Sunday, May 20, 2018

Tonight at 8:30 at Jermyn Street Theatre

Yesterday afternoon, after completing my Tacita Dean exhibition triptych at the National Gallery (Still Life) and the National Portrait Gallery (Portrait)--the RA's Landscape show having been taken in on Friday--I made my way to the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre to see a matinee of Noel Coward one-acts. It's part of repertory run of nine of the playwright's shorter pieces that the company is dubbing Tonight at 8:30, grouping the shows into three thematic clusters: "Bedroom Farces," "Secret Hearts," and "Nuclear Families." All nine plays are performed by the same repertory of nine actors. You can book for an individual cluster or, if you're especially keen, cram all three clusters in on weekends, when the company does all nine plays in succession, beginning at 11:30 am and ending almost twelve hours later (with lunch and dinner breaks in between).

I only had time for one of the clusters, so I opted for "Bedroom Farces," which includes the following  deliciously subversive one-acts: We Were Dancing, about a woman determined to leave her husband for the man she instantly falls in love with on the dance floor, only to have second thoughts when he turns out to have been previously married; Ways and Means, concerning an unhappily married pair of indebted freeloaders who suddenly face eviction from their latest borrowed guest room, only to solve their problems by taking advantage of an improbable twist of fate; and Shadow Play, about a woman who, facing the prospect of divorce, enters into a drug-induced dream-state in which she relives the early days of her courtship with her husband.

As with most of Coward's work, the dialogue is fast and light, the skewering of bourgeois heteronormative conventions merciless, and the obsession with the lifestyle of the monied upper classes absolute. Plus there's singing and dancing, which was mostly put over very well by the hard working company members, especially given the cramped footprint of the Jermyn Street stage. I was in the first row, sitting right next to the piano, and the actors were at times less than a foot away from me.

But most memorable was my conversation with the woman sitting next to me, a theatre-mad octogenarian who was returning for the evening performance, and who the day before had also seen two plays back-to-back. Then again, so had I, and when I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed The Inheritance, she smiled and nodded knowingly. She also goes to the Edinburgh Fringe for a week every year and sees most of the good stuff before it even heads to London--if it ever does at all. I helped her reset her password for her Groupon account, as she was heading across the road for a discounted dinner between shows and had somehow been locked out of accessing her voucher. She did nod off at times during each of the performances, but I only hope I have a fraction of her energy and curiosity in thirty years--okay, and maybe also a fraction of what I judged from her clothing and jewelry to be her considerable wealth.


The Inheritance at The Young Vic

On the day Meghan Markle married Prince Harry, a bright sunny warm day here in London, I happily spent seven hours in a darkened theatre. I was at the Young Vic to take in the closing performances of Matthew Lopez's acclaimed new play The Inheritance, his epic two-part exploration of the legacies and obligations of gay culture and identity post-AIDS. Directed by Stephen Daldry, and featuring a mixed UK and American cast of relatively unknown young male actors (plus John Benjamin Hickey and, oh yes, Vanessa Redgrave), the production opened to ecstatic reviews in March, and will be transferring to the West End later this fall.

As virtually every review of the play has already stated, Lopez's work is essentially Angels in America meets Howard's End. His debt to the former work (which the playwright does not shy away from acknowledging, sometimes cheekily, sometimes more subtly) is largely structural and thematic: two sprawling parts tracking the romantic entanglements and social betrayals and surprising relationships that play out amongst a group of gay men in New York struggling to make sense of the world in a time of renewed political crisis (the election of Trump looms heavily over the plot, making the play feel, again as with Angels,  like an instant historical document). The adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel is much more conscious and complex, with the Schlegel sisters' fateful intertwining of their lives with those of the Wilcoxes here transposed to the accidental friendship between lovers Eric Glass and Toby Darling (Kyle Soller and Andrew Burnap) and the older couple Walter and Henry (Paul Hilton and Hickey), who live in the same Upper West Side apartment complex. Eric and Toby have a large circle of friends, all of whom are smart and gorgeous and witty and socially progressive and take for granted their right to marry and have kids and shop at Whole Foods for expensive organic produce. Eric and Toby are themselves planning to marry (the proposal is made during an hilariously athletic sex scene), but the damaged and narcissistic Toby's obsession with the young actor, Adam (Samuel Levine), who is starring in his new play, threatens to derail their happiness. Eric turns to Walter for solace, and the two men form a deep bond, with Walter especially serving as Eric's instructor and guide regarding what it was like to live through the AIDS epidemic. In particular, Walter tells Eric about the country house to which he and Henry had first retreated as a way of shutting out the disease, and then which Walter--to Henry's bitter regret--eventually turned into a hospice for those who were dying.

Those familiar with Forster's novel will realize where all of this is leading, and when, indeed, Vanessa Redgrave herself appears at the end of the play's second part--playing a woman whose son was cared for by Walter at his house, and who now serves as its caretaker--it feels both inevitable and deeply satisfying. Lopez's treatment of Forster's work is careful, honest and, above all, deeply sincere. And while, on the one hand, it is fun to spot the different references to the novel, as well as the ways in which the playwright subtly recasts them--how, for example, both Toby and the rent boy Leo (also played by Levine) he takes up with after Adam spurns him, are versions of Forster's Leonard Bast character--the play's use of Howard's End as an intertext is less self-referentially postmodern than it is deliberately pedagogical. That is, the novel becomes a touchstone for instructing audiences in a theory of contemporary gay belonging that, in Elizabeth Freeman's words, is also a way of "being long": of knowing who you are and who you might yet become through a conscious act of knowing where you've come from, and who has come before you. To this end, Morgan himself appears as a kind of teacher figure in the play (superbly incarnated by Hilton), framing the action by offering bits of writerly exposition, by cajoling the younger men to probe more deeply their characters' motivations, and finally by demonstrating that only they can be the authors of their own stories.

To be sure, this overtly presentational narrative conceit--with characters referring to themselves in the third person and addressing the audience directly on a range of contemporary and historical issues--can sometimes feel too earnest, a bit like a high school civics lesson. This is most apparent in the scene in which Eric and Toby and their friends take the measure of their progress as gay men in the twenty-first century, asserting their rights to marry and adopt while also lamenting the closing of gay bars and the commodification of queer culture and those who have been left behind. It all sounds like a confirmation of Lisa Duggan's argument about the "new homonormativity," except there is the somewhat problematic irony that the men reciting this argument--most of them white and economically well-off and healthy and able-bodied--are themselves part of this very constituency. (One can already anticipate the critiques that will inevitably be levelled against Lopez's play--not least that it is another example of gay men talking out of their arseholes to themselves.)

At the same time, I greatly admire the way Lopez openly traffics in sentiment, which is here marshalled not as a soporific of emotional exaggeration or self-indulgent nostalgia in order to dull audiences' critical faculties, but rather as an attitude of fellow-feeling in which different positions and perspectives and experiences might meet through the shared acknowledgement of our bodily vulnerability. This is most successfully--and feelingly--demonstrated in the endings to both parts of The Inheritance. In the first, Eric, on his initial visit to Walter's property, has an encounter with the ghostly emanations of the men whose deaths Walter eased, an encounter that, in Daldry's execution of the scene--twenty or more men seeming to manifest spontaneously from the walls of the auditorium and descending to the stage through the audience to greet Eric by name--had myself and many more in the audience openly weeping. In the second, Redgrave tells Eric and Leo the story of her son Michael's death at the estate: how, after initially spurning him for his sexuality, she was reunited with him by Walter, only to realize too late what additional time with him her prejudices had robbed her of. In Redgrave's thoroughly unsentimental delivery of this make-believe story, the no-nonsense Margaret repeatedly banging her head at her own stupidity, Lopez and Daldry create the very conditions for making belief in the audience, our identification with Margaret's pain forcing an examination of what, in the same circumstances, we might have done differently. In a play bursting at the seams with amazing performances, it is worth noting that the great Redgrave's belated appearance is the exact opposite of stunt-casting. Yes, she is there in part because of her name and because of her connection to the Merchant/Ivory film of Howard's End. But her performance commands through its understatement, not its showiness. Her presence sutures together the various threads of the play, and the other actors are not so much diminished by her on-stage shadow as burnished by it.

On a bare wooden set designed by Bob Crowley that consists of a retractable central plank that can be raised or lowered to signify a table or a swimming pool or gravesite as needed, director Daldry commands our attention through spareness and the intensity of his actors' physical presence. And I mean this quite literally. There are few props or scenographic embellishments (save for a couple of stunning upstage dioramic reveals at key moments in the action), but for almost the entirety of both parts of the play most of the actors remain on stage, listening along with us as the story unfolds, and also through this careful listening helping to shape in no small way how this story unfolds. There are no small parts in the theatre, as the saying goes, but in the collectivist ethos of this play--with Lopez's script taking care to identify both the uniqueness and the togetherness of Young Man 1 through 10--Daldry's decision to show us how corporeally proximate is this idea on stage seems absolutely crucial. I just hope that when the production transfers to a grander house in the West End the humbleness of this idea--and the entire staging more generally--is retained.

Because yesterday's matinee and evening performances were the closing ones of this run of the production, the energy in the auditorium felt especially charged and electric. At the curtain call some of the actors were openly weeping along with members of the audience. And Lopez, brought up on stage to share in the kudos, seemed genuinely stunned and grateful that what he had written had made such a connection. As with Angels, whose two-part premiere on Broadway I was initially thwarted from seeing (long story), this production of The Inheritance feels like an event. I am thrilled I got to experience it.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera

I'm currently in London, on my way back from giving some lectures in Stockholm, and trying to soak in as much art and performance as possible over my four days here. That means, in the former category, checking out the linked Tacita Dean shows at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts (in their newly renovated Burlington wing), as well as the Bacon and Freud Human, All too Human exhibition at the Tate Britain (I'm skipping the Picasso at Tate Modern). And, in terms of performance, things started off last night with Lessons in Love and Violence, a new opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, that is having its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a production directed by the uber-talented Katie Mitchell.

Benjamin and Crimp have collaborated twice before (on Into the Little Hill in 2006 and Written on Skin in 2012), and this newest work is already booked to play several major international institutions following its London run. Not a huge opera queen, I was attracted to the work not simply because of the buzz surrounding the production and the stellar reviews, but because the plot is based on the story of Edward II's tempestuous and ultimately tragic relationship with his lover and confidante Piers Gaveston. Drawing inspiration in equal measure from Christopher Marlowe and Derek Jarman, Crimp nevertheless adds to and updates the narrative by focusing on the effects of the King's all-consuming passion on his wife and children, as well as how such private emotional fissures spill over into and affect matters of national governance.

Indeed, there is a way in which Mitchell's contemporary setting of the story (aided by superb and sleekly modern designs by Vicki Mortimer) serves to make it a cautionary tale for any politician seeking to negotiate the rule of desire and the rules of politics in an age of intense social media scrutiny. Intimate scenes between the King (a stirringly soulful Stéphane Degout) and Gaveston (a dashing, though perhaps not in full voice, Gyula Orendt) leading up to their downfall, or between the Queen, Isabel (the magnificent Barbara Hannigan), and her son, now the new King (Peter Hoare, making the most of a smallish part), following that end are contrasted with large staff and media scrums in which Mitchell fills the stage with blue-suited bodies literally leaning into the anticipated bloodsport of another public figure's evisceration. That, in the final scene, Crimp gives this to us in the form of the boy-King's execution of Mortimer (an excellent Peter Hoare), the deposed military advisor who had worked to elevate him above his father, attests to how fully and completely has the young new leader absorbed the brutal lessons of power.

Benjamin, who also conducts this production, has created a score that to my untrained ear somehow feels lushly spare, and whose strings include effectively contrastive parts for the harp and what I think was a zither (both were in a box stage right of the orchestra pit). There were also several bits of percussion that stood out as especially strong moments of dramatic punctuation. At an intermissionless 95 minutes, the opera is certainly streamlined and tightly structured. But both the music and the themes make it feel substantial--and also hugely relevant.


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Ballet BC's Program 3 at the Queen E

The concluding program of Ballet BC's 2017/18 season arrived this weekend. Two acclaimed remounts from the company's repertoire bookended a new piece by artistic director Emily Molnar. Because of time constraints this morning, I'll offer just a few brief reflections on each.

Cayetano Soto's Beginning After premiered in 2016, and is very much a showcase for Ballet BC dancers' incredible speed and technical virtuosity, not least in terms of partnering. (I wrote at greater length about that performance here.) Soto, who is also responsible for the lighting and costume design, creates evocative stage pictures with this work, and the fade ins and fade outs on different bodily configurations and lines and movements frequently have you questioning what you are seeing. Indeed, the piece's opening epigraph, about the fine line between truth and memory, applies not just to one's post-performance impression of the work, but to one's in-the-moment spectating experience. Did I just see what I think I saw? Did that male dancer just rotate that female dancer's leg around three times at the hip, like Barbie? If so, why didn't it, as my friend Kerry asked with astonishment at intermission, come off?

The world premiere of Molnar's when you left was doubly special because it was accompanied by live music from Vancouver's Phoenix Chamber Choir, led by conductor Graeme Langager. Set to an evocatively layered work of vocalise by Pēteris Vasks, Plainscapes, the piece begins with the dancers (the entire Ballet BC company, joined by several apprentices) advancing slowly from upstage in half light (the lighting design is by James Proudfoot), their bodies pulsing every now and then. Once arrived at their staggered positions, the dancers begin to cycle through a largely gestural score, a choreographic style I have not previously seen from Molnar, and one that here counterpoints the rising and falling pitches of the music most effectively. Indeed, when the dancers start to repeat their gesture bases--a reach with a hand, a collapse at the knee or hip--in canon, the syncopation of sound and movement is deeply satisfying. This, however, is only the prelude to an even more complex canon structure involving different group formations of dancers moving purposely through space, with successive cohorts breaking off and others tacking themselves on to a given trio or quartet. In the past I've sometimes felt that the frequent running and sliding sequences by which Molnar moves her dancers on and offstage are shortcuts to thinking more complexly about how to link different sections in a work. But here they are absolutely essential to the kinetic roundelay effect she creates in response to the music.

I was utterly captivated by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's Bill when Ballet BC first introduced the work, also in 2016. So I was excited to see this remount, and it did not fail to disappoint. The combination of Ori Lichtik's house beats with Eyal and Behar's distinctive choreography (which combines the former's fascination with walking patterns with a more fluid and whimsical vocabulary inherited from Gaga) is just so enjoyable to soak in. I wrote at greater length about the company's premiere of the piece here, so I will only reiterate how taken I was by the way the piece begins, with the solo studies for three male dancers and one female dancer. In their nude body stockings, and executing with their always-in-motion limbs a crazily successful combination of balletic and cartoon-like moves, they struck me as channeling the energy and iconography of both Nijinsky's faun and an animated stick figure by Keith Haring. The entire company was excellent, but I will also single out Scott Fowler, here taking over from Gilbert Small, in the hieratic solo that is the capstone to the piece.


Monday, April 30, 2018

Spooky Action at the Dance Centre

Yesterday was International Dance Day and part of the celebrations at The Dance Centre included a free show of the latest iteration of Lesley Telford/Inverso Productions' Spooky Action. A shorter version of the piece was first presented a year ago (which I blogged about here), and then again in November at Dance in Vancouver. A collaboration with spoken word artist Barbara Adler and five dancers, Telford's ambitious exploration of the world of quantum entanglement seeks to make felt the uncanny kinetic experience both of making something happen and of having something happen to one.

It all begins with Adler explaining to us, via cribbed notes from Wikipedia, the basic principles of physical entanglement, how unseen particles, even separated by great distances, are somehow in communication with each other, and how the state of one particle (position, spin, momentum) necessarily affects the state of another. Action and reaction. Or as Adler later sums up the paradox in her first-person monologue: "I happened to people, but they happened back." Telford mines this choreographically in a number of intriguing ways, beginning with an opening solo in which Ria Girard explores--with her eyes closed and her searching arms outstretched--the delimited spatial orbit of her spotlit circle. But even in this suspended state things are happening: to Girard and to us. A turn in one direction produces a different facing. An arm reaching behind her back pulls her first this way, and then that way. Soon Girard is joined by five other dancers: Stephanie Cyr, Eden Solomon, Desi Rekrut, Lucas Wilson-Bilbo, and Ariana Barr. Surprised by their sudden appearance, Girard nevertheless discovers that her movements can somehow affect theirs. This ricocheting effect begins slowly and subtly, with a pivot by Girard from one dancer to the next producing a head bobble here, a buckle at the knees there. Soon, however, Girard's wizard-like turns become faster and the other dancers are bouncing up and down and boomeranging back and forth like pinballs.

But as Adler's text returns to the question of who is controlling whom, the other dancers constellate around Girard, each taking a turn whispering some secret message into her ear, before forming a chain hitched at the right arm behind her. This in turn leads into a sequence in which the group begins to move Girard, and from here the piece opens up into a succession of danced entanglements, Telford's arrangement of her bodies in space--via, for example, a simple yet beautifully captivating group pattern of unison breathing, or via more complicated duets--making manifest the axiom spoken by Adler: "There's distance, and also time." In dance, as in quantum physics, both can be stretched. And both can be folded and collapsed into each other, yet another paradox brilliantly illustrated with an elastic band, a story of the various lives affected by a car crash spoken by Adler as she moves slowly across the stage behind the elastic, and the dancers whizzing back and forth underneath it.

As Adler's text emphasizes just before this sequence, the question of the something that is happening--in the world, in one's life, in a performance--is not, or not only, an "if" or a "when" question. It's also, and perhaps most crucially, a "with" question: those seen and unseen forces that are beside one, acting upon one, and responding to one in the happening of that something. In quantum mechanics the term for this state of "withness" is superposition: that any two or more quantum states can be added together to produce another distinct quantum state. It's a principle that applies equally well to this unique collaboration, with text and movement the shared axes upon which the work spins.

I look forward to the next iteration.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Emerge on Main at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's "Month of Tuesdays" at the Fox Cabaret concluded last night with a concert called Emerge on Main. MoM Artistic Director David Pay's program showcased three Vancouver-based musicians whom he told us we "need to know."

First up was Nicole Linaksita, a pianist of immense talent. Performing Carl Vine's Sonata No 1, and later in the program works by Dorothy Chnag and Nikolai Kapustin, she ranged up and down the keyboard with crackling virtuosity, but also incredible clarity and sensitivity. Indeed, for all of the dazzling speed and fireworks of notes, especially in the Vine piece, it was Linaksita's contemplativeness and patient listening in the slower passages that I was most captivated by. She held the sustaining pedal at the end of Chang's piece for so long that at first I thought she had forgotten the next movement. But, no, she was just waiting for the music and her instrument to tell her--and us--when it had finished sounding.

Liam Hockley is completing his PhD in clarinet performance, and like Linaksita is an amazing solo artist whose interests range across classic and contemporary repertoires. In terms of the latter, Hockley's first set featured new work by Michelle Lou, Ray Evanoff, and Wolf Edwards. Lou's telegrams called for a tin can to be placed in the bell of Hockley's bass clarinet, and additionally sent sounds reverberating throughout the Fox via bluetooth technology. Edwards' Um allein zu kämpfen was a version of anarchist metal clarinet. It was sound unlike anything I'd ever heard that instrument produce, and it was amazing. Following intermission, Hockley returned to play the North American premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen's FREIA. He did so in three iterative poses: sitting cross-legged on the stage; kneeling; and finally standing up.

The evening concluded with the world premiere of SCA MFA alum and current collaborator Nancy Tam's Walking at Night By Myself, an eight-channel surround-sound composition performed by Tam and Anjela Magpantay that also features an amazing projection design by Daniel O'Shea and a movement score dramaturged by Lexi Vajda. All of this comes together in the following way. Tam and Magpantay, wearing striped dresses, stand on wired pads. Their movements to the right and left, backwards and forwards, trigger different sound loops based on Tam's field recordings. We hear footsteps and the whoosh of traffic and other ambient noises, which are in turn manipulated, distorted and overlain with electronic music recorded in the studio. As the performers are moving, O'Shea's strobe-like projections outline, shade, and travel up and down and across their bodies, sometimes isolating body parts, at other times doubling and tripling profiles and silhouettes. For example, there is a moment when Magpantay, at this point alone on stage, repeats back and forth what appears to be a simple quarter turn, her body at once moving into and out of, with and against, the luminous vertical white lines O'Shea is just then sending across the stage. The effect put me in mind of Michael Snow's iconic "Walking Woman" series, reappropriated here as a reminder of what it means for a woman of colour to walk by herself at night. As with everything Tam does, the piece is just not just an amazingly thoughtful merging of different disciplines, but also an immersive sensory performance that forces you to think.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Explanation at The Cultch

Fresh off a standout performance in the Arts Club's recent production of Jitters (which I blogged about here), James Fagan Tait premiered his new play, The Explanation, at The Cultch's Culture Lab last night. Tait, who also directs this frank theatre production, highlights in his program notes the rather ironical premise of what is his first queer-themed show: how two straight men should end up married to each other.

Wearing a black wig, miniskirt, and combat boots, John (Kevin MacDonald), begins the account with a long opening monologue about how he started dressing up in women's clothes. The wondrous discovery of his inner femininity in a Value Village changing room occasions in John more than a simple outward transformation. While it's not always clear that it's being done consciously, Tait is deft in these opening passages in telegraphing some of the paradoxical non-alignments of gender expression and sexual identification. Which is also to say that when John puts on women's clothes, feminist solidarity doesn't automatically usurp a sense of masculine entitlement. For example, after he starts venturing out in public cross-dressed, John tells us he likes that men are staring at his ass, the sense of power this gives him--which is, on one level, just a reinforcing of the power he already had. And while he begins by correcting himself whenever he refers to himself as a "girl," amending this to "woman," eventually this pretence is dropped and thereafter John takes special delight in self-identifying as a "big ol' girl."

Eventually John, who lives in Burnaby, starts venturing downtown to the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library every Saturday in drag. (The timeframe of the play is a little fuzzy; there are several references to "pre-Yaletown" Vancouver, but other descriptions suggest that the VPL central branch being referred to is the one now at Homer and Robson.) On one such Saturday, while browsing among the Literature DVDs section, John meets Dick (Evan Frayne), who tells us in his opening monologue that when he first spied John he immediately thought: "This is the kind of woman who would go out with me." So Dick asks John to coffee and John says yes and in that moment Dick discovers that John is a man. But they have coffee anyway and the awkward thrill of this semi-public conversation liberates an additional something in each of them, which is how they end up dancing at a gay club on Davie Street later that night. Here, with the aid of Noam Gagnon's perfectly calibrated choreography, which mixes Dick's awkward straight white man's shuffle with John's unleashing of his inner diva, the two men cement their bond (James Coomber's on point sound design also helps to add great comic texture to these scenes). Soon a regular Saturday routine is established and a relationship is formed.

For questions of sexual identity and conjugality aside, what we are witnessing over the course of the play is at base the slow and by no means always smooth formation of a deep affective bond, and one that completely blows up the typical conventions of the bromance genre. Which is partly why I was disappointed in the rather conventional ending to the play. When, after mixing up their regular weekend pattern by having Dick cross-dress instead of John, the two men have drunken sex together, a crisis of identification threatens to destroy their friendship: are they gay, the two men muse separately to the audience. And does that even matter? Sorting through these questions, the men discover that they do in fact want to be together, including sexually. But not including drag. The final image is of John and Dick, dressed in suits, telling us not just that they've gotten married, but also that they've adopted two children. In its aping of what queer sociologist Lisa Duggan has diagnosed as the new "homonormativity," this scene actually entrenches the heternormative foundations of the two men's identities.

John and Dick were far more radical queer outlaws in their single days dancing up a storm in women's clothes.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Dorrance Dance at the Vancouver Playhouse

Last night DanceHouse's 2017/18 season concluded with a triple bill by Dorrance Dance, the award-winning tap company overseen by the choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance. I was a bit dubious about sitting through 75 minutes of continuous tap, my usual threshold for the form being a few minutes of thematically juxtapositional razzle-dazzle within an otherwise rigorously contemporary work (as in DanceHouse's previous presentation of Betroffenheit), or else the paced out show-stopping routines of classic musical theatre (e.g. 42nd Street). But it seems that Dorrance's MacArthur Genius Grant is well-earned. Her aesthetic is one that marries deep respect for tap's history and traditions with a desire to push the form technically and conceptually.

This means, among other things, challenging the notion that it is only the soles of a tap shoe that can produce sound. In the opening number on last night's program, Jungle Blues, I was absolutely floored (the metaphor seems appropriate) when one of the company dancers first dragged the tops of their shoes along the parquet floor, producing a noise like a needle scraping across a vinyl record, and sending a corresponding shiver of delight down my spine. In this ensemble piece, set to a classic song by Jelly Roll Morton, the dancers alternate between unison choreography and character-based solo improvisations, with Dorrance herself playing up a gangly white-girl persona, all ungraceful angles and splayed knees. But my eyes were mostly on everyone's feet, watching how long someone's remained on demi-point (and sometimes full-on point), how often another's buckled over onto their sides, and so on.

If classic tap is all about the syncopated relationship between rhythm and gravity, such that we are made to marvel at how a person doing a freewheeling, double wing step, with both arms likewise windmilling the air, is able to remain upright, Dorrance is not afraid to push those limits--literally floorward. Her tap choreography is most interesting when it explores the off-axis and when, in doing so, it traces a genealogy between tap and a more contemporary form like break-dancing. This came to the fore especially in the concluding piece on the program, Myelination, which is an anatomical term that refers to the maturation and sheathing of nerve cells, allowing nerve impulses to travel more quickly. One can see how this applies to the hyper-kineticism of tap, but in this 30 minute piece with live music Dorrance also demonstrates its relevance to B-boying. Two of her dancers alternate between tap shoes and high tops, and some of the most innovative choreography relates to a sequence of intertwined prone legwork between this pair.

In between these pieces, Dorrance programmed a short but deeply affecting trio, Three to One, featuring herself and dancers Byron Tittle and Matthew "Megawatt" West. It begins with the three dancers, dressed in matching black cloth garments, standing side by side in a rectangle of downstage white light. Dorrance, wearing tap shoes, is positioned between the two men, who are both barefoot. As Dorrance begins to shuffle and click her feet together, almost like Dorothy seeking to return to Kansas from Oz, the men also start to move, sometimes falling into step with Dorrance, at other times breaking into quick, darting contraction and release movements of the hips and torsos and legs that are reminiscent of traditional African dance. Indeed, it is hard--especially once the two men exit the stage and Dorrance continues with a virtuosic solo that sees her alternate between retreating into the darkness of upstage and reemerging into the downstage light--not to read this work as an express comment on the specific African-American lineage of tap, as well as of so much American social dance more generally (from jive to hip hop).

This is hardly surprising coming from a choreographer as intelligent as Dorrance, who in addition to her years of tap training also designed her own undergraduate curriculum at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. According to Wikipedia, her courses focused on concepts of race in America in relation to democratic culture. If you're going to devote your life to reclaiming and celebrating tap as a form, this makes total sense.


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

De Souffles et de Machines at the Fox Cabaret

Music on Main's A Month of Tuesdays series is back at the Fox Cabaret. This weekly, one-night only presentation of the best in contemporary new music launched last night with the Montreal saxophone quartet Quasar. If you're thinking big band swing sound or jazz riffs or even Kenny G, think again. Quasar specializes in avant-garde mash-ups of acoustic and electronic sounds: hence the evening's title, De Souffles et de Machines.

I'll admit that much of the work was challenging, especially the first half of the program, which ended with Solomiya Moroz's On Fragments. The piece is based on her field recordings of the Griffintown area of Montreal, then (as it is still, I gather) in the midst of massive redevelopment and construction. Some of these sounds Moroz asked the members of Quasar (Marie-Chantal Leclair on soprano saxophone, Mathiew Leclair on alto saxophone, André Leroux on tenor saxophone, and Jean-Marc Bouchard on baritone saxophone) to imitate; others that she had herself manipulated electronically were looped in and out. And overlaying all of this was a bizarre movement score that saw the musicians ambling every now and then out from behind their music stands and turning their instruments this way and that in what I took to be a mimicking of heavy construction equipment.

I much preferred the two pieces on the second half, which began with Pierre Alexandre Tremblay's Les pâleurs de la lune, an award-winning chamber work that ended with a burble of ghostly sounds that were amplified from the back of the Fox space, so that it almost seemed as if the moon was itself seeking to come inside the room. The last piece on the program, Alexander Schubert's Hello, was accompanied by a witty video that featured the composer more or less accompanying the ensemble from the screen. It was a clever conclusion to the evening.

MoM Artistic Director David Pay himself plays the saxophone, having earned a Master's in Music from UBC in the instrument. At intermission he told Richard and I that he rarely plays anymore, but that he's been coaxed by friends to perform for them in the near future. That is an event I would definitely attend were tickets being sold. In the meantime, A Month of Tuesdays continues through April 24th.


Friday, March 23, 2018

VIDF 2018: RIFT at KW Studios

Salome Nieto is the recipient of the 2017 Vancouver International Dance Festival Choreographic Award. With it she and her company, pataSola dance, have created RIFT, which plays KW Studios as part of VIDF 2018 through this weekend. The piece tackles the difficult issue of femicide, the targeted killing of women and girls by men. With Nieto's trademark combining of the techniques and aesthetic principles of Butoh and flamenco, her powerful stage presence, and pataSola co-founder Eduardo Meneses-Olivar's highly theatrical stage design, RIFT becomes both a lament for and a protest against this unnecessary loss.

The piece is structured in three parts. In the first, Nieto emerges wearing a white slip dress, her body covered in traditional Butoh white make-up, and her feet sheathed in heels. But where we might anticipate the sharp staccato footwork of flamenco, Nieto mostly stays on her toes, concentrating instead on her braceo, or flowing arm work, and slowing down the rhythm of her movement to align not just with Butoh-time, but also with the time of grief, which stretches on for eternity. At the end of this section, we hear the stories of two women who have been brutally raped and murdered, and channeling this pain and trauma, Nieto descends to the floor, ripping up the paper children's drawings that cover it.

The second section read to me as Nieto incarnating the avenging persona of a female warrior. It starts with a Bata de Cola, the long ruffled dress worn by women flamenco dancers, being pulled on stage by wires. Nieto, now wearing only one red shoe, then proceeds to shimmy into the dress on the floor, her mask-covered face and arms suddenly emerging to startling effect. The inner red lining of the dress is used as a potent symbol throughout this section, with Nieto at one point going into a deep plie and raising her skirts, the obvious allusion to menstrual blood serving as a bold feminist reclamation of the senseless spilling of women's blood under patriarchy. Likewise, at the end of this section, the dress becomes the red-lined cape of a proud female toreador, Nieto's ramrod posture and unflinching gaze challenging anyone or anything to cross her.

The final section incorporates a series of affecting projections, and sees Nieto, once again in her white slip dress, reapplying additional body paint while sitting on a white chair. In an attempt to repair all that has been ripped open in the representation of violence from the previous sections, she then tapes pieces of rent paper from the floor onto the upstage wall. She also uses a white fan to imagine the souls of the victims of femicide as butterflies taking flight, the return of her graceful arcing braceo hauntingly doubled via the projection of her shadow self onto the upstage wall.

Nieto is an extremely captivating performer, and in RIFT she uses the intercultural language of dance to speak to an urgent issue of social justice.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Beautiful View at Kits Neighbourhood House

Several years ago I remember seeing a Ruby Slippers production of Daniel MacIvor's A Beautiful View at Performance Works starring Colleen Wheeler and Diane Brown. I distinctly recall during one particularly emotional exchange between the two characters, tears and snot and spit leaking in copious quantities from the always intense Wheeler's face. What I forgot altogether was the stuff about the bears.

For some reason, I failed to blog about that initial Vancouver production of MacIvor's play. Now I get to remedy that with this response to Naked Goddess Productions' mounting of the work, which is on at the Kitsilano Neighbourhood House (KNH) through this Sunday. In this production, directed by Tamara McCarthy, Melissa Oei (Lucy from Long Division) and Sandra Medeiros take on the roles of Elle and Emme, women whose intimate friendship begins in the realm of comic farce, settles into a version of domestic melodrama, and ends on a note of surreal spirituality (the characters never call each other by their names, and I suspect that the script--which I have not read--allows cast members and director to come up with their own, as I've confirmed that Wheeler and Brown went by Linda and Mitch). Oei and Medeiros handle these shifts in style and tone with deft precision and the play itself uses a retrospective "she said, she said" narrative conceit, with multiple direct addresses to the audience, to provide a structural and temporal through-line.

That line begins with Elle and Emme's first meeting, at a camping store, and continues through a series of subsequent encounters during which each tells the other a succession of white lies about herself, and then promptly tries to undo them. The dissembling culminates in drunken sex at Elle's apartment, a seduction each woman pursues because she's under the misapprehension the other is a lesbian. Following Emme's ashamed and wordless retreat the following morning, the women don't speak to each other again until, several years later, they bump into each other while camping. Elle is now married and once they clear the air around their respective sexualities, the two women fall into a fast and easy friendship that sees them weather Elle's divorce, several changes of job, and the general ups and downs of life. Until, that is, another woman comes between them and the seemingly irreparable rift in their relationship that results can only be mended through a final camping trip. I won't reveal here all that happens during this concluding rapprochement, but let's just say that what transpires is enough to suggest that the "beautiful view" that gets described several times throughout the play may in fact be extra-earthly.

What I will say instead is how much I admired McCarthy's approach to staging this scene. As Oei and Medeiros sit facing each other on chairs, as at the top of the show, we hear the conversation they are having at their campsite in voiceover (a tapedeck, a key prop throughout the play, is positioned in front of them, a pitched tent behind). Both actors are incredibly compelling in stillness, fully engaged with each other, but with their profiles nevertheless telegraphing to the audience the multiple layers of emotion and memory that go with any long coupledom. For, questions of sexuality aside, that is in effect what MacIvor is giving us here: a portrait of two women who are more than sisters or best friends, a duo whose love for each other transcends conjugality but not the feelings of hurt and betrayal that are part and parcel of a truly meaningful relationship. In this respect the on-stage chemistry between Oei and Medeiros is effectively winning. Oei's Elle is the more confident and expressive of the two, with Medeiros's quieter and more insecure Emme frequently taking her cue from her friend. There is a moment, for example, when Elle invites Emme to join her inside a light-filled box, part of a pretentious art installation whose opening the two are attending. Elle tells Emme to close her eyes and feel the moment, with Oei intertwining her fingers through Medeiros' and throwing her head back in blissful abandon. But Medeiros' Emme, tinier and decidedly anxious, can only look up at her friend with incomprehension, saying she feels nothing. It is also Elle whom Emme takes her cue from regarding a possible afterlife, and there is no better sight on stage than watching the play of inner perceptions dance across Oei's face as she conjures from her character's imagination the wonderland of heaven. Even when she immediately undercuts her vision, we believe, along with Emme, that such a place might exist.

McCarthy's staging makes creative use of KNH's somewhat awkward playing space. Essentially a long vaulted hall that is a remnant of the building's former life as a church, there is a small raised dais at the room's north end. But rather than be constricted by a traditional vertical proscenium, McCarthy has flipped the action horizontally, with the audience positioned in a semi-circle and facing the wider and windowed eastern wall, and with a porous proscenium in this case framed by strings of lights that descend from the ceiling (the lighting design is by SFU alum Celeste English). As a result, we are remarkably close to the actors, and in part because of the complicity established between performers and spectators through the play's use of direct address, it often feels like we are immersed in the different spatial worlds referenced in the action, eavesdropping on the characters, as it were, from the next tent over.

Mind you, the actual tent on the stage is my one main bugbear from this production. I don't think it's needed. The other spaces in the play are evoked through just a few simple props, and in a play that goes back an forth between realism and abstraction, I think the visual signifier of the pitched tent is just distracting, especially as the women are rarely if ever inside it. It's also a bit awkward to move around, with Medeiros being the one who is tasked with retrieving it and then stashing it away stage right, an action that mostly has the effect of calling attention to the presence of stage manager Nico Dicecco (tucked away in a corner upstage right). Not that I'm opposed to showing the wires. I just think that rolling out and up a sleeping bag would have sufficed. Even that's probably too much. Indeed, it makes sense for the dark beyond of the campground--where these women are forced to confront both their innermost and their outermost fears--to be a wholly imagined space.

Cue those bears.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Betroffenheit at the Playhouse

Betroffenheit, co-created by Kidd Pivot's Crystal Pite and Electric Company Theatre's Jonathon Young, was first presented as part of the Panamania Festival accompanying Toronto's Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games back in the summer of 2015. It's been touring the world to acclaim ever since. Like most in Vancouver, I first saw the show when it was presented by DanceHouse at the Vancouver Playhouse in February 2016 (you can read my original impressions here). Now, just before it embarks on the final leg of its three-year world tour, DanceHouse has brought the show back to the same venue. I was there once again last night.

In part this was practical: I've updated an essay I've written about Pite and Kidd Pivot to include a discussion of Betroffenheit; and I'll also be speaking about the work at the University of Stockholm in May. So I wanted to ensure that I hadn't made any egregious errors in my representation of the work, particularly with respect to its complex distribution of the human voice. But really I just wanted to be swept up once again by the amazing on-stage world that Pite and Young have created, and to revel in the sublime movement of the performers. On both counts I was not disappointed. Christopher Hernandez, replacing Bryan Arias (who I think is premiering a new work of his own in New York), fits into the ensemble seamlessly. Hernandez is about double the size of Arias, and so this does change the partnering with Cindy Salgado somewhat; but his solo that opens Act 2 is still a marvel of off-axis lightness and grace. Otherwise, all of the other performers seem to have grown more deeply into and with their parts; none of the movement felt mechanical or marked, and there were new expressive details in the choreography that I had the pleasure of discovering--such as the little foot wiggles that Tiffany Tregarthen does at one point when she's turned upside down in her role as the devilish monkey on Young's character's back in Act 1. Ditto David Raymond's incredibly controlled staccato work with his arms and fingers during the therapist scene. And what I'll call Salgado's breathing solo in Act 2 was deeply affecting, the simple inflation and deflation of her shoulders speaking volumes about the bodily manifestations of grief.

As the blue silk suited co-hosts of our show-within-a-show, Young and Jermaine Spivey are by now expertly attuned to each other's rhythms, both in terms of the movement and the lipsynched dialogue that they share. I remain amazed by Young's technical facility with Pite's complex choreography, but it was Spivey whom I couldn't take my eyes off of. If anything, it seems like his body and limbs have grown even more elastic and liquid; the flipping of his legs backwards over the arm of Young, or later their wave-like rippling along the floor, seems absolutely of a piece with Young's floppy manipulations of his puppet stand-in. Likewise, the speed and precision of Spivey's turns and the air he catches while flipping his body through space seem to defy the laws of physics. Needless to say, the solo by Spivey that concludes the work remains a devastatingly gorgeous summation of the archive of grief and trauma that has been passed from body to body in the preceding two hours.

Of course there were aspects of the work that I'd forgotten about, mostly relating to the text and how personally self-accusatory it is. Betroffenheit both is and isn't Young's story, but in abstracting his and his family's tragedy onto this fictional world he hasn't spared himself a nightly real-time examination pertaining to his grief and guilt. Mostly this comes in the form of subtle repetitions of phrases that are inflected with telling pronouns ("Is he at fault?," "I know she...," "They're in there," "They're in this"). But there are also just incredibly raw and open displays of pain, and the failing of others that is a consequence of this pain--as with the phone call from Mom. Somehow I'd also forgotten the desperately uncomprehending solo that Tregarthen performs in Act 2, her final pose--arms bent in front of her, as if cradling an absent child--giving me new context as to why her character is Young's chief tormenter in Act 1.

For all of the very real sorrow upon which Betroffenheit is built, the work is also filled with joy. To me, the piece is the danced equivalent of one of my favourite poems, Hart Crane's "Chaplinesque." There Crane writes about how, in the wake of all the torment and unhappiness the world throws at us, no matter how the game of life smirks at us, "we make our meek adjustments," we find "our random consolations." Because "what blame to us if the heart live on"? And it does. That was clear last night during the curtain calls. The love on stage, in the audience, and between the two was physically palpable.

What's more, everyone gets to renew the affair next year when Pite, Young, the dancers, and virtually the entire Betroffenheit creative team return to the DanceHouse stage with the world premiere of a new work of dance-theatre, Revisor. I spoke briefly with composer Owen Belton while exiting the theatre, and he said they have already been workshopping the piece at Banff. It will apparently be something of a political satire. Given the new Cold War we suddenly find ourselves in, it should be timely.


Friday, March 16, 2018

VIDF 2018: iyouuuswe at the Roundhouse

I liked the music a lot (the mostly original score is by composer Ki Young). And there was some great dancing, particularly by company members Jesse Obremski and Guanglei Hui. But overall I found last night's Canadian premiere of WHITE WAVE's iyouuswe at the Vancouver International Dance Festival to be structurally incoherent, with choreographer Young Soon Kim providing little to no connection between the different sections (there were nine of them)--beyond the multiplication or subtraction of dancers on stage. That I was counting entrances and exits more than I was concentrating on the movement tells you a little bit about my difficulties with this work, not least its caginess about when and how to end. There were about three different possibilities that I noted, and the less said about the one that Young chose the better.

That said, I was taken by the opening. It featured a duet by Jesse Obremski and Katie Garcia that showcased some strong side-by-side unison choreography. However, Young's vocabulary shifted noticeably in the second section, with the partnering by Lacey Baroch and Mark Willis mostly comprised by a series of acrobatic lifts. This points to another minor (or perhaps not) issue that irked me about the performance: the costumes. The five men in the piece were all dressed similarly and non-descriptly in casual pants and untucked dress shirts. The four women, however, wore shiny pants, leggings, or short shorts, accompanied by sleeveless tops that were either sequined or backless or flowing. Fine, that's a specific dramaturgical choice. But if this piece is, as the program notes state, about "developing relationships by which we struggle to find a sense of 'i' as part of a 'we,'" why emphasize so starkly the gendered differences of your dancers? Or another way of asking this is why, in accessorizing the women on stage, turn them into danced accessories of the men? This question was in my mind during most of the opposite-sex partnering sequences, but was perhaps most starkly on display during the first sub-section (!) of the penultimate section 8 sequence, in which the tiniest of the women dancers, Michelle Lim (she of the short shorts and sequined camisole), is helped to step from chair to chair by Mark Willis.

I haven't yet mentioned the chairs. There are nine of them arranged in a row upstage at the start of the piece. During the first two duets they are mostly ignored. However, an ensuing sequence of structured improvisation featuring the entire company is punctuated by the dancers' mass retreat upstage to the chairs. I freely admit that I have a weakness for choreography involving chairs (having written a play on the subject); but in this case it was hard for me to engage because I found much of the choreography to be overly familiar: a step-up and down here; a slouch to the ground and hip swivel there; throw in some retrograde; etc. There was also the fact that the dancers didn't seem to have enough room to give themselves over fully to the movement. The distance between the chairs was indeed tight, with some space no doubt lost to the many curtain legs Young was employing for added wing space (cue all those entrances and exits). Then, too, the upstage line of chairs, combined with the backstage curtain meant that the Roundhouse stage was unusually shallow. When the full company was on stage things got quite crowded, and some of the downstage dancing was additionally obstructed by the annoying bar in front of the first row that has been added to the new seats at the Roundhouse.

The latter, I gather, is for safety reasons, but last night it was just one more annoyance to my spectating pleasure.


Friday, March 9, 2018

VIDF 2018: Dancers Dancing and EDAM at the Roundhouse

The Vancouver International Dance Festival continued last night at the Roundhouse with a double bill of works by local companies that were linked by themes of memory and reconstruction. The free seven o'clock show in the exhibition hall was choreographed by my colleague Judith Garay, whose company Dancers Dancing celebrates its twentieth anniversary next year. In Confabulation, Garay is joined on stage by former students and DD company members Jane Osborne and Bevin Poole. In them, Garay appears to be watching versions of her former self, and after beginning the piece with a simple gestural hand sequence that somehow managed to combine feelings of both supplication and worry, Garay roams the stage in her long brown coat watching from both the inside and the outside as Osborne and Poole make their progress through space and time. (Garay quotes Tennessee Williams on memory in her program note, and there is definitely a sense in which she is functioning, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, as both narrator and character in this piece.)

As for the progress of Osborne and Poole, it begins in the upstage left corner of the stage as a gorgeous slow motion and on-the-spot run. To recorded sounds of street noise and muffled conversation and babies crying and the general hubbub of life, the two women--at first together, and then separately--lift one leg and extend it in front of themselves, while the other kicks out behind. Garay has always been meticulous about the technique of her dancers, and one of the pleasures of this simple opening is revelling in the detailed articulation of feet and toes, and the striving, unhurried reach of pumping arms. Much of the rest of the piece operates as a duet for Osborne and Poole, with the similarly dressed dancers working in counterpoint, and often at different vertical and horizontal axes, but also coming together in moments of effortless unison. But Garay does more than just circle the stage. She has a stationary solo that sees her stretching for the sky, and she joins Osborne and Poole on a bench for a highly satisfying reprise and extension of the her opening gestural sequence. Soon after this, Garay exits the stage; but she reappears at the end of the piece in a most unexpected way to offer a final benediction on those whom she has so wisely mentored.

The mainstage show last night spotlighted EDAM and was a mixed program featuring highlights from company director Peter Bingham's choreographic career. It began with Hindsight, from 1995, a duet here featuring company veteran Olivia Shaffer and Kelly McInnes. It is set to songs by Berlioz and Richard Strauss that are sung by Jessye Norman, and begins with the two dancers standing upstage, fluttering their arms up and down like they are birds trying to fly. But thereafter most of the movement takes place on the floor, with an extended opening sequence in which Shaffer and McInness roll back and forth across the stage, simultaneously moving towards and away from each other, and managing to locomote from upstage to downstage by every now and then launching their rolls on a diagonal axis. But it's the coming out of and the pauses in between the rolls that are the most captivating, with the two dancers arresting their momentum with an amazingly graceful placing of their hands on the floor, their bent elbows and bowed heads suggesting a prayer of repair for broken wings. Equally amazing is how Bingham has essentially constructed a non-contact work of contact in this piece. Not that Shaffer and McInness don't eventually come together or make it to vertical (once downstage, positioned against two oppositely placed door frames); but even here the contact is fleeting and the piece ends with McInness back on the floor and Shaffer executing a painfully beautiful series of fluttering changements, desperately willing herself to lift up off the floor and soar through the air for both herself and her partner.

Sinking SuZi is a solo for Ziyian Kwan that was originally commissioned in 2002. It is the perfect showcase for Kwan's technical artistry and compelling stage presence. Beginning upstage left, and with her back to the audience, Kwan moves horizontally across the stage, arcing one arm out from her torso and then upwards into the air. This will be followed by a diagonal series of tilting pirouettes, at first with Kwan's hands resting on her thighs, and then circling about her body. But the most beguiling--and also the most extended--of the repeated movement sequences choreographed by Bingham for Kwan is the one in which she sinks to the floor in a deconstructed lotus position, one leg in front, the other behind, from which she then propels herself upward, turning once around as she lifts one arm upwards in a hail hello and places one foot over the other. I could have watched that one move go on forever.

The final piece on the EDAM program is also the most recent. Engage the Feeling Arms is a trio from 2016 that I first wrote about here. In this iteration Diego Romero (replacing Farley Johansson) joins Shaffer and Walter Kubanek in a dynamic display of virtuosic contact, but one that begins as a quasi-Orientalist shimmer of floating and ever-shifting intertwined arms before exploding into the dynamic physicality of thrown bodies and caught and distributed weight that is Bingham's signature. Watching this work again in combination with the other pieces, and also thinking about the different generations of dancers represented on stage, is to register just how instrumental Bingham and EDAM have been to the dance ecology of this city. Kudos to VIDF for showcasing these contributions in this mixed program.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Ten Thousand Birds at the Roundhouse

Last night Richard and I went to an extraordinary concert at the Roundhouse put on by Music on Main (MoM). The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams' Ten Thousand Birds is a work for chamber orchestra. As its title suggests, it is based on the sounds of birdsong. However, rather than stage the work in a traditional proscenium setting, MoM Artist-in-Residence Vicky Chow and her all-star ensemble put together a roving musical installation. That is, the Roundhouse's main presentation hall was stripped of its seats, and apart from a few fixed stations for piano and percussion, the rest of the musicians move with their instruments around the space. Likewise, we are invited to do the same, experiencing what MoM Artistic Director suggests in his program note is the equivalent of "an enchanting forest walk."

It was indeed a magical experience, as much for the opportunity to be so up close to the musicians as for the richly ambient saturation of the sound. On the former front, I can only marvel at the poise and sangfroid of the artists, as they were not only negotiating our unpredictable locomotive pathways, but also our sometimes intensely proximate and scrutinizing gaze (on the way in, running into Nancy Tam, who was playing the melodica, I couldn't help myself from waving hello). Then, too, the environmental distribution of the sound meant that it was possible for one to close one's eyes (as I saw many patrons in fact do) and follow the acoustic direction of the various instruments as they came in and out--except that navigating the intersecting trajectories of other audience members would have been a bit dangerous.

I'm gathering that as music director of the piece, Chow reset Adams' score to allow for improvisation among her ensemble members. No one was using sheet music, but they did all have timers that they'd consult at various moments that no doubt cued them as to when it was their turn to come in or to fade out. But judging from the call and response between the various instruments/musicians, this framework seemed flexible. I was especially taken by the interplay between Alexander Cannon on trumpet and Jeremy Berkman on trombone: both with each other, and with the other ensemble members. Their variously short and sharp or elongated honks and beeps and toots suggested everything from an airborne gaggle of geese to a waddling group of ducks to a tree full of crows having an animated argument. The more whistling notes of Liesa Norman on flute, Terri Hron on recorder, and Tam and Nicole Linkasita on melodica conjured robins and bluebirds and other smaller avian beings. When the wind instruments were combined with strings (Newsha Khalaj on viola, Mark Haney on bass, and Nicole Li on the delightfully resonant erhu) and/or percussion (Katie Rife and Julia Chien, playing a variety of instruments), multiple symphonies burst forth in a manner of seconds, and then just as quickly disappeared--as with the birds outside our bedroom windows who both awaken us and put us to sleep.

One especially memorable sequence occurred near the end when Rife, playing the marimba in the centre of the Roundhouse space, was riffing in response to all the other calls from the other instruments swirling around her. Special mention also needs to be made of the moving duet between Chow at the piano and Liam Hockley on clarinet, their slightly more mournful tones suggestive of what it might mean if the daily toll of our birds' sounds were to stop.

If and when that ever happens, we're in real trouble, and the fact that last night's concert was presented in conjunction with the Vancouver International Bird Festival (!) and the 27th International Ornithological Congress is a reminder that, aesthetic representations aside, the music birds make is something we should all be deeply invested in maintaining.


Saturday, March 3, 2018

VIDF 2018: Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Playhouse

The 2018 edition of the Vancouver International Dance Festival is underway and last night at the Playhouse saw the Vancouver premiere of two remarkable works by Shen Wei Dance Arts. In her curtain speech VIDF co-producer Barbara Bourget said that she and her VIDF and life partner Jay Hirabayashi first saw Rite of Spring and Folding at the Montpellier Dance Festival in 2005 and that they'd been trying ever since to bring the works to local audiences. Lucky for us their persistence paid off, as together the pieces serve to showcase choreographer Shen Wei's eclectic intercultural and cross-disciplinary influences, combining the formalist rigour of American modernist dance technique (he trained at the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab following his move to New York in 1995) with the ritual compositional drama of Chinese opera.

The first piece on the program was Rite of Spring. It uses the famous Stravinksy score, but transposed to two pianos. The result preserves the pounding rhythmic dissonance of the original music, but stripped of any expressionistic embellishments that might come from string and wind and percussion instruments. Likewise, Shen Wei chooses to ignore the narrative of ritual sacrifice, abstracting the tension in the music into formal patterns of stillness and commotion, striving and collapse. That starts with the very opening of the piece, with the dancers emerging one by one from the wings and amassing in silence on either side of the stage (there are eleven in total, although a twelfth will later be added, perhaps Shen Wei's one sly and McGuffinesque allusion to a "chosen one"). In turn, the dancers then each walk stiffly and slowly to a different spot on the stage, which is painted in a swirl of white lines that matches the cross-hatching of markings on the dancers' costumes and that suggests a grid that has been exploded into broken pathways. For, indeed, once the last dancer has taken her place, the others will begin to locomote like remote-controlled chess pieces along different diagonals and axes, gradually accelerating their pace and barely avoiding collision until the walking patterns are suddenly disrupted from within when one of the male dancers throws his body through space and tumbles across the floor like an acrobat.

I can't remember if it's at this point that the music comes in, but hereafter the stage is mostly a riot of asynchronous movement, with Shen Wei especially adept at matching the various crescendos and diminuendos of the musical score with startling kinetic eruptions: as when the dancers propel themselves from a sitting position vertically into the air, or when they repeat an amazing scissor-kick sequence from the floor. In this version of the Rite, the group is not seeking to avoid being swept up into the maelstrom; they are moving with all of their energy and force closer and and closer towards it, to the point where, at the end of the piece, forming a circle out of all of the angular chaos that has preceded this moment, they become the collective whirling eye of the storm.

Folding couldn't be more different in its choreography and tone and pacing. And also its music--which combines a bell and string quartet by John Tavener with traditional Buddhist chants. The work unfurls like a strange dream, and it disappears like one too. Key to this is Shen Wei's canny use of lighting (he is clearly an adept student of Alwin Nikolais in this regard). After the curtains part, still in dim half-light, we see two figures float onto stage, again from opposite wings; they glide upstage and then disappear. This pattern repeats a few times as the lights slowly come up to full and we gradually take in who these otherworldly creatures are: wearing long red skirts, their torsos and arms and faces covered in white body paint, their heads prosthetically elongated with padding that makes them look like aliens from outer space. Eventually five (or maybe it was six) of these figures will cluster upstage right, their backs to the audience, where they will begin a simple distributed sequence of rises and falls, interrupted by the occasional dramatic pirouette, their floor-length skirts kicking out violently from underneath them like a whiplash of blood. As this is happening, couples clad in green begin emerging, the upper bodies of the women seeming to arc out, as if surgically attached, from the upper bodies of the men. Shen Wei doesn't seek to explain how these two groups are related; he leaves it to us to make our own connections, to as it were engage in the process of folding and unfolding inside from outside (and it's really impossible for me to not view this piece within a Deleuzian framework). In so doing, it behooves us to simply give ourselves over to the visual and kinetic pleasure of the gorgeous tableaux that Shen Wei creates on stage.

And the unfolding of the last of these is perhaps the most wondrous of them all. It begins with a trail of the red-skirted beings floating in a line on stage, both hands placed gracefully on their thighs. As each member of the group begins to approach centre stage, the right hand slowly moves up to the chest as the head is then thrown back, as if each dancer is making supplication to--or seeking benediction from--the gods. Out of this group one of the dancers, Alex Speedie (also a particular standout in Rite), moves further downstage and begins a slow sinuous solo that for me was all about the breathtakingly boneless floating of his arms and hands and fingers through space. It was one of the most powerful kinaesthetic representations of pure weightlessness that I've ever experienced, and it will stay with me for a long time. As will the ending of the piece, which sees the stage returned to dim half-light, the rest of the group coming together in a mass as Speedie continues his solo, and eventually ascending on risers that we did not know were there into the heavens. Utter magic.

Less enchanting, however, was the size of the house last night. These are two major works of dance genius that Vancouver audiences absolutely must see. One more performance remains tonight, and I urge folks to drop everything and buy a ticket.


Sunday, February 25, 2018

From Where We Stand at the Firehall

As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of the Vancouver dance scene. But sometimes the lack of communication between presenters can be frustrating. This weekend is a case in point: between Ballet BC, Chutzpah!, DanceHouse, and the Firehall (to name only a few), there were simply too many shows to see. So last night something had to give, and in our case it was our regular subscription tickets to DanceHouse's presentation of Toronto Dance Theatre (those went to Stefan and Lara). Instead Richard and I decided to catch the Firehall's last showing of From Where We Stand, a double bill featuring new works by Chick Snipper and Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

The connection between these two dance artists is longstanding and deeply material. A decade ago, when Snipper decided to move to Ottawa, she handed over her company, DanStaBat (DSB), to Friedenberg, who reconstituted it as Tara Cheyenne Performance (TCP). Recently returned to Vancouver, Snipper and Friedenberg are now sharing a double bill to celebrate the ten year anniversary of Tara's company. Except in Snipper's case, she is not presenting the work she thought she would be creating. Big Melt, a planned investigation of the relationships between four generations of women dancers, did not receive its anticipated Canada Council funding, and so with the encouragement of Friedenberg and Firehall AD Donna Spencer and production manager Daelik, Snipper conceived Unnecessary, a piece that begins as a solo for Anne Cooper and that turns into a duet between Cooper and Snipper. That this transition also involves a dialogue between text and movement is just one of subtle surprises of the piece.

A reflection on the vitality and creativity that older women artists still have to offer, Unnecessary begins with Cooper, her normally braided hair here long and loose, straddling a chair positioned centre stage. As a woman's voice begins to reflect on how her anticipated easy slumber in old age has in fact been increasingly interrupted by late night bouts of restless insomnia (the text is by Snipper, the voiceover by Jane Perry), Cooper begins to pivot her body from side to side on the chair, her hair making wild arcs in the air, like it is a fifth limb. Indeed, throughout the solo, as she eventually gets up off the chair and starts to torque her body through space, Cooper will continually pause to lift her hair off her face, holding it above her head. Is she gathering up the multiple wild and untamed strands of her being as a woman and an artist into some tidy bundle for a scrutinizing public, or is she simply trying to be seen? Either way, the image is a striking representation of the paradoxical (in)visibility of older women in our culture--which is enough to make anyone pull their hair out. Snipper and Cooper talk about some of these issues in a downstage conversation that encompasses the collapse of funding for Snipper's originally planned piece, their generational evolution as artists, and much more. And the piece closes with Snipper reciting a moving poem downstage while we see Cooper reflected behind her in an upstage diagonal.

Friedenberg's  I can't remember the word for I can't remember, an excerpt of which was first presented at Dancing on the Edge in 2016, begins with the artist loping on stage on all fours like a chimpanzee. Friedenberg opens her big expressive eyes wide and blinks blankly out at the audience. She scratches herself, beats her breast and hoots in the air, before pausing and executing a short movement phrase with her fingers on the floor, her simian self sliding the tips of her digits out from under their curled knuckles in a rhythmic tempo reminiscent of a trained pianist--or a virtuosic texter (and digital technologies will return as a motif). Eventually Tara-as-chimp climbs into the lap of one front-row spectator and proceeds to pick invisible gnats out of his hair and eat them. Beyond serving as an hilarious set up, and also demonstrating Friedenberg's amazing gifts of physical mimicry, it's not immediately clear how this opening relates to the theme of memory, nor to the rest of what follows. For, after a short blackout, we are given Friedenberg, now fully bipedal and standing in a square of white light centre stage, asking us, in medias res, "What was I talking about?" 

She puts this question directly to two different audience members, whom she also proceeds to size up and label (as, for instance, a New York Times-reading, NPR-listening hipster), telling them how much she likes their boxes--but not as much as that of a third audience member whom she picks out, whose architecturally minimalist, postmodernly deconstructivist box is the ultimate cat's meow. This second opening establishes the narrative through-line of the piece. On the one hand, waning memory is linked closely by Friedenberg to our current age of multiple electronic devices, social media and general information overload. Who can remember anyone's phone number anymore, she asks, while simultaneously remonstrating her own cell phone, positioned in its personalized square of light, not to compete for her attention. Later she will also enact an increasingly slapstick movement sequence based on gestures associated with the tapping and scrolling and swiping of our screen devices. This theme alternates, however, with the piece's other big concern, namely the categorical boxes into which we slot different people, and into which we in turn are slotted (or slot ourselves). As Friedenberg cheekily notes, returning to her square of light following her initial discourse with the audience, we all come out of a box when we're born (which she demonstrates), and after about 36 months of running around and being allowed to remain generally formless, we're then immediately put back into a box (let's call it identity), where we'll remain more or less until it's time to climb into that other box that gets lowered into the ground when we die.

The problem for Friedenberg, however, is that in terms of her own life, there's a four year gap in her memory between the ages of three and seven. She wants to know where that box went, and also what's in it. Or does she? This part of the show involves some of Friedenberg's most personal textual material, including voiceover recordings with both of her parents (and also, very movingly, her child, Jasper). Forgetting, here, becomes associated with trauma, and the black hole of memory that Friedenberg is trying to excavate within the black box of the theatre sends her scurrying more than once to the upstage black wall, where, in perhaps seeking safety and/or escape, her body becomes that much more exposed and vulnerable and surveilled--more than once she recoils physically from the wall as the result of some sort of electrical shock or pulse it seems to emit.

On the one hand, Friedenberg seems to be suggesting in this piece that there is the forgetting that happens as a result of benign neglect--that is, because we have ceded the task of remembering to software and big data. And then there is the more wilful forgetting we do, the things or events or people we put into boxes and then hide away at the back of our closets or underneath our beds. There's no suggestion or resolution of which kind of amnesia is more harmful, although (to go back to her opening entrance, which will be reprised) Friedenberg does hint that both are evolutionary processes, that within the larger context of deep, planetary time, what we do or don't remember from day to day or across the arc of an entire lifetime is really just a drop in a really big and bottomless bucket. And this Friendenberg cannily and metatheatrically demonstrates at the end of the show when, returning to the audience, she seeks our help in recalling what she's doing here on stage and what has just happened over the course of the previous hour. The fact that her interlocutors have some trouble recalling what they have only just witnessed happen is an apt metaphor for performance as a kind of anarchival forgetting in real time (it's here and then it disappears). But, at the same time, the fact that, based on what scraps of information she is able to glean, Friendenberg attempts to reconstitute the sum of the performance through the physical repetition of its various fragments points to how the body is its own memory muscle. And one whose storehouse of voluntary and involuntary recollective impulses far exceeds our own skeletal frames and even historical contexts.

That is, loping offstage once again on all fours, Friedenberg reminds us that there's a little bit of chimp in all of us.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Romeo and Juliet at the Queen E

Five years ago Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar did something unusual. In the midst of the company's renaissance and bold recasting of itself as a contemporary ballet company, she commissioned a new version of Giselle from then choreographer-in-residence José Navas. I say unusual because just as audiences were starting to embrace her choreographic accent on mixed programs of complex non-narrative and conceptual works of dance, here she was presenting a classic example of nineteenth-century story ballet. Then, too, her choice of Navas--a Cunningham-trained dancer and choreographer steeped in abstraction--to create the work seemed strange. The resulting production was a bold updating of the ballet's sexual and gender politics for the twenty-first century (Giselle, Albrecht and Hilarion in a homoerotic love triangle), accompanied by a striking stage design. However, I had mixed feelings about how Navas took his cue from Adolphe Adam's music in crafting his choreography, especially the extent to which the work of the ensemble overshadowed the solos and duets of the principals. (You can read my full review here.)

To be sure, the flipping of this traditional balance between displays of individual virtuosity and moments of visually and technically satisfying collective dancing is in many ways to be expected when a contemporary choreographer used to working collaboratively encounters a company with the depth of talent (and lack of hierarchy) like Ballet BC's. For, with this weekend's world premiere of the Molnar-led Ballet BC's second in-house story ballet, Medhi Walerski's updating of the Prokofiev-scored Romeo and Juliet, I experienced something similar to my appreciation of Navas' Giselle: I was absolutely spell-bound by the group scenes, and by the clean modernist lines and monochromatic palette of the stage design (the set, consisting of three giant moveable portals, was by Theun Mosk, the costumes by Walerski himself); the partnering between the two leads, however, left me a little nonplussed.

The piece opens in a visually dramatic fashion. Following Prokofiev's opening overture, the curtain rises to reveal the entire ensemble--supplemented here by several Arts Umbrella apprentices, as well as member of AU's Graduate Program in Dance--massed on stage, staring out at the audience, their rigid posture and grim faces telegraphing what Shakespeare's choral prologue tells us we already know: things aren't going to end well for our star-crossed lovers. In the midst of this bit of kinetic telepathy, one of the dancers suddenly moves. It is Romeo (Christoph von Riedemann), moving horizontally across the stage to find Juliet (Kirsten Wicklund) and take her hand. But she pushes him away, and I admit that I experienced a brief moment of narrative confusion here: was this Walerski suggesting that the young lovers, or at the very least Juliet, know from the start that their romance is doomed; or could this be, as I also wondered, an opening condensation of the backstory involving poor Romeo's rejection by Rosaline, for whom he is pining before he falls for Juliet?

The question is left unanswered as we are immediately plunged into a roiling and raucous street scene in Verona. Here is where Walerski immediately places his own choreographic stamp on this signature story and music, busying the stage with so many bodies, their movements transitioning fluidly between recognizable bits of actorly pantomime (conversation and gossip, a hearty hail hello or an unneighbourly snub), physical theatre that serves a narrative purpose (a shove between rival members of the Houses Montague and Capulet that turns into a full-scale brawl), and gorgeous dancerly unison that is as pleasing for its scale as for its skilled execution. This combined group aesthetic is especially powerful during the ball scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, where in moving between the initial hijinks of Romeo, Benvolio (Patrick Kilbane) and Mercutio (a stellar Scott Fowler) and later the love-at-first-sight encounter between Romeo and Juliet, Walerski channels a version of cinematic montage (he has stated that his research included the famous R&J films by Zeffirelli and Luhrmann). That is, Walerski is somehow able to slow down time, giving us a glimpse of romantic interiority (as with the hand on hand duet that is the danced equivalent of Shakespeare's palmers' speech) amid what is otherwise a scene of domestic exteriority. Likewise in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt (Gilbert Small), the former's inevitable careening and off-kilter march toward death is forestalled more than once by the juxtapositional tumult of its frenzied witnessing by the citizens of Verona--a reminder that the division between these two houses affects all members of this society.

By contrast, in the famous balcony scene Walerski doesn't really give the young lovers that much to do by way of compelling or interesting dancing. He is in a rush to bring the two together, but the lifts that result are often physically and visually awkward, and where one would hope for something surprising by way of a transition he frequently substitutes a kiss. In this scene of the play, before Romeo announces his presence, Juliet expresses her excitement at having met Romeo in vocabulary that is richly physical and kinetically alive and she is in many ways the more active and worldly of the two characters ("You kiss by the book," she tells Romeo). Yet here I found her to be mostly passive, spending more time in the air than on the ground, danced more by Romeo rather than dancing for or around him. (Contrast this with Kenneth MacMillan's famous staging of this scene with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, in which the latter spends a full minute or so in stillness on his knees as the former twirls around him.) I did respond more enthusiastically to the scene in Act II when the lovers consummate their secret marriage, Walerski's crafting of a pas de deux that is mostly floor-bound and a rolling mix of intertwined limbs nicely conveying that for these two teenagers they are as much in lust as they are in love. And in this version of the ballet Juliet is, uniquely, given a long moment of psychological interiority when, having been instructed by Friar Laurence (Peter Smida, effecting the sexiest onstage priest I've ever seen) to take the poison that will induce her family to think she is dead, she is allowed to gaze upon a tableau vivant version of these events, the witnessing of the inert body of her double perhaps giving her momentary pause as to whether this passion isn't just high stakes folly. And the way all of this plays out in the tomb when the banished and lately returned Romeo discovers what he thinks to be Juliet's dead body is a truly amazing coup-de-thèatre.

In the end, what is perhaps most surprising about this production is the extent to which a contemporary choreographer like Walerski has embraced the narrative and characterological codes of dance drama. This includes effective front of curtain bits of pantomimed action that serve as transitions between scenes. And it also includes the casting of three veteran Ballet BC dancers in non-dancing roles: the alums Sylvain Senez and Makaila Wallace as Juliet's parents; and longtime company member Alexis Fletcher as the Nurse. Fletcher, especially, proves herself up to the dramaturgical challenge of acting with her body, and her stolid and physically grounded presence as confidante, interlocutor, and witness is a reminder that no monument to these lovers' senseless deaths will absolve anyone on stage from their complicity in this tragedy. As such, when the ensemble gathers at the end over Romeo and Juliet's bodies--in a reprise of the opening diorama--it was the Nurse, in her distinctive checked skirts, whose image I first sought out.

Notwithstanding the caveats outlined above, I look forward to encountering the Nurse and all of her fellow Veronese when this ambitious production is next revived in repertoire.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Jitters at The Stanley

David French, perhaps English-Canada's most produced playwright of the 1970s and 80s, is getting two revivals in the Greater Vancouver Area right now. Salt-Water Moon, part of French's Mercer Family cycle, opened at the Gateway this past Friday; directed by Ravi Jain, this touring co-pro from Toronto's Factory Theatre and Jain's own Why Not Theatre is a heavily stylized take on French's period-set Newfoundland love story. The production got raves when it opened in Toronto in 2016, but according to our friends Richard Wolfe and Connie Kostiuk--with whom we had dinner last night, and who attended the Gateway opening--Jain's choices produce decidedly mixed results, and there were more than a few walkouts.

By contrast, the Arts Club staging of French's backstage comedy Jitters, on at the Stanley through February 25, adopts a reliably naturalistic take to its story, and the audience ate it up. Director David Mackay has chosen to set the play in the year it was first produced, 1979, in part as an homage to outgoing Arts Club AD Bill Millerd, who opened the company's second Granville Island venue that year. More practically--and very rewardingly--in terms of production design, this choice has given costume designer Mara Gottler free rein to reproduce the shaggy hairstyles and flared pants and garish colour palettes and clothing patterns of the period. An eye for authentic temporal specificity also extends to both sides of Ted Roberts' revolving set, including: the psychedelic hues of the wallpaper, throw pillows, and afghan in the living room of the play-within-the-play of acts one and three; and the grimy, overstuffed dressing rooms of act two. Even the pre-show and intermission music was chosen with care.

Likewise the entire cast feels at home--both emotionally and physically--in their parts. Megan Leitch, as the diva Jessica Logan, and Robert Moloney, as her cynical and hard-drinking co-star, Patrick Flanagan, are expert foils, their constant verbal sparring nevertheless allowing us to see the vulnerability that each is attempting to mask: for Jessica, the Canadian who has made it in New York, a fear that she is past her prime; for Patrick, the home-grown talent who has decided to remain a big fish in a small pond, the gnawing anxiety of failing on a bigger stage. James Fagan Tait, whom I mostly know as a director, reveals himself to be a hilarious master of comic timing in playing Phil Mastorakis, the jobbing character actor who has a habit of drying on stage and who still lives with his mother. Kamyar Pazandeh, as the company's male ingenue Tom Kent, conveys just the right amount of wanting-to-please-everybody desperation, and also gets a breakout moment of Y-fronts-wearing physical comedy in the second act. As, respectively, the put-upon director George Ellsworth and the alternately protective and self-doubting playwright Robert Ross, Martin Happer and Ryan Beil do their best to referee all of these egos, while also finding time to needle each other on various artistic choices. Raugi Yu, looking like an Asian member of the Bay City Rollers, gets in a few good digs against everyone as the martinet of a stage manager Nick. Kaitlin Williams, as the front of house manager Susi, and Lauren Bowler, as props person Peggy, make the most of what little their parts give them to do.

And in terms of action, French's play is not an all-out farce in the manner of Michael Frayn's Noises Off. Which perhaps explains why, as a spectator, I kept leaning in and out of yesterday's performance. All three acts have significantly different tonal qualities, which mostly pertain to the additional statement about Canadian artistic nationalism and our longstanding cultural cringe towards the United States that French wishes to make. Thus, in act one, the set-up of the animosity between Jessica and Patrick at a rehearsal four days before opening is skewed in its beats mainly towards punctuating the binary choices facing theatre artists in Canada in the 1970s: flee to the US to make it on Broadway; or plod along anonymously in rep in Canada. To be sure, the start-and-stop rhythms of the rehearsal--with everyone offering an opinion on the script or wanting something from director George, and with Nick in voiceover reminding everyone about the ticking clock--are a warmly affectionate poke at the world of the theatre more generally. But it's only towards the end of act one, with an aborted entrance by Phil, that we actually start edging into the comedic hijinks we've been waiting for. And it's only in act two--set on opening night, with both Phil and Tom seemingly AWOL, and with the Broadway producer who's come to see the show stuck at the airport--that we move into full-blown farce. Director Mackay and the entire ensemble nail all of the physical action here, and both the laughs and the pacing are satisfyingly relentless, with the audience exiting into intermission on a nice collective high. But in act three French makes another tonal shift, returning to meta-commentary via an extended dissection of a post-opening review in the Toronto Star. Again, there are some nice moments of insider recognition here, but the resolution of the supra-conflict around artistic integrity as distilled through the opposition between Jessica and Patrick feels somewhat forced.

And also dated. This is by no means a fault of the production. I'm merely noting my own feeling that the extra layer of quasi-political critique about Canadian cultural production that French attempts to fuse to the genre of farce (and for a Quebec-focused 70s-era take on this see Robert Lepage's film No) hasn't aged so well.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Chutzpah 2018: Open at The Rothstein

You gotta have a gimmick, right? Clearly Daniel Ezralow, Artistic Director of the LA-based Ezralow Dance, thinks that when it comes to Gypsy Rose Lee's maxim, the more the merrier. In Open, which--ha, ha--"opened" the 2018 Chutzpah! Festival last night at the Rothstein Theatre, gimmick after gimmick is trotted out in attempt to mask the empty ideas and utter lack of choreographic distinction at the heart of what is essentially a succession of brief dance-theatre vignettes. Roped-off boxing ring? Check. Potted palm trees? Check. Finger puppets? Check. Black and white face paint? Check. Mismatched costumes? Check. And let's not forget the supra-gimmick of the constantly moving screens, the locomotion of which was perhaps the most technically accomplished physical activity of the entire evening.

To be fair, the eight dancers are trying very hard. But it is clear that most are not classically trained and that they come from more commercial dance and musical theatre and even circus arts backgrounds. And then there's the fact that the choreography is itself better suited to a cruise ship than a concert stage. Ezralow clearly subscribes to the So You Think You Can Dance school of physical expressiveness: Faster! Bigger! More! And don't forget the costume changes. The partnering is especially clumsy and genitally awkward, with the lifts of the women more in line with the look-at-what-we-can-do posing of ice skating than the structural plot pointing of ballet. This was especially notable in an early man-at-beach-meets mermaid sequence and then later in what I can only describe as a gold laméd tribute to physique posing. (During the latter the women behind us burst into uncontrollable laughter.)

It would be one thing if this were all being done with a wink and a nudge, if Ezralow was taking the piss out of his audience. After all, he does pair most of the vignettes with iconic musical compositions by Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Bach, among others. However, I could detect absolutely no irony at work in the juxtaposition of musical and dance scores. Indeed the Prokofiev-themed homage to Romeo and Juliet was utterly sincere, which just made it that much more painful to watch--especially as the Robbinsesque choreography was so derivative. Likewise, a gum-booted line dance to Bach was clearly undertaken with the utmost seriousness, and was not meant as a burlesquing of either artistic variation.

The programming of Open is a real head-scratcher. Normally the dance presentations at Chutzpah! are reliably rewarding, with Mary-Louise Albert bringing in top international companies and also showcasing amazing local talent. This work is definitely the worst piece I have seen at the festival, and ranks among the poorest dance performances I have ever attended. How it continues to tour in the way it does is beyond me.