr, who begins a horizontal walk across the stage, her passing in front of the chair cuing Solomon to supplant Tenzer from it. Cyr then begins a solo centre stage, eventually arcing into the upstage vertical pathway of the chair, and with the enactment of her own kinetic claims upon it launching first Solomon and then Tenzer into successive retracings of the circuit she has just completed. In this, IF is like a game of musical chairs that no one can win, because within the feedback loop of Telford's choreography we gradually discover that each act of sitting constellates within it both past and future acts of sitting, a sedimentation of time within at once shared and separate physical states that is vividly portrayed at the end of the piece when all three dancers sandwich themselves onto the chair.

My Tongue, Your Ear is a duet that casts Tenzer and Graham Kaplan as two halves of a couple. And yet while their cryptic and elliptical patter throughout the piece suggests a pair of lovers whose wires of communication are hopelessly crossed, their matching white shirts and black shorts and socks also put me in mind of a vaudeville double-act or toy marionettes come to life. Such images may have something to do with the twitchy and floppy movement vocabulary that Telford employs throughout the piece, with both dancers windmilling their arms and buckling their knees at different moments, and with the tall, lanky and Gumby-like Kaplan repeating a series of rubbery jumps into the air, like he is being pulled by strings from above. For a while Tenzer and Kaplan seem to be working in concert to support each other, propping each other up by the shoulders, for example, as they begin a precarious walk downstage. By the end of the piece, however, the individual crumbling of their bodies begins to mirror the disjointedness of their speech, their physical proximity to each other in this case failing to buttress their relationship.

Following an intermission, Telford presented her newest work-in-progress. Spooky Action at a Distance is based on the quantum theory of particle entanglement (that, to summarize crudely, electrons separated by galaxies can still be affected by each other's movements). The choreography seeks to physicalize the matter of human interconnectivity, using the time/space properties of dance to show the eventness of all action--that, for example, a movement initiated in one body both ripples outward to be registered by and reacted to by other bodies and contracts inward as a result of that reaction. The piece begins simply with the hard-working Tenzer positioned alone on stage, her back to the audience. Adler begins intoning her text from the front row of the audience. She talks about believing that it is she who makes the world happen, that she has control over the weather, able to conjure clouds or sun or fog simply by closing or opening her eyes. But maybe in fact it's the weather that's making her adjust her gaze; when she mentions turning her face "to accept/the event/at a different angle" Tenzer pivots slowly to look at us. Indeed, one of the delights of this work is how it enacts the principle of action and reaction--what Adler elsewhere in her text refers to as the time and distance between x and y--at the level of the relationship between text and movement. Sometimes the dancers seem to be responding to the text, at other times Adler is clearly taking her cue from the choreography. In neither case, however, are the results reductively descriptive or mimetic; instead they combine in a way that would seem to fulfill Niels Bohr's theory of complementarity, in which the corresponding, reciprocal and mutually constitutive properties of wave and particle, or position and momentum, are known to (co)exist, but cannot be measured or observed simultaneously. Likewise with the movement patterns that follow this opening, the other dancers (Cyr, Solomon, Caitlynn Danchuk, Katie DeVries, Bynh Ho, and Brenna Metzmeier) at once prompting Tenzer to respond to their spatial presence on stage (including by whispering in her ear) and also embodying an opposing force. To put this into some of the terms employed by Adler, what we are witnessing in Telford's choreography is people "happening" to each other: sometimes "more" and sometimes "harder," especially in the complex partnering sequences that pepper the work; and sometimes simply, but with "attentive" purpose, as when Tenzer later orbits Solomon ever more closely in a gradually accelerating walk centre stage.

There is so much more I could say about this last work, which was a delight to behold. I look forward to becoming more entangled with its progress as Telford and her collaborators continue to develop it.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Long Division x 2

Since Tuesday I've been hanging out at Playwright's Theatre Centre along with the original cast and crew of Long Division as we prepare for a "refreshed remount" of the Pi Theatre show at the Annex on Seymour Street beginning next Wednesday. It is such a gift to be given the opportunity to revisit the work with this talented team. With a bit of distance from the first production at the Gateway in November, and in dialogue with director Richard Wolfe, I had made some cuts and tweaks to the script, which was distributed to everyone in March. In rehearsals we've been making some further adjustments, with a focus especially on smoothing out and making more organic the transitions between the choral scenes and individual characters' monologues.

Choreographer Lesley Telford, who is busy with her own show at The Dance Centre (on through this evening), popped into the studio yesterday to help adjust a couple of the movement sequences. The changes were exactly what was needed and it was fantastic to see not just how on board the actors were with the new material, but also how quickly they were able to absorb it into their bodies. When we started this second go-round on Tuesday I think everyone was a bit trepidatious about how much of the original movement score they'd remembered. But with the aid of video documentation and each other's kinetic memories, and with a lot of counted repetitions, the sequences came back incredibly quickly to the actors, and watching them yesterday during our first complete run through you would have thought they'd been doing this continuously since November rather than having had a hiatus of four months.

Generally we're trying to loosen things up with both the movement and the text, and to give the actors permission to play a bit more. Our costume designer, Connie Hosie, commented after yesterday afternoon's run-through that our efforts seemed to be working. Notwithstanding some dropped lines and a couple of starts and stops with respect to new movement and blocking, she said the piece was noticeably tighter and that all the actors were more clearly at home in their characters. That's great to hear, as we only have two more days of rehearsal before we go into tech. Getting into the actual Annex space will also be exciting, as we have a lot more room than we did at the Gateway's Studio B.

Tickets for the show can be purchased here. I probably won't be blogging again about the process until after we open. In the meantime, here's a selfie I took the other day in front of one of the bus shelter posters advertising the play around the city. Linda Quibell, who plays Grace, commented yesterday that the image is a bit CSI-y. That's perhaps not a bad analogy given the mystery that has to be unravelled in the play.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Broadway Diary 5: Sunday in the Park with George at the Hudson Theatre

Our final Broadway outing this New York trip was to a revival of Stephen Sondheim's classic musical Sunday in the Park with George. Richard and I are both huge Sondheim fans and had never seen a live production of this work--though I recall watching on PBS at some point in high school a video taping of the original Broadway production starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. This time it's movie star Jake Gyllenhaal pulling in the crowds as Georges Seurat, struggling in the first act to complete his pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But it is Annaleigh Ashford, as Georges' aggrieved muse Dot (and later, in the second act, her daughter Marie, grandmother to Gyllenhaal's American postmodern sculptor George, struggling with his latest chromolume commission) who is the real standout here. Ashford has a crystalline soprano and superb comic timing; she commands the stage with her presence, even when disguised in a grey wig and seated in a wheel chair. And while she has perfect pitch and would have no trouble making any of her numbers soar, she also knows that her singing must serve the work's larger context and not her own vanity. Thus, for example, she delivers the poignant Act 2 song "Children and Art" as the elderly character she's playing, not as the young performer inhabiting the role--and, in the process, she made me understand that in this song I have heard countless times before she is actually trying to help her grandson rediscover his artistic passion.

Not that Gyllenhaal isn't entirely credible as a singer: while he sometimes struggles to hit (and hold) the higher notes, he has great facility with Sondheim's complex time signatures and rhymes; his "Putting It Together," which like many of Sondheim's faster numbers (Mrs. Lovett's meat pies song from Sweeney Todd comes to mind) provides very little breathing room, was a standout. It also reminded me of what a savage--and prescient--critique of the global art market is this musical. Gyllenhaal's unique take on the dogs Georges is meant to voice in "The Day Off" also demonstrated that he was not afraid to make himself look ridiculous if it served the staging.

But, really, it is the work itself that most shines in this production. Director Sarna Lapine, niece of book writer and original director James Lapine, wisely understands that in terms of its musical and narrative structure Sunday in the Park is, like the Seurat painting that inspired it, perfectly composed. As such she does not strive for unnecessary dramaturgical or scenographic embellishment. Her stripped down and spare staging--while not above the occasional bit of razzle dazzle, as with the unveiling of George's chromolume in Act 2--allows the music to provide most of the evening's colour and light.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Broadway Diary 4: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre

So here’s something I didn’t expect to tick off my bucket list anytime soon: appearing on a Broadway stage. I refer to the fact that Richard and I, having shelled out extra money for the privilege, were seated right in the heart of the action for last night’s performance of Dave Malloy’s innovative new musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Having begun several years ago as an immersive show in which the tiny Ars Nova off-Broadway space doubled as a 19th-century Moscow café/bar, it subsequently moved to a tent in the theatre district that, as I understand, only ramped up the blending of spectators and performers. The challenge, then, in moving to Broadway was how to retain the immersive feel of the show in an old-school proscenium theatre.
Director Rachel Chavkin and the entire design team have brilliantly met that challenge, and even surpassed it. Every part of the interior of the Imperial Theatre has been turned into a performance space, including the upper rows of the balcony, and with the centre orchestra seats bisected by a catwalk on which several of the actors and musicians parade. But it is the actual stage itself that has been most thoroughly transformed, with a row of raked banquettes at the back for some audience members to gaze upon the action—and their confrères out in what are now the cheap seats—from what would normally be upstage (or even backstage) space. And then there are the tables like the one at which Richard and I were seated that are scattered around the downstage circular thrust area, where many of the key numbers and much of the choreography takes place. At the centre of this area is Pierre’s study, which also doubles as this production’s version of the orchestra pit, with the pianist and orchestra leader, a bassist, a guitarist, and an occasional percussionist in full view of all. The rest of the stationary orchestra is scattered in different outposts about the stage, but the musical also makes use of an array of very mobile violinists and accordionists, some of them bowing and dancing and singing within steps of us and then, in a flash, dashing for the upper reaches of the balcony.
To be right in the centre of the action—and more than one of the ushers and a couple of the performers told us we had the prime table—was incredibly thrilling, and the experience of being so close to the performers that one could see the vibrations in their throats or the throbbing of the veins in their temples as they reached for the high notes is something that won’t be replicated anytime soon. That said, I can’t say that the music was especially memorable or the story distinguished in its telling. To be sure, if you’re adapting Leo Tolstoy—in this case, a subplot from one of the later chapters of War in Peace—you’ve got your work cut out for you. That said, the musical opts for an overly discursive presentation of the events surrounding Natasha (a compelling Denée Benton), who is betrothed to the soldier Andrey (Nicholas Belton), off fighting Napolean’s armies. Natasha, upon making her debut in Moscow promptly falls in love with the rakish Anatole (Lucas Steele, doing his best pouty pop star), who is the brother-in-law of Pierre (Scott Stagland, here substituting for the real life pop star Josh Groban). Pierre is a misanthropic man of letters in a loveless marriage to Hélène (Amber Gray) who rediscovers his humanity in coming to Natasha’s rescue when she realizes she has been ruined. As my plot summary suggests, the musical seems more concerned with laying out the connections between all the characters (self-reflexively highlighted in a coy opening number) than with adding any new depth to Tolstoy’s story of love, betrayal and redemption. Which is to say that while I loved the form that this musical took, in terms of content there is perhaps no improving on the original.