Monday, October 15, 2018

The Last Post (sort of)

I thought it was better to make an official announcement rather than just letting this blog go progressively fallow. After ten years and some 850+ posts, I am stepping away from uploading regular performance reviews to this site. The reason for this is simple: I no longer have the bandwidth to keep up with the task of responding in a thoughtful and meaningful way to all the shows that I see. My compulsive spectatorship of Vancouver performance will continue; I'm just relieving myself of the duty of writing about it.

This decision is freighted with a great deal of angst. I am well aware that public forums for arts and cultural criticism continue to diminish. It's why I started the blog in the first place--to give something back to a performance community that has given so much to me. I'm also conscious of the fact that I once wrote somewhere, in reference to precisely this act of reciprocity, that I could no more stop posting to this blog than I could give up my subscription to Ballet BC. The Ballet BC subscription is still intact, but the model of doing this off the side of my desk is no longer sustainable, especially when that desk is so cluttered with work from the institution that pays my salary (an institution, I note, that has never officially acknowledged the work I have done on this blog). Along these lines, it's instructive to me that the blog upon which I modelled my own, Jill Dolan's Feminist Spectator, has largely been dormant for the past three years, with only two posts (one of them a guest post by FS2 Stacy Wolf) since December 2015--which coincided with Jill becoming Dean of College at Princeton.

To be sure, I'm nowhere near as busy as Jill (nor has any major academic press rushed to publish a selection of my reviews--though I am, of course, open to offers...). But for my own sanity (not to mention the sake of my relationship), I am forswearing this form of criticism for the foreseeable future (say that six times fast). This does not preclude the occasional post here and there should the mood strike me, or should I be especially compelled by something I've seen. The past decade's regular cycle of morning-after reflections will, however, be retired.

To all my readers (all thirty-five of you), I thank you for your interest, and I invite those of you who might be so inclined, to consider making your own contributions to performance criticism in the city. To all the presenters out there, you can stop sending the email invites. I know I reneged at some point on my pledge always to pay for my own tickets, but now I will be returning to that principle, I swear. And, finally, to all of the artists whom I've written about: thank you for the complexity and the integrity and the generosity of your work. Please keep making more.

See you at the next show,

P

(P.S. And don't forget to vote!)

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cain and Abel at The Firehall

Two men on stage: similar heights, similar complexions, slightly different builds, dressed exactly the same. Brothers, right? So we forgive their rough-housing. After all, aren't those pajama bottoms they're both wearing? Boys will be boys. Even when they grow into men and the horseplay turns more physical and the spelling of who plays victor and who victim is starkly represented for us in one standing over the prone body of another. It's nothing we haven't seen in MMA.

But what happens if you dress those boys up as girls? How do we read the sibling violence then? What kind of statements about gender and patriarchy are we being asked to contemplate? Such are the questions that form the heart of Cain and Abel, a new work of dance-theatre by The Biting School's Arash and Aryo Khakpour that is on at the Firehall Arts Centre through this evening.

It makes sense that the brothers Khakpour are drawn to the Biblical story of fratricide. Purely at a meta level, it allows them to explore--in highly physical and theatrical ways--both the differences and the overlaps in their respective training as dance artist (Arash) and theatre performer (Aryo). Professionally each has regularly crossed over into the other's discipline, and so I can imagine that over the years there have been more than a few conversations about who has booked a show and who hasn't. And yet, not withstanding individual set pieces and the structuring motif of repetition, this is not only a work about one-upmanship. For this particular take on Cain and Abel also happens to be read through Jean Genet's classic play about sisterly and sadomasochistic role-playing, The Maids.

At a certain point in the piece, having divided the stage in half with a bucket of stones, Arash and Aryo find themselves upstage, whereupon they enact for us the aforementioned victor/victim scenario, each taking turns lying under or standing over the other as they slowly move across the stage. Thereafter they remove their pajama bottoms and trainers and fetch from the clothes line in front of them the various accoutrements of a French maid's outfit: black pantyhose, black dress, white apron, and pick plastic gloves. What follows is a condensed--and, I must say, exceedingly compelling--run-through of the basic plot of Genet's play, with the object of the sisters' murderous fantasies, Madame, nicely represented by a white dress that descends from the ceiling.

But what could have been a confused mash-up of different stories of sibling rivalry is elevated to a timely comment on gendered violence by the repetition of the physical vocabulary that anchored the first half of the piece. All of sudden when we see one of the brothers/sisters lying prone on the floor with her skirt hiked above her waist we are reminded that women pay an unequal price for men's compensatory anxieties about how they measure up against each other. We have only to look at what the jockeying of a certain fraternity of male politicians is accomplishing south of the border this weekend to understand this, and as such the message of this bold work of hybrid performance couldn't be more relevant.

P

Saturday, September 29, 2018

CAGE at The Dance Centre

Katie Duck is a legend on the international dance and performance scene, known especially for her focus on improvisation, and for her canny combining of text, movement, sound, and visuals. All of those elements were present last night as she performed her show CAGE for one night only at The Dance Centre. The title is a nod to the composer John Cage, and especially to his practice of creating chance musical scores. For her performance, Duck has created a text structured around loosely connected disquisitions on place and institutional power, the pleasure of women's bodies, the reciprocity of love, and the sweet relief of death. A portable score that's supplemented by a few key props (a chair, several wigs, a long black dress) and a haunting washed-out video of Duck moving in slow motion towards a sunlit door that plays at the beginning and end of the piece, Duck then collaborates with local musicians and performers wherever she tours the work.

For her Vancouver stop, Duck's musical collaborators were Ben Brown on drums, kazoo, and hand-cranked music box, Roxanne Nesbitt on the double bass, and James Meger on electric guitar, looping pedals, and cello. All were perfect matches for Duck's antics, alternating in places as foils to what she was doing (as when Nesbitt challenged Duck about whether or not she could fill Meger's shoes) or as illustrative supplements (as when Brown jumped up from where he had been lying downstage to demonstrate what it would be like to carry a fetus in his penis).

As for Duck, she is an assured and inventive improvisor and an equally charismatic performer. There were times when in adapting the text to the local context of Vancouver, as at the very beginning when she talked about the need to make an acknowledgment regarding the land, that I thought things were going horribly wrong. But every time she managed to spin out another interesting and deliberately aslant point, in this case starkly calling out the fact of dispossession. Duck's costume changes were equally inspired. The long black dress she wears for the central monologue extolling the beauty and perfection of all vaginas becomes in subsequent sections a mini-skirt, a witch's hat, and an Abu Ghraib-style blackout bag covering her face as she slumps in her chair.

This last image precedes the ending of the piece, in which Duck invites her collaborators and also us in the audience to join her in a fictional death scene. Seeing Brown drape his body so dramatically over his drum kit was priceless and attests to the risks Duck is able to inspire in her fellow performers.

P

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Never Still at The Firehall

Fresh from the premiere of last year's Wells Hill, and with the aid of the Yulanda Faris Choreographers' Program, Vanessa Goodman and her company Action at a Distance opened the Firehall's 2018/19 season last night with another ambitious full-length creation. Never Still is about water: both the natural element that covers nearly 70% of the earth's surface and the physiological element that makes up over half of humans' bodies (the Borg to Captain Picard: "You bags of mostly water!"). Not that you need to know this to enjoy the work, and when the curtains parted and the lights came up on dancer Lexi Vajda jerking and twitching her limbs amid a sea of white Tyvek (ironically the material used to wrap houses in order to prevent water penetration) as fellow dancers Shion Carter, Stéphanie Cyr, Bynh Ho, and Alexa Mardon sunk their already partially immersed bodies deeper into its folds, I was actually put in mind of a waterless lunar landscape.

Albeit one that still ripples with movement: both from the submerged bodies that, over the course of Vajda's almost ten-minute solo, are slowly sending the Tyvek, like ebbing sea surf, upstage, and from the lighting and visual effects (courtesy of James Proudfoot and Loscil/Scott Morgan, respectively) playing across the Tyvek's surface. And I have to say that the monochromatic palette of the piece's design concept is truly compelling. When the other dancers emerge from underneath the Tyvek to join Vajda, we see that like her they are wearing baggy tennis whites; set against the projected black and white images of their floating bodies on the video that plays behind them (again by Loscil, featuring additional underwater footage by Ben Didier), the colourless blur of live bodies sets in motion Goodman's liquid choreography in a manner akin to beads of water on a flat, sloping surface--chasing after each other and occasionally forming into a single mass, but also breaking apart and hovering near each other in trembling anticipation. Such effects were especially brought to light in a duet between Cyr and Ho in which Goodman continues her experiments with non-touch partnering, and also in a group sequence in which all five dancers come together in a slowly shifting huddle, spelling the placement of each other's limbs and subtly changing their facings in a manner that challenges our conception of what is liquid and solid.

What I most appreciate about Goodman as an artist is that she creates complete performance environments. She is a choreographer of immense intelligence and talent, but she's equally interested in sound and lighting and visuals and design. With Never Still we get the integration of all of these elements into a work that while staged proscenium-style nevertheless feels immersive. I encourage folks to dive in.

P

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Mute Canary at SFU Woodward's

The Turning Point Ensemble's 2018-19 season opener was a program at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre that featured four works by the Czech-Canadian composer Rudolf Komorous. An added bonus was the screening of an opening short film commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre that contextualized Komorous's approach to music, and also his career as a faculty member in the School of Music at the University of Victoria, where he trained several of this country's most esteemed contemporary composers, including TPE Artistic Director Owen Underhill. As an illustrative and pedagogical tool I found the film's animation of several of Komorous's scores to be particularly effective, especially in explaining his method of spatial, or proportional, notation.

Three short works from the 60s through the 80s followed the film. In the first, Olympia, Underhill and Christopher Butterfield, from U Vic, sat on either side of a table filled with an assortment of instruments, some of them more or less recognizable (a melodica, a harmonica), some of them not (a flexatone, acolyte bells). With Butterfield having first set a stop watch, he and Underhill then combined the sounds made from these instruments into what was at once thoroughly strange and wonderfully surprising: who knew the flexatone made that kind of noise when waved in the air? How delightful to insert the nightingale whistle there! Fuman Manga, a woodwind quintet from 1981/85 followed. From a fluttery flute opening it gradually built in complexity, incorporating the deeper tones of the bassoon and french horn near the end in a way that jolted me out of my seat. This first half of the program culminated with 23 Poems about Horses, Komorous's setting of a suite of poems by the Chinese poet Li-He. The English translation of these poems was narrated by Butterfield as Underhill conducted the TPE musicians in another widely eclectic but sonically rewarding score.

Following intermission we were treated to Canadian premiere of a new chamber opera written by Komorous. The Mute Canary is based on a play by the Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes (in a translation by Butterfield) and received its world premiere earlier this summer at New Opera Days Ostrava in the Czech Republic. TPE was able to bring the Czech directors (Jan Horák and Michal Pĕchouček) and choreographer (Markéta Vacovská) to Vancouver for this restaging of the work, which features Alexander Dobson as the baritone Riquet, Anne Grimm as the soprano Barate, and Daniel Cabena as the countertenor Ochre. The deliberately non-sensical libretto largely revolves around a bored husband and wife: Riquet wants to go hunting, while Barate wants to know what time it is, while also decrying love and trying to entice Riquet, who is wont to hurl abusive epithets at her, to take notice of her. Into this dysfunctional relationship steps Ochre, a kind of satyr-figure (Cabena clops across the stage in cloven hooves and a swishy white tale). Barate is instantly smitten and wants to know his name; Ochre says he's the composer Gounod, which registers as equally strange to Barate and us in the audience. But then Dadaist operas aren't really supposed to make sense, are they? Much better to revel instead in the sensuous pleasures of the music and the staging, both of which are in this case simultaneously spare and lustrous. Watching Grimm make a perfect circle on the Wong stage floor with shaving cream was, as it were, the absurdist icing on this afternoon's delightful musical cake.

P

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Interplay 2018 at Moberly Arts Centre

The 2018 rendition of Interplay is on this weekend at Moberly Arts Centre. Produced by Mutable Subject's Deanna Peters, the annual event is a great chance to see the first iterations of works-in-progress by a range of very talented multi-disciplinary artists. Plus it's a nice social atmosphere in a great (if somewhat remote) venue that has been showcasing important cultural programs (especially by dance artists) for years.

Six works are divided neatly into two halves, with Peters additionally spinning a series of 45s for us as each set is struck. First up was Alexa Mardon, performing an as yet untitled solo that combines her skills as a writer and a dancer, and that asks how we can be in two places at once, and if it's possible to re-experience an event, or its trace, retrospectively through the body. Mardon cannily marshals two chairs to aid her in exploring these questions, this particular piece of furniture always to my mind bearing the doubled imprint of who has sat there before and who will yet do so in the future. This is brought out in two moments that stood out to me: first, when Mardon sits in the stage right chair and begins a series of hiccupy upper-body movements, as if rehearsing how to lean into a remembered conversation with an invisible interlocutor, or, as we subsequently discover, how to remove her orange windbreaker, which she then makes magically bloom in her hands; and, second, when at the end of the piece she slips said windbreaker over the back of the stage left chair and inflates it with an air pump underneath the seat.

Slant Rhymes is a collaboration between dance artist Carolina Bergonzoni and writer and filmmaker Joel Salaysay. To a voiceover of a male and female couple talking about dreams, Bergonzoni crafts a movement score that asks us to reach into space to consider how the conversation we are listening to might be perceived differently, that is, as also unfolding kinaesthetically. What I liked about the work was that the collaborators allowed their complementary scores to both work together and independently of each other. There were moments when we were allowed to just listen to the text, and also moments when, in silence, we could watch Bergonzoni moving.

The final piece in the first half of the program was Ziyian Kwan's The Odd Volume, the first study in what is planned as a new solo work by the artist. Working with the music of Henry Purcell, Kwan emerges onto a set that features an upright piano and a fuzzy, fur-covered piano bench wearing boxing shorts, a hoodie, and trainers. Indeed, at first the somewhat pugilistic movement seems at odds with the music, and Kwan's own bodily relationship with the piano appears antagonistic, as she first pushes against it, and then climbs on top of and over it. The piece concludes, however, with Kwan making peace with her various instruments; having moved the piano bench in front of the piano, she lifts up the seat cover, which seems to unlock something within her. She then disrobes and after first curling up on the furry bench turns her attention to the piano keys, which she proceeds to play with delicate grace.

Following intermission we were treated to The Memory Palace, a work created by Nathan Marsh, Yian Chen and Clara Chow. An interactive electroacoustic installation that also featured movement, a recording of Roy Orbison's Only the Lonely, and several plastic cup versions of old-fashioned tin can phone lines, the mash-up of ideas didn't quite come together for me. With its books and candles and various listening and playing devices scattered about the stage, it might have worked better as a full-fledged immersive installation into which an audience might be encouraged to wander and durationally linger. In its current proscenium staging it was not particularly engaging.

Patrick Blenkarn followed with Donkeyskin, a lecture-performance and mixed-media work that combines aspects of first-person video games. Based upon ongoing research Patrick is conducting on politics under late capitalism, the disappearance of skilled manual labour, and the cultural history of donkeys, the premise is that three donkeys awaiting slaughter in China (their rendered skins now a valuable commodity in the health market) convene to discuss the reasons for this breakdown in their relations with humans. Patrick reads the text of the first donkey's disquisition aloud, which is a kind of Platonic apology for what their species might have done better in their communications with humans; the second donkey's fuck you to the human world, and also his own kind, is projected onto a screen; and the third donkey, we learn, decides to escape, at which point we're launched on a careening projected gallop through forests and rolling hills. What becomes of this last donkey we'll have to wait to see.

Finally, the evening concluded with Syn(es)thetic Nature, a collaboration between sound artist Michelle Helene McKenzie and media artist Brady Marks. Improvising from a table that was piled with an impressive array of technical gear, the two artists mixed a live soundscape into corresponding visuals that morphed in and out of different geometrical shapes on two screens. At one point early on in the piece the visuals cut out due to a glitch in the projectors, but with suitable sang-froid Marks got up, went behind the two screens and used a pocket flashlight to create some interim magic. It worked beautifully.

Interplay continues tonight at 8 pm.

P


Friday, August 3, 2018

Timon of Athens at Bard on the Beach

It was back to Bard on the Beach last night, this time to see the all-female, modern-dress production of Timon of Athens, directed by Meg Roe. Timon is not often performed, and for good reason. It is resolutely dark. It is unevenly written (likely as a result of it having been co-authored by Thomas Middleton, which would also explain the darkness). And it has a thoroughly improbable plot.

Timon, played here with towering intensity and singular vision by the great Colleen Wheeler, is generous in spreading her wealth to an admiring group of friends, who fawn over and flatter her in order to keep the gifts coming. We meet this group in the opening scene, when they arrive at Timon's well-appointed home, which set designer Drew Facey has conceived as a beautiful and sleek modernist jewel. One by one, we meet Lucius (Michelle Fisk), Sempronius (an imperious Patti Allan), and Ventidius (Quelemia Sparrow, doing her best Real Housewives of West Vancouver impression), all kitted out in expensive couture (the amazing costumes are by Mara Gottler). This trio mixes with Timon's servants, PAs Flavius (an excellent Moya O'Connell) and Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and the silent male help (Joel D. Montgrand and Sebastian Archibald, the cops from Lysistrata), and the other guests, including a poet (Jennifer Lines) and painter (Kate Besworth), a late-to-arrive Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon's one honest friend, Apemantus (Marci T. House, delivering an unblinkingly truthful performance). With Wheeler's Timon sweeping in on her five-inch heels to bestow and receive air kisses, Roe plays the beginning of this opening scene as an overlapping hubbub of voices, knowing that it doesn't matter what of these characters' empty words we actually hear. Everything in this world is about appearances.

Which is why, when Timon eventually learns from Flavius, who had been trying to warn her, that she is bankrupt and is facing a posse of creditors demanding payment, she attempts to save face by dispatching Flavius and Flaminius to her friends to ask for a loan. Lucius, Ventidius, and Sempronius each spurn her request and in her rage Timon plans a final vengeful dinner party, the occasion here for a succession of coups-de-théâtre. First there is the huge round suspended table that descends from its hiding place in the overhead lighting fixture, and that the help set with expert precision. Then there is the unplating of Timon's surprise main course: bowls of warm water and smoke, one of which she promptly throws in Sempronius' face. That moment elicited a collective gasp from the audience, but it's when Wheeler started tearing up the set, lifting up a succession of floor panels and pulling out the supporting wooden joists to reveal the bare earth underneath that full pandemonium broke out. In Shakespeare's play text, Timon retreats to a cave following the dinner, vowing to spurn society. It's a genius decision on Roe's part to stage this as Timon pulling apart the literal foundations of her world. And Wheeler goes at it with absolute gusto, her white pantsuit becoming stained with earth, and her soignée chignon turning into a riot of rogue curls and loose strands.

Of course this is also where the already bizarre plot of the play becomes truly incredible. For what should Timon discover in the earth underneath her house but a treasure trove of money and gold? By this point, however, Timon is past caring, and in her complete nihilism forswears both financial redemption and, it must be said, the ex machina device of a happy ending. This perhaps explains her final exchanges with Apemantus and Flavius, the former offering simple hard reality in place of pity, the latter just not wanting her boss to die alone. But that is just what Timon does, and unlike in most of Shakespeare's other tragedies there is no attempt to sum up the moral of the story.

That is perhaps why, as Roe suggests in her program notes, the play is such a powerful parable for our own uncertain times. Rapaciousness and falsity are in ascendence everywhere, it seems, and with greatly unequal social consequences. In this stripped-down, 90-minute assault of near unremitting cynicism Roe forces her audience to do two seemingly antithetical things: ask ourselves why we are enjoying watching someone else's misfortune; and challenge ourselves to find even a smidgen of hope amidst all this darkness.

P