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.

P

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.

P