Sunday, August 20, 2017

Embryotrophic Cavatina, Part 1 at SFU Woodward's and Vines Art Festival at Trout Lake

I couldn't attend yesterday's counter-demonstration protesting the gathering organized by the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam at City Hall because I had committed to previous plans. However, it seemed appropriate, given the WCAI organizers' base dissembling that their quarrels with Islam were cultural and not racist, that my plans involved an engagement with different forms of free cultural expression that were in direct dialogue with their environments.

My first stop was the atrium at SFU Woodward's. There, starting at 2 pm (and then again at 3 pm), Kokoro Dance presented a free showing of the first half of their reworked Embryotrophic Cavatina, which will have its full-length premiere at the Roundhouse September 20-29. The genesis of the piece dates back to 1998, when Kokoro founders Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi created the first iteration of the work for themselves and dancers Ziyian Kwan and Michael Whitfield. They then reworked it a year later into a shorter 30-minute piece that was performed at Dancing on the Edge with the same company; this version featured as a musical score the first half of Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for My Friend, written as a tribute to the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, with whom Preisner had collaborated on the Three Colours trilogy. Last year, Barbara and Jay remounted this second version of EC on twenty dancers from Danza Teatro Retazos in Havana. It was at that time that they got the idea to revisit the piece a fourth time, choreographing a new second half that would accompany the remainder of Preisner's album.

We'll have to wait until September to see what that looks like. But yesterday interested audience members were offered a glimpse of the original 1999 version of EC, with dancers Molly McDermott and Billy Marchenski joining Bourget and Hirabayashi to round out the quartet. Performed in the circle of the basketball court between London Drugs and Nester's Market, and with Preisner's music issuing clearly and pristinely from two speakers, the piece seemed expressly designed for this space. Likewise the match between choreography and music. In its elegiac tempo, simple harmonies and showcasing of the soprano voice, Preisner's Requiem put me in mind of fellow Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Except whereas Górecki's work is a slow and steady build to a haunting emotional lament, Preisner's work features more tonal peaks and valleys. Bourget and Hirabayashi play with this in terms of the way they contrast bodies crumpling in on themselves (splayed knees and twisted lower legs; bent backs; hands thrust backwards between thighs) with movement that extends horizontally and vertically into space (a simple reach outward from the torso of one arm and the tracing of the other up the length of this proffered limb; or the joyous leap into and catching of air that comes with Kokoro's trademark ecstasy jumps). The intervals between the Requiem's movements, and especially the soprano parts (e.g. from the Kyrie Eleison to the Dies Irae), also give the dancers ample opportunity to explore that quintessential butoh element of ma, the gap or pause or negative space between different structural parts. Kokoro is expert at expanding our sense of time: by sustaining our interest in a held pose (the opening butoh-at-rest position: bent knees, shoulders soft, eyes staring off into the distance); by forcing a perceptual recalibration through a barely registered shift in our attention (when, in the course of said pose, four heads slowly start to turn to the left); by isolating our focus on the seemingly smallest part of a dancer's body (for me it was a wagging index finger near the end of this showing). All of these actions that look like inaction, these doings that simultaneously undo our expectations about what should happen next, or what even constitutes movement, encourages even greater contemplation in the audience. To the point that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing happening all around me in the Woodward's atrium, my attention was never less than riveted on the dancers in front of me.

After the Kokoro performance I hopped on my bike and cycled over to Trout Lake to take in some of the main "earthstage" shows at this year's Vines Art Festival. The festival was started by Artistic Director Heather Lamoureux in 2015 with two aims: to make contemporary performance more accessible by siting it in a public park (and making it free); and to promote environmental awareness by showcasing work that responds to its natural setting and that is engaged with themes of climate activism and sustainability. The 2015 festival, a one-day event in Trout Lake, mounted with a budget raised solely through door-to-door fundraising by Heather, was a huge success. In 2016 the festival not only attracted major corporate and government sponsors, but it also expanded to four days and multiple sites, with events taking place at Hadden Park in Kits Beach, Pandora Park on the East Side, Maclean Park in Strathcona, and its mainstage site of Trout Lake. This year Heather has grown the festival even further, expanding events to ten days and spreading them across seven Vancouver parks.

However, the main event continues to be the culminating day-long series of performances, workshops and installations at Trout Lake Park. Unfortunately, this year my timing was not so great. I arrived too late to take in Robert Leveroos and Isabelle Kirouac's Alien Forms, and only caught the tail end of Meegin Pye's Boxed In (which seemed to be about homelessness and housing affordability). I did catch the Blue Cedar Stage set of the Son Bohemio trio, who were back again this year with their mix of Argentinian folk songs. And I stuck around long enough to see and hear A Complicated Intelligence, a collaborative sound installation-cum-interactive performance by Stefan Smulovitz, Lara Amelie Abadir, Dave Biddle and beekeeper Andrew Scott. Learning about how bees communicate with each other (by vomiting into each other's mouths) and deal with genetic diversity (by cannibalizing eggs deemed insufficiently heterogeneous) was all I needed as a capstone to how art can trump the rhetoric of white supremacy.

P

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 36

Earlier this afternoon I found myself perched on the beautiful back deck of Wen Wei Wang, interviewing him about his dance history. It began at the age of six in Communist China when, having seen a performance of the revolutionary model opera White Haired Girl, Wang decided he wanted to become a dancer. His parents were less than pleased, but when he later auditioned and was accepted to the army art school in his home province, they relented; becoming a company member and then a soloist of a dance company within a military academy was somehow acceptable. During this time, Wang had already started choreographing, even winning a major televised dance competition in 1987 for a duet, Love Song, that he had co-choreographed and performed with a fellow company member.

Having been accepted into a prestigious choreographic program in Beijing in 1989, Wang left before completing the program in order to attend a summer dance intensive at SFU in 1991. His trip was sponsored by Grant Strate, who would end up becoming Wang's life partner. Almost immediately after completing the SFU residency, Wang was hired by Judith Marcuse. From there he went on to become a company member of Ballet BC, where, but for a brief stint with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, he remained until 2000. In 2003, he formed his own company, immediately garnering acclaim for highly theatrical works that mixed Western and Asian dance traditions.

Wang's most recent full-length work for his own company, Dialogue, premiered this past May at the Dance Centre (see my review here). It will be remounted as part of this year's Dance in Vancouver biennial, where it will coincide with the unveiling of our own Vancouver Dance Histories project. I feel like we still have so much work to do--and interviews to collect. But slowly things are coming together, and I can't wait to get back into the studio with Justine and Alexa to brainstorm further some of our ideas for making sense (and nonsense) of the tangled web of connections we've been unraveling over the past two years.

P

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In the Next Room at the Jericho Arts Centre

Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) is a strange work of theatre. Paradoxically, had it been even stranger--that is, had the playwright found a way both in content and form to match her provocative subject matter to a more radical and intersectional feminist/queer politics--the play might have been successful. But after first appearing to mock them, Ruhl instead opts to embrace the conventions of the nineteenth-century drawing room comedy, including its bourgeois hetero-patriarchal ending. This results in a play that veers wildly in its tone and that ends up reinscribing the very domestic structures--not least the whole idea of the family itself--it appears to be questioning. Director Keltie Forsyth, overseeing Ensemble Theatre Company's production of the play, which runs in repertory as part of their annual summer theatre festival until August 17, does her best to navigate these swings, but notwithstanding some fine performances and compelling dramatic moments, this staging leaves me flummoxed as to why the play (which ran on Broadway and was nominated for a handful of Tony awards) has garnered so much critical praise.

At the centre of the play, which is set in the late 1800s, just after the dawn of electricity, is Catherine Givings (Lindsay Nelson), an upper-middle-class woman in New York who is frustrated by the inattention of her husband, Dr. Givings (Sebastain Kroon), and also by her inability to breastfeed her newborn daughter. Dr. Givings' speciality is treating female hysteria and as a result of Edison's discovery of electrical current, Givings has found a sure-fire way to cure his patients: by applying a vibratory pulse to their pubic areas, which is supposed to relieve the pressure upon their wombs and restore them to a more contemplative mood. Thus does Ruhl introduce the conceit contained in the parenthesis of her play's title by anchoring her plot in actual history. Catherine, listening to her husband treat Mrs. Daldry (an excellent Christine Reinfort) "in the next room," becomes intrigued by her cries of pleasure and after forming a friendship with the woman over the course of successive visits (and also after sneaking into her husband's operating room and testing the machine on herself), Catherine convinces Mrs. Daldry that they should compare their respective responses to the vibrating machine's stimulus. But by this point we have learned that Mrs. Daldry much prefers the manual stimulation of Dr. Givings' assistant, Annie (Alexis Kellum-Creer), whose physiological and emotional attentions she finds much more satisfying than those of her husband (an incredibly stiff David Wallace).

Added to this mix are two sub-plots. The first concerns a black wet-nurse, Elizabeth (Mariam Barry, playing the character's suffering of numerous racist slights with just the right mix of dignity and quietly contained rage), hired to tend to the Givings' baby. The second involves a worldly painter, Leo Irving (Francis Winter), who has come to Dr. Givings for his own treatment for male hysteria (cue the vibrating anal probe). Catherine and Leo enjoy a brief flirtation that succeeds in arousing the jealousy of Dr. Givings; however, Leo only has eyes for Elizabeth. All of this culminates in a clumsy denouement that leaves no one happy except the white bourgeois heterosexual professional couple, who rediscover their passion for each other (and, it turns out, the sudden obsolescence of Dr. Givings' machine) by making love in the snow. To be sure, in this scene it is Catherine who takes control of the lovemaking, undressing her husband and making his nude body an object of erotic display. But the fact that she ends up on top in the play's concluding tableau does not, to my mind, make up for the fact that earlier in the second act the same-sex possibilities that Ruhl telegraphs in Mrs. Daldry and Annie's one shared kiss are shut down immediately and with absolute finality as soon as the two women break off from their lip-lock: "I don't suppose I shall ever see you again," Mrs. Daldry states to Annie as she moves with purpose towards the door. Similarly, the implicit critique of white liberal feminism that Ruhl seems to be embedding in her script via her suggestion that first wave suffrage in America depended on the labour of black women's bodies gets muddied by having the relationship between Catherine and Elizabeth triangulated through a man, and a rather caricatured cad at that.

I should emphasize that I see these problems as intrinsic to the structure of the play, not as symptomatic of specific choices made in this production. Indeed, given my misgivings (forgive the pun) about the play's politics, I think that Forsyth has done a remarkable job in spotlighting multiple connections between the women characters in particular, ones that suggest possible alternative outcomes for them all. On the topic of lighting, however, the dimming and raising of the lights every time Catherine turned off or on her newfangled electric lamp drove me a bit batty. As did the rickety door between the living room and Dr. Givings' operating theatre. However, Julie White's costumes were a marvel of period detail. Indeed, the successive scenes of Mrs. Daldry undressing and dressing with Annie's assistance before and after her treatments distilled for me into a wordless pantomime much that this play was trying to say about female repression and empowerment.

P

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Wreck Beach Butoh 2018

Owing to unexpected summer teaching commitments, I was unable to participate in Kokoro Dance's annual Wreck Beach Butoh process. This was disappointing, as I had hoped to make it three years in a row. That said, I did drop in on a couple of free morning classes down at KW Studios over the past two weeks, and so I got a glimpse of what Barbara and Jay were putting together this year. I also got to say hello to some of WBB's returning crew: Tuan and Keith and Bronwyn and Leslie and Noriko and Yvonne. It was a kick to be dancing in KW's new atrium studio, as we had a built-in audience from everyone who happened to be hanging out or wandering through the basketball courts at SFU Woodward's.

This morning, I made my way to Wreck Beach to see the weekend's final performance. I'd told Barbara that I would volunteer to carry one of Kokoro's red donation buckets, and also to police anyone trying to take photos. I proved to be a surprisingly good enforcer on both counts. Otherwise, I just generally enjoyed being a spectator, which I admit meant indulging in some relief at not having to go into and (even worse) get out of the water this year: though the sun was out and things got progressively warmer as the performance went on, there was a strong wind throughout.

There was some repeat choreography that I recognized: the pirate laughs and the tick tock walk and the ecstasy jumps, for example. But the core of this year's work was a central section that involved the dancers torquing their torsos toward the sun and gently turning in the breeze, and then drawing one arm up the other and across the face in a sequence that initiates a danced exploration of the senses. It was quite moving and tender to watch, especially in the way that the dancers moved into and out of unison. However, there was also some cheekiness--quite literally--as Barbara led the dancers in a group ass grab and wiggle directed at the audience.

The start of each WBB is always memorable, and this year I was struck by the fact that the slow and sensuously gestural unison walk toward the water by the clustered group of white painted dancers was accompanied by a chorus of sounds. Various other whoops and caws recurred throughout the piece, but this opening sequence of movement and sound was especially unique.

One final thing I noted was the way in which I was able to anticipate the directional flow of much of the choreography. To be sure, Barbara and Jay generally begin with a southward trajectory along the beach following the dancers' emergence from the water, before doubling back on themselves. However, I also think my instinctive knowledge of when and where to walk contained within it residual kinetic memories of having danced in previous WBB performances. Whatever the case, it was a nice feeling to have.

P

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 35

Earlier this afternoon Kim Stevenson dropped by my SFU Woodward's office to share with me her Vancouver dance history. Like Molly McDermott and Deanna Peters and others, Kim came to the dance program at SFU via Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, where she was heavily influenced by the teaching and mentorship of Brian Webb and Heidi Bunting. Arriving at SFU in 2005, Kim immediately connected with the aesthetic of my colleague, Rob Kitsos, and post-graduation she has continued to dance regularly for him--most recently in Death and Flying at the Vancouver International Dance Festival (about which I have blogged in greater detail here).

In addition to apprenticing with and dancing for the likes of Susan Elliott and Barbara Bourget and Serge Bennathan, Kim also joined with Molly, Cort Gerlock, Roxoliana Prus, and Ellen Luchkow to form the collective The Story of Force in Motion, commissioning work from Deanna Peters, Heidi Bunting, Shauna Elton, and also creating their own work. Most recently Tara Cheyenne Friendenberg has been a major influence on the direction of Kim's career. After appearing briefly in an excerpt of Highgate at Dance in Vancouver several years ago, Kim apprenticed with Tara as part of the process for Porno Death Cult. And she has been part of all three versions of How to Be: at the Anderson Street Space on Granville Island; at Dancing on the Edge a couple of years ago; and at the premiere of the full version of the work at the Cultch this past April. While I couldn't see the latter version, I have closely watched the evolution of this piece and I told Kim that her facility with text and movement was just amazing to watch, and also that her humour just slayed me. Interestingly, Kim said that she'd never been more terrified performing before, but that the process had also liberated something in her regarding the combination of text and movement and that there is talk of working with Tara in the future on a solo for Kim.

In the meantime, Kim is busy with running her own dance studio, The Happening, on Fraser Street. As Kim put it to me, she has always enjoyed teaching, and at a certain point decided that if she wanted to remain in Vancouver and have any kind of lifestyle to speak of that she needed to find a supplement to her life as a pick-up professional dancer--and ideally one that didn't involving serving at a restaurant. It's been a huge and at times scary undertaking, but four years in the move seems to be paying off. Kim is just about to expand her space with a second, adjacent studio and has hired Natalie LeFebvre Gnam to teach the students ballet. The goal is to get to a place where Kim can hire more additional instructors and leave the day-to-day operations of the studio to others, while she pursues a parallel performance and choreographic career.

I was immensely happy to hear that, because we need performers as talented and charismatic as Kim to continue to appear on our stages. And we also need her mentoring the next generation of dance bunnies.

P

Friday, July 14, 2017

Edge 7 at DOTE

Dancing on the Edge Festival's Edge 7 program is made up of two works-in-progress that, in their full iterations, should be back at the Firehall soon. UNTITLEDdiSTANCE is a collaboration between dance artists Emmalena Fredriksson and Arash Khakpour. Based on their common, but also very different, immigrant experiences, the work opens with the artists addressing the audience in Swedish and Farsi, respectively, before segueing into the mutual instruction and execution of a floor sequence that provides them--and us--with an entree into a shared language of movement. That language is largely contact-based and in between giving and taking each other's weight and limbs in the next section, they each narrate their experiences of being othered--because of the way they look, or how they speak--in their adopted home of Vancouver. Not that the work is all about warm and fuzzy support. Indeed, the rest of the piece plays out as a series of increasingly high stakes games in which, for example, one performer, seated in front of a computer, will ask the other an impossible to answer question ("Do you feel more eastern or western?" "Would you kill a cat for a million dollars?") that s/he must respond to during an improvised solo, the movement choices of which are then interpreted and projected for us by the seated interlocutor through Google translate. In this way, and throughout the piece more generally, Fredriksson and Khakpour cannily combine language and movement to show that no matter how we position ourselves, we must always negotiate that position in relation to others--and also that, as in this case, part of that negotiation is developing a shared sense of trust.

An excerpt from Contes Cruels, by Les Productions Figlio's Serge Bennathan, was the second piece on the program. A full-length version of the work will premiere at the Firehall next May and seems to build on Bennathan's earlier Just Words. As in that work, Contes Cruels combines poetic text by the choreographer with original music by Bertrand Chénier to work through a near-death experience. However, here Bennathan has expanded his roster of dancers, with Josh Martin and Molly McDermott joining Hilary Maxwell and Karissa Barry in a quartet that sometimes moves in regimented response to and ethereally against the choreographer's onstage commands. Bennathan's repeated prompts of "Blackout" and "Lights up" late in the piece serve as an especially apt metaphor not just for a physical resurrection, but also for artistic reinvention. In this respect, Martin, who takes over some of the text early in the piece, is clearly meant to be Bennathan's dance double, or avatar, and the women his trio of muses, with their frequent blind but powerhouse leaps into space, or their held poses and offstage looks into the distance, incarnating for us what it means to embrace the unknown.

P

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 34

Earlier this afternoon I interviewed Lara Barclay for our Vancouver Dance Histories project. I got to know Lara while participating as one of the community dancers on the PuSh Festival presentation of Sylvain Émard's Le Grand Continental, for which she served as rehearsal director. Since that time I have enjoyed watching her perform in work by Jennifer Mascall and Vanessa Goodman, among other local choreographers. And yet while Lara grew up and began her dance training in Port Moody, most of her adolescence was spent studying at the National Ballet School in Toronto, where, as she put it, she was always the tallest girl in the class (and frequently taller than her male partners as well). Following graduation from NBS, Lara won a scholarship to study in Europe, and she ended up in Hamburg, taking class and studying with John Neumeier. Her first company job, however, was in the northern port city of Kiel, Germany, where she danced repertoire that included works by Johann Kresnik and Martin Stiefermann. While in Europe, Lara also took class with Bill Forsythe at Ballett Frankfurt and workshops with Frey Faust and Lloyd Newson. As she put it to me, it was in Europe that she discovered a whole other world of dance--and also that ballet was, quite literally, not ever going to be the right dance fit for her.

Following this initial stint in Germany, Lara moved back to Toronto to take up a position with Toronto Dance Theatre, where she remained for three years, dancing in works by Christopher House and James Kudelka, and also reconnecting with mentor Peggy Baker, who first taught her modern dance at NBS. Dominque Dumais and Kevin O'Day, who were just starting up a new company in Mannheim, lured Lara back to Germany, but it was in 2006--following a soccer-themed gig during the world-cup with Brazilian-based choreographer Deborah Colker--that Lara and her husband made the big move back to Vancouver. This coincided with the birth of Lara's first daughter and a slight shift in focus to teaching (with Monica Proença, Lara is the co-founder of the Lamondance Company, a pre-professional training program in North Vancouver). However, very soon after arriving back in the Vancouver area, Josh Beamish asked Lara to work with Move: the company. And then, in 2012, came a transformative collaboration with Aszure Barton, who invited Lara to be part of the creative process that led to Awaa, a piece about motherhood and masculine-feminine relations that I remember seeing at the Chutzpah! Festival, and in which Lara is the lone female dancer among a cast of six other male dancers. Lara continues to tour the piece in slightly different iterations to this day (including an upcoming stint next month in LA), and she said that working with Barton taught her to discover patience on stage.

Lara ended our interview by saying this is a transformative time in her career. She's recently had surgery on her right foot, which has meant making certain adjustments in her dancing. As she framed things, aging as a dancer means you have to become better at listening to your body, and also choosing work that pertains to what it is that you are still able to do to the best of your abilities, and without fear of injury. Lara is also interested in moving into the area of expressive arts therapy, and she and her family are contemplating a move back to Germany. If and when this happens, I will be sad to have Lara leave the Vancouver dance community. In the immediate future, however, I can look forward to seeing Lara (alongside VDH co-conspirator Alexa Mardon) once again in the full-length premiere this fall of Vanessa Goodman's Wells Hill.

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