Friday, March 17, 2017

Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

My colleague Rob Kitsos's latest work, a duet created with and for dancers Jane Osborne and Kim Stevenson (both of them former students of Rob's), debuted last night at the Roundhouse as part of this year's Vancouver International Dance Festival. Death and Flying combines two of Rob's latest research interests: text and movement; and embodied ethnography. To this end, the piece takes its cue from interviews with Osborne and Stevenson about memories of their families, and specifically objects and mementoes from their families that have special meaning for them (both women have lost their fathers). We hear excerpts from these interviews in voiceover, which are remixed, looped and occasionally distorted as part of the overall score by composer and sound designer Elliot Vaughn, and which the dancers also break off their movements to lipsynch to at different moments.

However, the piece actually begins with a recording of a poem by Maximilian Heinegg, about the makeshift will that his parents would always make whenever they took a plane trip together, and how their improvisatory bequeathing of their worldly goods prompts a reflection on his relationship with them, and with his siblings. Osborne and Stevenson, dressed in simple t-shirts and jeans, enter from opposite sides of the stage, meet in the middle, and then launch themselves into a series of micro-gestures, the pointing of a finger, the roll of a shoulder, or the cutting through air of a hand creating separate embodied pathways for each dancer that mirror the twin jet streams of air billowing from behind the animated air plane that traverses the screen behind them (the beguiling animations, including ink-outlined avatars of Osborne and Stevenson, that play throughout the piece are by another former student of Rob's whose name I didn't catch).

Stevenson, in her recorded reflections, more than once uses the word "resemblance" when talking about her memories of her deceased father (a former RCMP officer). In the specific phraseology of her speech the word initially struck me as an odd choice, but upon reflection it now seems an apt way of describing a kinaesthetic process of re-membering, by which the cherished tics or traits of a loved-one become physicalized in one's own body. The way we make a bed or set a table, the way we lay out a suit to be pressed or line up papers on a desk: if, as many cognitive theorists have suggested, our first and most immediate way of learning and knowing is through sensori-motor observation rather than language, then it makes sense that over our lifetimes we will have inherited and physically incorporated a storehouse of kinetic memories from our parents. In Rob's choreography these play out as felt pathways to puzzle through and decipher, often beginning with a simple isolation of a single part of the body or a quotidian gesture (like the laying of hands on an invisible countertop) that then triggers an extended line of movement that Osborne and Stevenson, sometimes individually and sometimes together, follow instinctively but also with halting deliberation, every turn in one direction or step backwards or drop to the floor reminding me of the way one feels for the light switch in the darkened room of a house to which one has returned after some time away.

Two moments in particular stood out for me from last night's performance. The first is a sequence of gestures that Osborne and Stevenson perform in unison centre stage, but facing at a diagonal from each other, alternately pivoting away from and towards each other as they cycle through a vertical hail, a horizontal reach, a hip bend, a buckle of one knee, a shoulder roll, and so on. It's a repertoire of movements at once so common and yet here, placed in quasi-canon by virtue of the performers' different facings, likewise so uniquely individual; as such it powerfully encapsulated for me how one's individual genealogy of gestures might, over time, get shared with and distributed to other kinship networks--such as, in this case, one's dance family (and here I am reminded of the fact that Rob and Jane and Kim have a working relationship that dates back to 2009's Wake, and also of some of the ideas that Justine A. Chambers is working through in her Family Dinner: A Lexicon).

The second memorable moment came near the end when Osborne and Stevenson, again working in unison, engage in a series of super fast and barely perceptible stutter steps and sideways jerkings. Maybe it was because of the preceding voiceover from Osborne, about a gift of digitized Super-8 footage of her parents that she received from her brother, or maybe I was influenced by the evocative image by David Cooper included in the program, but the sequence reminded me of the glitches or unexpected jumps in an old video recording, or of the blur of motion stilled in a photograph. Either way it perfectly captured for me the ideas of embodied or kinetic memory that Rob is playing with in this piece: some recollected actions we can call on at specific moments for comfort or solace, and some overtake us, unbidden, and convulse us with their suddenness and their force.


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