Saturday, September 24, 2016

Between Two Rocks at SFU Woodward's

I wanted to give a brief shout out to Between Two Rocks, Robert Leveroos' MFA graduating show in SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, which has one more performance this evening at SFU Woodward's Studio T. If you want to luxuriate in the spinning of theatrical magic, then this is the show for you. In fact, a spinning wheel is a key prop in the performance, as is the wool spun from it. Some of that wool has been woven into a gorgeous curtain of string behind which many mysterious things happen, and out of which lots of additional objects (and the occasional body) emerge.

Taking his inspiration from a Norse folktale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," Leveroos, while combining text, movement and sound to impressive effect, very much foregrounds scenographic design in this piece, which contains myriad surfaces and textures. This includes a moveable raked plywood "stage" that to begin with is covered in a resplendent golden fabric, and that in one memorable moment near the top of the show appears to ripple and gather and bunch up all on its own, as if some strange creature is burrowing underneath it. It is this attention to the animacy of objects--not least the pliability and sensuousness of the wool that is such a key element of the overall design--that makes this work so unique. Not that human actors, including performer-collaborators Pascal Reiners, Elliot Vaughn, Gordan Havelaar, Linnea Gwiazda and Elysse Cheadle, aren't also important; it's just that those actors' primary function is not necessarily to animate the space by exerting their human will upon it (in the form, say, of traditional dramatic conflict), but rather to respond to how the space, and what else is already inside it, is acting upon them.

This piece is a feast for the senses: from the squeak of the spinning wheel's pedal echoing through the dark to the sound of wet wool being wrung out in a bucket; and from the sight of a smoke-breathing woolly dragon to the strange but compelling spectacle of the performers rolling their heads along the upstage edge of the plywood platform (which, not least because of the overlapping speech that accompanies this scene, I registered as a nod to Beckett's Play). There are so many wonderful moments in this piece that work to reorient our perception. I cannot do justice to them all in this short post. Conveniently, however, Leveroos provides us with a documentary record of his scenographic score on the back of the program.

That program also provides a record of Leveroos's collaborations on this piece with fellow SCA students: past and present, graduate and undergraduate. One can of course never go it alone in art and performance (despite what some modernist visual art critics might think). But what I love about the work produced by the students and my faculty colleagues in SCA is that this axiom is always made explicit.

P

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Digital Folk at SFU Woodward's

I have been following the evolution of plastic orchid factory's Digital Folk for the past three years: first as initial concept showing during the company's residency at the Cultch in 2014; then as an adapted micro-performance at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island in 2015; and finally as a test run of version 3.0 last month at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby (you can check out past writing on the piece here, here, and here). Now the show arrives, in all its immersive glory, at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, where it opened last night, welcoming members of the paying public for the first time. During its long gestative journey (the metaphor seems appropriate given that two core collaborators on the show are now pregnant), Digital Folk has never lost sight of some key ideas it wished to probe through the research and creation process: how interactive media technologies have fundamentally altered patterns (cognitive and kinetic/physical) of group socialization; and how to transfer and interrupt such patterns within a live performance environment.

The first idea plays out through a proliferation of mirroring techniques in the piece. There are, for example, the myriad screens with which performers and spectators interact: the television monitors that play the Xbox dance and music games with which we are invited to interface, mimicking the grooves of various cross-species avatars; the larger screens upon which the record of these efforts is sometimes streamed; even the screens of performers' smart phones, which they take out at one point in order to attempt a hilarious real-time reenactment of a group folk dance posted to YouTube. But Digital Folk complicates this particular feedback loop of connectivity by including other kinds of mirroring, including that which takes place all the time in a studio between dancers practicing their technique or learning new choreography. At various points throughout the piece, one performer will begin following another, attempting to reproduce the other's improvised movement as their partner wends this way or that way throughout the space; after a while, however, it becomes difficult to tell who is following whom. Then there is the outstretched palm used to start up the video games that in one powerful moment of stillness magically becomes a gestural hail to all the performers. Mirroring is also transferred to the grain of the voice, with the deliberately awful vocal mimicry of The Sally Field Project house band to classic tunes called up through software memory contrasting with the virtuosic display of human memory as Jane Osborne and James Gnam take turns echoing each other during a shared recitation and riff on a scientific article dealing with perceptual and spatial recall. The event of the echo, a vocal delay, returns sound to one altered, changed, so that the singular voice becomes double, something also neatly captured in this performance through the polyphonic--and polyglot--telling of a folk tale in multiple languages by Natalie LeFebvre Gnam, Diego Romero, Shion Carter, and Vanessa Goodman.

In Digital Folk the audience becomes a fundamental part of the tale being told. Invited to don various bits of costume as we enter the performance space--an immersive installation built within the Wong Theatre--we are then free to roam about the wonderful set designed by Natalie Purschwitz and lit by James Proudfoot, taking a seat on the stacked blocks in the centre, lying down on a bit of indoor-outdoor carpet, joining the performers and fellow audience members in a group dance to one of the videos, or just standing and watching in the corner. And while there are certainly moments in the piece--for example, at the end when Romero and Bevin Poole Leinweber perform a duet of David Bowie's Starman on the ukulele--where the audience is prompted to adopt the spectating habits of a traditional proscenium setting, becoming silent and still and directionally attentive, what struck me in this version of the show is how much I wanted to participate: twice getting up to shake it, shake it alongside Goodman and Lexi Vajda and others to different dance videos; and accepting without hesitation a slow dance to Freebird with fellow audience member Walter. And it is in these unscripted--or rather, unprogrammed--bodily encounters that Digital Folk as a live performance interrupts the one-way circuitry of human-computer interaction. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in that space of free play that occurs between the end of one nightly iteration of the performance and the start of another. To explain: Digital Folk, which is about an hour long, runs on a loop at 7, 8 and 9 pm over the course of an evening. Audience members are free to come in and out and to stay for as long as they like. While Richard and I, having both had long days, chose to leave after an hour, in ceding our show garments to new arrivals we were able to pass on a bit of recently acquired folk wisdom about how to be with others in this truly amazing performance space.

It has been fascinating to watch the development of Digital Folk. Just in the month since its penultimate test run at the Shadbolt the piece has undergone a superb edit in both content and form--though I do wish The Sally Field Project were still ethnomusicologists from the future. Transitions between different bits have tightened and all the performers have become freer and looser in improvising with the always shifting rules of this particular game. This includes the student interns from SFU's School for the Contemporary Arts, who in a unique arrangement facilitated through SFU Woodward's Cultural Programs (a co-presenting partner on the show) have gained valuable artistic experience through this project. Carter, Kayla DeVos, Rachel Helten, Hannah Jackson and Rachel Silver have all proven their chops alongside the more seasoned professional performers mentioned above. That three of them also got to see their former professor lamely execute a familiar repertoire of pop choreography (pelvic thrusts and finger points included) is something I'm more than happy to live with.

Digital Folk continues tonight through Sunday. I highly recommend checking it out. It's the first great dance party of the fall.

P


Monday, September 19, 2016

Long Division Workshop

I don't know why it's taken me so long to announce on this blog that my new play is being produced this fall. I guess I didn't want to jinx anything. But after last week, one of the most intense and rewarding of my writing life, I think I can finally let Schrödinger's cat out of its box (bad inside joke).

My play is called Long Division and it is being produced by Pi Theatre in association with the Gateway in Richmond, where it will open on November 17 (get your tickets here). We don't begin rehearsals until October 24, but as part of the creative process our director Richard Wolfe had blocked off a week-long workshop with the actors in early September so that we could collectively dig our hands into the script, and so that I could respond to their comments and queries with rewrites as needed.

I can't disclose just yet who those actors are (I believe an announcement from Pi is imminent), but I can say that there are seven of them. For a long time I thought the size of the cast meant the play would never be produced. But now that I've met our actors--all of them amazing talents whose past work on stages across this city I've so admired--and heard them speak my lines, I can't conceive of having written the piece any other way.

The ensemble nature of the play is closely tied to its subject matter: a chain reaction of events that has thrown seven otherwise mostly disconnected characters into an enforced relationship with each other and, consequently, an accounting of what role they each may have played in precipitating--or not forestalling--said events. To do so, they use the language of mathematics, and the play has been partly constructed as an equation to be solved, with characters addressing the audience in a series of monologues that alternate with choral scenes that attempt to offer further lessons in what one of the books I consulted in the course of my research has called "the science of patterns."

One thing became immediately clear after Richard, the actors, our stage manager, Jethelo Cabilete, and several of the designers gave their feedback following the initial table read last Monday: some of the mathematics in the play had to be simplified and, more to the point, couldn't just be included in a "hey, isn't this cool" manner. It always needed to be in the service of the story and both the actors and the characters delivering the math lessons needed to understand what they were saying, and why. The actors' questions on what this or that concept meant forced me to explain things in more concrete, real-world ways, and often that very language found its way into the play.

As useful was the consensus note to create more of a balance between the cool and somewhat analytical feel of the math lessons and the warmer, more emotionally involving human stories that were being shared. I needed to find a way to make the structural dialectics of the play more compelling for the audience, to both suggest why these characters (only one of whom is a mathematician) might turn to numbers and geometry and the like as a way to abstract and make sense of an event that is still too painful to contemplate fully, and when and why the weight of that pain refuses to fit into neat and tidy patterns. In the course of these revisions, especially, I was able to begin refining the connections between the characters, tweaking each of the monologues to add greater individual clarity and depth, but also collectively to suggest how these folks are constellated as parts of a whole.

On this front, what was most exciting for me was to see how the actors responded to my new pages each day, discovering in my revisions added layers of complexity and vulnerability for each of their characters and, most thrillingly, bringing that out in their subsequent readings. It is such an amazing thing for a playwright to hear his or her words lifted off the page for the first time, and with this play in particular there are lots of choral moments where very conceptually and emotionally loaded lines have to be lobbed quickly and deftly back and forth between characters. Fortunately this crackerjack ensemble is more than up to the task.

After a shorter day on Thursday, which was mostly devoted to a publicity photo shoot with David Cooper (who is a wizard with the camera), Richard and I met with the dramaturg who has been working with me on the script for the past several years, my friend and colleague DD Kugler. Kugler's notes were, as usual, spot-on, and combined with what the actors and Richard had already given me by way of feedback, I had lots of material to attack in a more holistic way a comprehensive revision of the entire draft. This I undertook via a late night of writing on Thursday and some early Friday morning tinkering. Richard and I stopped to make some photocopies on the way to the Gateway and as I distributed the new scripts to the actors I held my breath a bit in anticipation of how this version would land. It was clear from everyone's reactions after the last line was spoken that I had definitely cracked a nut and that while there was still more work to be done, a corner had been turned and we were heading in the right direction (which is not just a metaphor in the context of this play).

We did one more reading on Saturday morning, this time with almost the entire production team present, including choreographer Lesley Telford, composer Owen Belton, costume designer Connie Hosie, lighting designer Jergus Oprsal, and set designer Lauchlin Johnston (only projection designer Jamie Nesbitt was absent). A great luxury of this extra workshop time is that it has allowed the entire team to bounce ideas off of each other and, what's more, to do so within the very space--Studio B at the Gateway--where we will be performing (a big shout-out to the Gateway's Jovanni Sy for making this possible). After the morning read and some time for the actors to do some movement exercises with Lesley, the production and design team then had a conversation of what might be possible to achieve within our space (which is intimate) and, as crucially, within the show's overall budget (also not huge, and with such a large cast, most of it needing to be allocated to human resources). Still, the ideas discussed--which I'm not at liberty to reveal--were so exciting. When I started writing this play, I conceived its visual design and movement score as being absolutely integral components--and ones, moreover, that would aid immeasurably in getting across or helping to supplement various math concepts referenced. I'm happy to say everyone else seems to agree.

So, now the ball's back in my court. Over the course of the next week and a bit I've got to turn around a new version of the script. I pretty much know what I have to do, and I'm anxious to get to work. Stay tuned for rehearsal updates beginning the end of October. And I hope to see you at the show.

P



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fringe Festival 2016: Great Day for Up

The second Fringe Festival show I saw yesterday, also at the Waterfront, was Electric Company Theatre's production of Great Day for Up. Originally written and performed by ECT Artistic Director Jonathon Young in 1996 as his graduating project from Studio 58, the company has revived the piece on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

Great Day is a short Beckettian exploration of the limits of language, the materiality of objects, the body's estrangement from itself and its environment, and the meta-ness of the theatre. It showcases Young's immense talents as a physical performer, as well as ECT's trademark sensitivity to total theatrical design (the lighting is by Adrian Muir and the terrific sound score is by Owen Belton). Young plays an unnamed striver who climbs on stage through what looks like a roof-top skylight of the sort one would find on an old tenement building. He has brought with him a plastic bag of junk and, literally willing his legs to move, he gradually explores his surroundings. The dilemma facing him is where does he go from here? Danger lurks in the wings and there appears no way out behind the safety curtain stage left. Our erstwhile hero is willing to take direction: from the objects around him; from the scraps of paper whose messages he initially receives as oracular pronouncements, only to subsequently revise the text; and from someone named Will to whom he occasionally directs an existential query. It would seem--especially given the immense second ladder positioned upstage left--that the only way forward for the character is to go further up. Except, we eventually learn, up is actually "in."

And, in this respect, an equally interesting aspect of attending this show is that Young includes, as part of the program, an inserted "Afterword," in which he lets audience members in on the original genesis of the piece's composition, as well as his thoughts on returning to it 20 years later. It's a most compelling--and quite moving--piece of writing: not least for the way it gives us more "texture and colour" to a show Young variously refers to as a "thing" or a "blob."

P

Fringe Festival 2016: The Girl Who Was Raised by Wolverine

This is my dedicated weekend to see Fringe Festival shows, as I anticipate next week will be a bit of a time-suck between teaching and other projects (although, who knows?). I picked two shows, both at the Waterfront Theatre, for yesterday afternoon.

The first was The Girl Who Was Raised by Wolverine, by Deneh'Cho Thompson, whom I know as a very talented actor in the School for the Contemporary Arts' Theatre program. This is Deneh's first play, and it focuses on a young mixed-raced Indigenous woman named Stephanie whose blood apparently holds the cure for a mysterious contagion that has befallen the world in the not-too-distant future. Stephanie has been held against her will for psychiatric observation and physiological experimentation in a state hospital since childhood and is now faced with an impossible decision: she must decide which of her parents--her Indigenous father or her white mother--must die as part of a "culling" that has decreed that one-third of the population must be exterminated.

I think it's a very interesting choice to fuse the dystopic YA genre (Stephanie's defiance of her captors bears more than a hint of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games) with traditional Indigenous storytelling conventions. However, in its current form Thompson's play is a bit of a mess. Not only do the scenes shift awkwardly between Stephanie's present in the hospital and her past memories of life with her parents, but the action is repeatedly halted to have the actors playing said parents argue with each other about the plot and solicit audience advice on how the story should proceed. Normally I have no animus against breaking the fourth wall, but here the device seems less a sincere address to, or even undermining of, audience sentiment than a glib invocation of a well-worn Brechtian theatrical conceit. Then, too, the final address to the audience which ends the play presents us with a choice as impossible as Stephanie's, one involving the small rock that each of us is handed upon entering to the theatre--and that upon exiting I could only refuse to dispose of according to instruction.

From reading the brief description of the play in the Fringe Fest program guide, and also talking to my SCA colleagues, it sounds as if Deneh's play has shifted quite radically from its original conception. There is certainly an interesting story here, but at present it's a bit hard to locate.

P

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Simile at The Dance Centre

Today is The Dance's Centre's annual fall open house, which officially marks the launch of its 2016-17 season. Last night Richard and I, along with other donors and invited guests, got a sneak peek of tonight's mainstage show, Simile. A collaboration between Ziyian Kwan, of dumb instrument Dance, and Vanessa Goodman, of Action at a Distance, the evening is made up of two solos and a duet.

Kwan leads things off with a reprise of "Still Rhyming," which she premiered at VIDF this past spring, and which pairs her with local musician Jo Hirabayashi, who plays electric guitar and sings. An homage to Patti Smith, and especially her writing in M Train, the piece asks, among other things, what it means to embody creative influence. How, for example, do you dance a book's possession of your soul? In Kwan's case, this leads to a provocative opening duet with the book as choreographic object. Lying prone on the floor with a hard-cover book covering her face as Hirabayashi picks out a riff on his guitar in the upstage right corner, Kwan slowly arises from her slumber, her eyes peeking out over the edge of the book. The book begins to slide down Kwan's torso, but she is careful not to let it fall to the ground. Indeed, in the movement that follows Kwan is at pains to keep the book in as close proximity to her body as possible: she passes it through her legs like a basketball; she clutches it under her chin; and, most extraordinarily, she grips the spine between her teeth, jumping up and down so that the white pages fan open and close, open and close, like a huge gaping mouth waiting to suck us into its world of mystery and pleasure. This first part of the piece was most captivating. I was less sure about what to make of Kwan's subsequent dialogue with a chair, which via its draping with a black leather jacket and bits of Kwan's conversation we are meant to surmise stands in for the absent presence of Smith. It's always tricky addressing an invisible interlocutor on stage, much less dancing with them--though embedded in Kwan's goofy mistake about how to spell her own name there does seem to be an interesting comment about whose signature ultimately belongs on the work, one that is also extended to the audience.

Goodman followed with a solo called "Floating Upstream," a work that once again showcased how beautifully and intuitively she moves to the original electronic soundscapes created by frequent collaborator Locsil. The piece begins with Goodman in a crouch centre stage, her back towards the audience. Clutching each of the long billowy white pant legs of the costume she is wearing up around her thighs, she slowly bounce-shuffles up stage, like she is wading through a heavy current or a soupy swamp. Following Goodman's program note, we can read the white pants as a nimbus of clouds through which she has thrust her body, keen to explore a different view and set of spatial orientations. At the same time, I couldn't also help seeing the hitched up pants as Victorian-era bloomers, symbol of gendered bodily constraint that in Goodman's efforts, having reached the upstage wall and turned to face the audience, not to let her cuffs fall means she literally has to keep her knees together. Either way, the initial isolation of Goodman's upper body means that we are able to marvel at the simultaneous flow and precision of her movement, her arms undulating in waves through the layered wash of Locsil's score only to jab suddenly at the air in response to successive musical pulses. Later, having freed up her legs and let loose her pantaloons, Goodman is also able to transition seamlessly from a rubbery Gagaesque style of inside-out lines and limbs into a version of a robot dance that, when placed in the context of past solo work (I'm thinking especially of Container), suggests a recurring theme of moving within, as well as busting out, of prescribed convention. Whether or not this is intentional, it's utterly compelling to watch.

After a short intermission, the evening concluded with a duet between Kwan and Goodman called In Vertebrate Dream. A rumination on the differences--as well as the productive synergies--of each artist's creative process, the work sees the dancemakers tapping into their inner animals by donning polar bear (Kwan) and zebra (Goodman) masks respectively. It is truly uncanny how the donning of a mask changes one's approach to a body on stage. Initially when presented with the tableau of Goodman standing upstage right and Kwan sitting downstage left I couldn't tell who was who (though, in retrospect, Kwan's furry high heels should have perhaps been a clue). Eventually, the dancers' different movement vocabularies register as identifying markers. However, I found myself most interested in the moments of stillness on stage and how traditional theatrical (and anthropocentric) perspectivalism can be upended through a simple act of turning a mask around on one's head. Here embodied inter-species encounter and contact (as when Goodman's zebra cradles Kwan's polar bear head in her hands) is very much about new ways of looking at creative exchange and sustainability--in artmaking and worldmaking. By contrast, when the human speaks through the animal and the latter is used as a metaphorical resource then there is a danger of reinforcing certain entrenched ways of thinking about animacy and our relationship to the material world. Not that I didn't enjoy those moments of silliness when Kwan's polar bear starts to sing an Edith Piaf song, or when Goodman's zebra narrates all the endings to the piece that the duo couldn't agree upon. I just think they need some editing--and perhaps also a bit more careful theorizing.

P

Friday, September 2, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 22

Yesterday morning I sat down with my former student, Alana Gerecke, to talk about her Vancouver dance history. Which, of course, like so many of the artists we've interviewed so far begins elsewhere. In southern Ontario, to be precise, where while training competitively to be an elite gymnast Alana also studied ballet, took the occasional class at Danny Grossman's studio, majored in musical theatre at the Etobicoke School for the Arts, and got her first taste of contact improv from Karen and Allen Kaeja when they were guest instructors at the high school to which she subsequently transferred in Waterloo.

Alana came to Vancouver in 2001 to study at SFU, not least because of its dance program. While completing an English honours degree (where I first met her) and an extended dance minor, Alana took classes with Santa Aloi, Judith Garay, Cheryl Prophet, Marla Eist, Henry Daniel, Megan Walker-Straight, and Conrad Alexandrowicz. Together with fellow members of her SFU cohort, including Melanie Kuxdorf, Jessica Barrett, Laurie McDonald and MFA student Chris O'Connor, Alana also formed Behind Open Doors Collective, a group that specialized in site-specific improvised "hops" around the city (they took turns acting as score captain), in part because they couldn't afford rehearsal space.

Following completion of her undergraduate degree at SFU, Alana took Susan Elliott's contact improv workshop on Saltspring Island, and then a summer intensive with Peter Bingham at EDAM. Peter subsequently offered her an apprenticeship with his company, and for the next seven years (2006-2013), while completing her MA and beginning her PhD at SFU, Alana danced alongside Stacey Murchison, James Gnam, Farley Johannson, Delia Brett, and Anne Cooper as an EDAM company member. As Alana recounted to me, her time time dancing for Peter remains a highlight of her career to date, and the EDAM studios at the Western Front are one of her most cherished dance spaces in the city (as they have necessarily turned out to be for so many of our other interviewees).

Alana has also enjoyed working with battery opera's Lee Su-Feh and David McIntosh--most recently on a remount of David's M/HOTEL and as part of the research process for his Terroir Tour. And as I well know, Alana has also written with acute intelligence about David and battery opera's work in her dissertation on Vancouver site dance, which also includes a superb chapter on Karen Jamieson (whom we must also at some point interview). Indeed, through her critical research as much as her embodied practice, Alana's Vancouver dance history runs much deeper than her years in the city might suggest.

But then, of course, this is part of what we are discovering with this project: that the lines of connection and influence are not simple or straightforward or even linear and that, in Alana's words, Vancouver's dance history is not just "of here," but also always "an intersection of other spaces."

P