Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Music on Main at Frankie's Jazz Club

Having just come back from the city of Brahms' birth (and having actually walked through the very square where his childhood house still stands), it was appropriate that last night Richard and I should attend a Music on Main fundraising concert that culminated in a sonata (Cello Sonata in F No. 2, Op. 99, to be precise) by the composer. It was part of a program pairing Jane Hayes on piano and Rebecca Wenham on cello that also featured works by Robert Schumann (his increasingly exuberant Fantasy Pieces Op. 73) and Claude Debussy (the late Spanish-inflected Cello Sonata from 1915).

All of this was presented in the intimate setting of Frankie's Jazz Club, on Beatty Street, a throwback to MoM's pioneering presentations of classical and contemporary music at The Cellar a few years ago. It was certainly a treat to be able to experience up close the musical chemistry between Hayes and Wenham, and to do so while enjoying a glass of wine. I also appreciated the commentary by both artists in between each piece, which added rich context to our listening enjoyment. For example, Wenham noted that Schumann, who wrote his Fantasy Pieces in three frenetic days, originally composed the work for piano and clarinet, but that he also authorized its transcription for cello. Hayes asked us to think about flamenco dancers as we absorbed the piano part of the last movement of Debussy's sonata. And both added equally rich commentary to their dual introduction of the concluding Brahms piece.

The evening was also a chance for MoM's David Pay to announce their upcoming 2017/18 season. One of the highlights will be MoM's co-hosting of the International Society for Contemporary Music's World New Music Days in Vancouver in 2017. This is the first time this globetrotting presentation of the best in contemporary world new music has been to Canada in 30+ years, and it will be a terrific opportunity to hear compositions representing some 50 nations. Good on MoM for taking the lead in bringing this event to Vancouver.

P

Friday, June 9, 2017

Vu du pont at Theater der Welt Festival

Our second outing to the Theater der Welt Festival here in Hamburg was to celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove's French-language version of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, which is having its German premiere at the venerated Thalia Theater. I had always wanted to see a production by van Hove, whose radical adaptations/deconstructions of classics from the dramatic canon, most designed by his long-term partner Jan Versweyveld, have earned him an international reputation. He has a particular affinity for twentieth-century American plays, and this is his second major production of a Miller work; The Crucible ran on Broadway alongside Bridge in 2016, with the latter earning two Tony awards.

Miller's Bridge, which began as a one-act verse drama, and which also seeded the screenplay for On the Waterfront, was the playwright's attempt to transpose the structure and themes of classical Greek tragedy to an American context. It centres on Eddie Carbone, who works alongside his friend Louis as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Eddie is married to Beatrice, and together the childless couple has raised Catherine, the orphaned daughter of Beatrice's sister. At the play's opening Catherine has just turned 18 and has gotten a job as a stenographer, earning more money in a week than her stepfather. This is the first of the jolts to Eddie's old-school masculine sense of how the world should be. The second comes when Catherine falls in love with Rodolfo, one of two illegal Italian immigrants whom Eddie has agreed to take in and help find work. Eddie is convinced that Rodolfo, who is blond and likes to sing, cook and sew, is gay and only wants to marry Catherine so that he can stay in the country legally. This climaxes in Eddie publicly kissing Rodolfo in an attempt to expose the latter's hidden sexuality, but the act actually reveals more about Eddie's own latent tendencies. When Catherine still refuses to part with Rodolfo, a desperate Eddie calls the immigration authorities, a move that has graver consequences for the second of the two migrant workers, Marco; his subsequent revenge is the final piece of Eddie's tragic downfall.

All of this is narrated to us by the lawyer Alfieri, Miller's allusion to Vittorio Alfieri, considered the founder of Italian tragedy. In Bridge Alfieri is at once the conduit between the old world and the new world, and between the world of the play and the audience. His pronouncements--to both Eddie and Marco--on the coldness of the law, and the fateful consequences for those who would take it into their own hands, continue to have resonance. And, indeed, there is a way in which van Hove's production read to me on one level as a comment on the current global refugee crisis--and America's apparent indifference to that crisis under its current presidential administration. Versweyveld's set may have had something to do with this impression. At the top of the show the audience, which is configured in the round, is confronted with a huge steel-grey box that could double as a shipping container; when the play begins, the bottom half of the box rises to reveal the playing space, a bare white floor enclosed by a low glass wall, and with a single upstage door from which the actors enter and exit. All of the action--which takes place over a continuous two hours, with no scene breaks or blackouts--occurs in this space, and the spareness of van Hove's staging, together with the removal of any overt markers of the narrative's Brooklyn setting, seems to be part of the director's attempt to recuperate the play as a tragedy tout court--rather than as an expressly American tragedy.

Notwithstanding this impulse, as well as the fact that van Hove has successfully staged a version of this production in London, New York, Amsterdam, and Paris, there is still a way in which this piece seems quintessentially of its time--and, even more so, of a particular period in Miller's writing life when he was wrestling with what it meant, for him, to be an American man. Eddie is such a curious character; to my mind, he comes across as a kind of male hysteric. Maybe it was this particular view, or maybe it was the overall acting style of this company from Paris' Odeon Theatre, that suggested to me that Bridge is fundamentally a work of melodrama rather than tragedy. Then again, we're having a melodramatic moment, so maybe this is exactly the right register in which to stage this play.

P

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Doors at Theater Der Welt Festival in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg, Germany at the moment attending the annual Performance Studies international conference. It has been programmed in conjunction with the biannual Theater der Welt Festival, which moves around different German cities every two years. Last night Richard and I attended a performance of Belarus Free Theatre's latest production, Burning Doors. As political theatre, it makes anything I've seen before in North America under that label pale by comparison, not least because BFT company members are clear that the stakes of their performance choices must match the stakes of the personal choices of the dissidents whose stories they are telling on stage.

Founded in 2005 in Minsk and banned from its own country on political grounds soon after, BFT works in exile from London, combining agitprop and physical theatre aesthetics in a manner that is at once virtuosic and visceral, making every moment seem as if it is a matter of life and death. For Burning Doors, the company is collaborating with Maria Aloyhina, one of the members of Pussy Riot. Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the painter Egon Schiele, the piece explores the relationship between the body, power, and art, focussing specifically on the stories of incarceration of three dissident artists in Russia: Aloyhina; the St. Petersburg-based performance artist Petr Pavlensky; and the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains in prison, serving a twenty year sentence. The production of Burning Doors is dedicated expressly to raising international awareness regarding Sentsov's detention.

As the performance was in Russian and Belarussian, with German surtitles, it is impossible for me to distill the entire narrative of the piece (although an English translation of the script was very graciously provided). That said, I could follow that each of the three artists' stories were being told in turn, and that these stories were likewise being juxtaposed with two additional layers of meta-narrative: one in which the Foucauldian routines of discipline and punishment inside the prison are clinically dissected for the audience; and one in which Russia's bureaucratic administration of political protest is played for existential--and scatological--laughs (most often featuring a pair of hapless Kremlin clerks, and accounting for the relevance of Dostoevsky as an authorial source). However, it is the scenes of extreme physicality that most affectively demonstrate how the brutality of dictatorial regimes is visited upon the bodies of its political dissidents. While these scenes occur throughout the piece, the last twenty minutes comprise a steady accretion of acts of physical extremity that in their duration and accumulation literally knocked the wind out of me: and repeated punches and kicks to the gut are indeed part of this sequence.

None of this is easy to watch, but it definitely conveys in a startlingly felt way that communicating the risks of protest demands similar aesthetic risks. I am so glad that I got to see the work of this brave and urgently relevant company.

Addendum: I just learned that Burning Doors will play Seattle's On the Boards from September 28-October 1. I urge folks in the Vancouver region to head down to check out this thrilling show.

P


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Soliloquy in English and All the Way at the rEvolver Festival

I had hoped to get to much more of this year's rEvolver Festival than at present looks likely. I blame the fact that, unusually for me, I'm teaching this summer, am fighting a cold, and am preparing for a conference in Hamburg next week.

That said, I did want to plug one show that has its last performance this evening. O, o, o, o's All the Way, playing The Russian Hall at 8 pm, promises to be a wild and surreal ride into the world of haunted houses and game shows (and what, really, is the difference). Any company that can use the word "hypnagogic" in its show description has to be on to something. This super-talented collective of SFU Theatre grads haven't made a ton of work (because they're all busy with other gigs), but when they do it's usually a stunner. Check out my review of their site-specific take on a short play by Caryl Churchill here.

And I also wanted to give a brief shout out to the one rEvolver show that I did get to, Patrick Blenkarn's Soliloquy in English. This intimate take on an old-fashioned reading circle has three more performances: today at 5 and 8 pm, and tomorrow at 7 pm. The piece involves audience members reading together from the contents of a hand-made book that Blenkarn has crafted from interviews with friends and acquaintances for whom English is an additional language. At once a political commentary on the hegemony of English as a global (and globalizing) lingua franca and an alternately funny and moving concatenation of voices remembering what it's like to dream and swear and sing in another tongue, Soliloquy's spare dramaturgy also effectively implicates participants in the story being told. For we each take turns reading different passages in the book, a pattern of arrows indicating when we are to pass the book to our left or to our right. I found this simple physical act of passing an open book to a neighbour and indicating the place on the page where they are to continue reading to be one of the purest elaborations of what I understand to be the goal of relational aesthetics in art and performance. That last Sunday our group of five (including Blenkarn) lingered after we'd turned the final page of the book to keep talking about what we'd just experienced certainly attests to the larger conversations this work will inevitably spark among those lucky enough to participate in it.

P

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Convergence at EDAM

EDAM's latest choreographic series is on at the Western Front through June 2. It features new works by Peter Bingham, Vanessa Goodman and Noam Gagnon.

Talking to Bingham and dancer Delia Brett at different points during the evening's intermissions, I learned that Convergence, the work by Bingham that opens the evening, is structured around a series of restrictions the choreographer has given his seven dancers, including Brett, Anne Cooper, Elissa Hanson, Walter Kubanek, Diego Romero, Renée Sigouin, and Olivia Shaffer. The restrictions involve spending at least thirty per cent of the fifteen-minute piece hugging one of the studio's two side walls (which is how we encounter the dancers when the work opens), hewing closely to a specific individual line in space, and only engaging in contact with another body or bodies when those lines converge. Within those and a few other parameters, the dancers are free to improvise as they wish and what results is in part an almost slow motion breaking apart of some of the key principles of contact improvisation: that is, the finding of another body in space and what does or does not happen gravitationally as a result of that encounter. Indeed, some of the most enjoyable moments for me in the piece came when two or more dancers converged upon each other and humorously paused to decide who was leading and who was following whom.

Goodman's Accumulating is a trio featuring the choreographer and dancers Karissa Barry and Alexa Mardon, and showcasing an impressive sound and visual design by loscil (aka, local electro-acoustic composer Scott Morgan). The work opens with the three dancers dispersed in space upstage. Goodman is perched atop a speaker stage right. Barry is seated on a chair stage left. And Mardon hovers stationary in the upstage right doorway, her upstretched hands appearing to grip the upper lip of its inside frame. At a certain point Mardon lets go of her grip, crosses the threshold into the studio space and begins a dynamic and hyper-kinetic ten-minute solo, one in which her arms, tellingly, seem to function like antennae, propelling her forward as if in search of another door frame to attach themselves to. While this is happening, Barry is slowly crumbling forward in her chair and Goodman is turning this way and that atop her speaker, as if she is a stuck toy dancer in a malfunctioning music box. As part of the soundscore, we hear about the physiological make-up of the heart as an organ, and a video of what looks like smoke circles and rings slowly starts to creep up the backstage wall. Mardon eventually comes to rest and Barry, who by this time is slumped on the floor in front of her chair, begins her own solo, only hers is more fluid and languid, with the movement issuing more from the pelvis, hips and legs. The two dancers eventually join in a mirrored duet, their movements not quite in unison, but their hitherto distinct vocabularies now meshing in a complementary and mutually sustaining way. It's hard not to think of the figure performed by Goodman as having a hand in bringing the other two dancers together, especially when they come to rest in a seated position on the floor just to the left of her station and then collapse backward in exhaustion. This is the cue for Goodman to begin a contained mechanical sequence of movements atop her speaker, which in turn reanimates the other two dancers, who are given a final coda downstage before helping to disappear each other in a replacement series of poses in that upstage right doorway.

Gagnon's between us--what a difference a day makes is also a trio and likewise has a fantastic commissioned score, this time something a bit more industrial by James Coomber. To thrashing guitar sounds, Graham Kaplan, who is positioned downstage right, bends at the waist and grinds his shoulders forwards and backwards with such violence that I was sure one was going to pop out of its socket. Meanwhile, starting from her spot upstage left Lara Barclay begins a slow sinuous all-body crawl across the backstage wall. Positioned centre stage with her back to the audience, Heather Dotto moves forward and backward like a robot, her torso also hingeing with whiplash speed in either direction. Indeed, the extremity of each of the performers' bodily contortions and both the repetitiveness and physical force with which they executed them over the course of the piece's twenty minutes are what registered most with me in between us. At different points Kaplan partners both Dotto and Barclay, but each connection seems to be structured as much on repulsion as on attraction, with Kaplan and Dotto shoving their pelvises together like magnets, but then arcing their upper bodies away from each other like evil laughing clowns. The implicit violence in the lifts that Kaplan performs with Barclay is later completed when Barclay, chasing after Dotto and Kaplan, throws herself backwards on the floor, a discarded third wheel. And, indeed, it is possible to read the work through the lens of a love triangle. But, really, it is enough of a kinetic high just to absorb each new jolt and shock that emerges from this talented force field.

P.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dialogue at The Dance Centre

Wen Wai Wang's newest full-length dance, Dialogue, premiered at the Dance Centre last night. Inspired in part by the movement history of Wang's own migrant body, the work was built on and in collaboration with six talented young male dancers in the city: Ralph Escamillan, Andrew Haydock, Arash Khakpour, Tyler Layton-Olson, Nicholas Lydiate, and Alex Tam. As I understand Wang's process, each dancer was invited to bring aspects of his own dance training and personal story to the work. The result is a unique and deeply engaging meditation on what it means to communicate kinetically across cultural identity and individual experience.

With the house lights still up, five of the dancers--Escamillan, Haydock, Khakpour, Layton-Olson, and Tam--enter and casually sit down on the chairs that have been positioned along the upstage wall. During the curtain speech they stare out at the audience, while alternately crossing their legs demurely (Escamillan), or lifting one up to the edge of the chair (Haydock), or manspreading (Tam and Khakpour), or slouching (Layton-Olson), each physical choice already inviting us to read their bodies--and thus their identities--in different ways. Lydiate only enters at the end of the curtain speech, pausing to stand in front of the remaining empty chair, and trading some not very friendly looks with his fellow dancers. Indeed, when Lydiate finally does sit down, this is the cue for the others to move their chairs into a semi-circle centre stage, with Tam beginning a relay of hand and arm gestures that gets taken up, adapted and expanded in turn by each of the other dancers. The gestures grow steadily bigger and bolder in their sweep out from the dancers' torsos and the arcs they make through the air, with Lydiate eventually joining the circle as the thrown movements ricochet back and forth from body to body at a faster and faster pace. It was like we were watching a seated hip hop dance circle, each dancer's ever more complicated gestures at once an invitation and a challenge to the others to top. This opening sequence is echoed later in the work when the dancers, standing now, form another semi-circle around the body of Khakpour, who has just finished a wrenchingly physical floor solo. Drawing their bodies into various Transformer-esque poses while simultaneously making lock and load sounds with their voices, the dancers now use their newly weaponized limbs to send imaginary bullets around the circle, but with each ricochet this time additionally passing through the defenceless body of Khakpour.

Much like the ethos of hip hop, the literal momentum of Dialogue accrues through the tension between these alternately combative and collaborative group sequences and individual moments of virtuosic solo improvisation. For example, early on in the piece, during a section featuring club music, the dancers groove on the spot in their own singular ways, alternately slowing down and speeding up the tempo, moving in and out of unison. But what's most striking about the tableau Wang creates here is that the two white dancers face front, while the dancers of colour have their backs turned to the audience, a simple yet highly effective comment on the politics of (in)visibility in social spaces, and one that is tellingly followed by a solo from Lydiate in his tighty whities. This dialectics of surface and depth, inside and outside, looking and being seen is further highlighted in the sequence that immediately follows, which sees each of the dancers don a hat (initially in Khakpour's case, a hair pic) that presumably somehow telegraphs an aspect of their personality, and then rotate through a series of poses as Elvis' Love Me Tender plays.

All of this builds to what I found to be the most arresting section of the dance, which immediately follows the aforementioned Transformer sequence. The dancers link arms and gather in a circle around Khakpour who, at first feeling trapped, lifts his shirt up over his head, a cloaking movement he has made before that is rich in imagistic associations we are wont to project onto Khakpour's Muslim body: from balaclava to veil. Here, however, the other dancers seem intent on letting Khakpour be seen, removing the mask and insisting on their own presence by placing their hands in turn in front of his face. This is followed by Escamillan then ducking his head and shoulders inside the circle, which sets off a succession of similar breaches by the group that gets repeated twice, with the circle eventually breaking apart to form a linked chain, the tethering of each of the men's bodies and the flow of movement that now gets passed up and down the line here suggesting balance and mutual support rather than competition and one upmanship.

I would have preferred if Dialogue ended there, but the piece--which, in my view, is about 10-15 minutes too long--continues on for a series of codas that culminates in a disco ball-infused tango duet between Escamillan (in heels) and Khakpour. I appreciated Escamillan's physical and emotional commitment to this scene, but structurally and conceptually it seemed to signal the start of a separate journey rather than satisfactorily concluding this one. Such caveats aside, Wang and his dancers have crafted a rich aesthetic and affective experience with this work and I hope, beyond its brief run here in Vancouver, that it tours widely.

P

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Children of God at the York Theatre

Corey Payette's ambitious and urgently important new musical, Children of God, had its world premiere last night at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, in a co-presentation between Urban Ink, Raven Theatre, The Cultch, and the National Arts Centre, to which the work will tour later in June. The polymathic Payette is the book writer, composer, lyricist and director of the work, which has been seven years in development, and which aims to tell through the popular and often insistently sunny form of musical theatre a story about one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history, namely the lives, cultural identity and sense of family connection stolen from a generation of Indigenous children in this country as a result of the residential school system, as well as the intergenerational trauma that continues to resound from these events.

The work is structurally complex, adopting a split timeframe in which present day Tom (an excellent Herbie Barnes), recently separated from his wife and back living at home on the reserve with his mother, Rita (Cathy Elliott, in a shattering performance), is trying to get back on his feet by hopefully landing a new job with Wilson (Kevin Loring), a former classmate at a Catholic residential school. The meeting with Wilson stirs up painful memories, which unfold in flashbacks, and in which we learn that little Tommy's sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott, who has a beautifully soaring voice) has attempted more than once to run away from the school--not least, as we eventually discover, to flee the sexual predation of the school's main priest, Father Christopher (Michael Torontow). When Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindstrom, very affecting in an emotionally demanding and complex role) discovers this abuse, and also the pregnancy that results, the impasse of inaction that results from the conflict between her obedience to her faith's chain of command and what she knows in her heart to be wrong leads to a series of tragic events that will mark all of the students at the school, including Wilson's younger brother Vincent (Aaron M. Wells) and Julia's friends Joanna (Kim Harvey) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott).

Payette compresses all of this action into a tight two acts, and the actor-driven transitions between scenes and timeframes are handled smoothly and efficiently, with old-style iron dormitory beds and a row of wooden desks, among other material signifiers, enough to sketch the enforced erasure of the children's Indigenous identities through sameness and spatial enclosure from their communities. Likewise, the songs and musical score are excellent, advancing both the narrative and emotional journeys of the characters in compelling ways, alternating deftly between rousing ensemble numbers and intimate solos, and also providing numerous transcendent moments of audience identification and empathy that we crave from the musical theatre form. Payette is an incredibly gifted composer and lyricist, though I was a bit surprised at how much of this work hued to classic western musical idioms (the musicians include Brian Chan on cello, Allen Cole on piano, Martin Reisle on guitar, and Elliot Vaughan on viola). The exception comes in two numbers accompanied by traditional drumming and sung in Ojibwe: Gimikwenden Ina (Do You Remember?) is a joyous ode to the survival of cultural memory sung by the residential school students near the end of the first act that is accompanied by a simple yet absolutely stunning bit of choreography that transforms a bedsheet into the surface of a drum, and that I thought should have closed the first act rather than the darker number that followed; and Baamaapii Ka Wab Migo (Until We See You Again) is at once a lament and a celebration of Julia's spirit led by Rita at the end of the musical that insistently rises in pitch and rhythm and emotional intensity until it envelopes not just the rest of the cast and musicians, all of whom join Rita and Tom on stage, but sweeps across the entire audience, with everyone standing, clasping hands and joining in the chorus as a resurrected Julia appears in a bright red dress and wafts up the aisle as she is sent on her journey to the other side.

That ending is one of the more memorable I have seen in the theatre, musical or otherwise, in a long time. However, dramaturgically, the work is not perfect. Having the male residential school children played by adult actors, while understandable in terms of the work's structure and the inevitable limited resources accompanying such a production, was somewhat jarring given that the women playing the female children were much closer in age to their characters. The vexed relationship between Tom and Rita, the ultimate repairing of which over the course of the musical speaks to the heart of the issue of intergenerational trauma that is one of the most damaging legacies of the residential school system, gets somewhat buried among the many strands of Children's plot. We understand that Tom partly blames his mother for abandoning him and his sister when they needed her most; but we only witness Rita being rebuffed in her efforts to visit her children in one brief scene in the first act, and the tortuous guilt that she carries within her is only fully revealed at the end of the musical. An ironic consequence of consigning this story of fractured Indigenous kinship structures to the margins of the story is that the relationship between Father Christopher and Sister Bernadette comes all the more to the fore. To be sure, in taking pains to sketch out the various hierarchical and patriarchal structures propping up the Catholic residential school system, Payette is seeking to complexify a story in which it would be easy to condemn all teachers and white authority figures as part of the system and thus worthy of condemnation. At the same time, I found myself wondering on more than one occasion last night why it was that I found my sympathies gravitating as much toward Sister Bernadette as towards Tom and Julia and Rita.

No doubt such a response says as much about me, as a settler theatregoer, as it does about this amazing exploration through performance of what meaningful truth and reconciliation might look like in this country. Caveats aside, Children of God is a powerful work of living history and it should be seen by audiences across Canada.

P